Across the Digital Nation: E-voting just part of solution to election-day woes

Rishi Sood

With the midterm elections around the corner, state and local governments are preparing to facilitate voting. Over the past year, many major steps have taken shape: Voters have been registered, ballots have been printed, personnel have been allocated to precincts, etc. Given the election debacle of 2000, a number of state and local governments have turned to new technology solutions to help eliminate the problems of pregnant chads, lost ballots and vote counts that are off.

Precincts across the country have installed electronic voting machines that use computer technology to record votes, transmit ballots and count votes. Florida alone invested more than $32 million in e-voting technologies such as touch-screen systems. Counties in California invested in e-voting to comply with court orders for replacement of punch-card machines.

The first big test of these systems occurred in August during a number of primary elections. While some e-voting systems handled the process smoothly, there were some notable exceptions. In several cases, e-voting systems did not work, crashed repeatedly or outright failed.

The lesson to be learned is simple: Technology is never a saving grace in and of itself. Given the complexity and importance of the voting process, modernization represents only a small component of a much larger business issue that needs to be addressed. If the business process is flawed, technology cannot rectify the outcomes.

Over the past four years, there is increasing evidence that the voting process across the nation is broken, and state and local governments must fix the deficiencies. On election day, for example, many government organizations did not allocate sufficient resources to train precinct workers or hire onsite technology support staff despite adding the new e-voting systems. Similarly, e-voting systems require updated guidelines on protecting voter information, transmitting data and managing system outages.

Moreover, these governments must look at the year-long process of voting. There must be greater attention to re-engineering this business process, from creating uniform voting procedures (ballots, timings, counting, etc.) to establishing standardized databases (voter registries, polling data, etc.).

State and local government must also realize this technology will generate a need for new types of precinct workers. Criteria should be established to determine the qualifications and skills necessary to run these areas.

Legislation at the federal level suggests state and local governments will receive some funding to support these reforms and pay for new resources. Final passage of a $3.8 billion appropriation over the next three years is expected, and will focus on helping these governments modernize voting systems, improve procedures and create uniform standards across each state.

Timing is also an important aspect of the e-voting issue. Although passage of additional funds helps fiscally constrained government organizations focus on these problems for the 2004 election, the complexity of the voting process will likely require more time to correct the entire procedure.

E-voting systems will be a key part of the future process. The technology generally receives high marks from voters for convenience, provides governments with streamlined access to poll results and represents a major upgrade to previous systems. However, state and local government agencies must focus on the process, not just the technology, in order to advance.

Similarly, vendors in this area must provide more expansive services to help government organizations not only on election day, but throughout the entire voting life cycle. *

Rishi Sood is a principal analyst with Gartner Dataquest in Mountain View, Calif. His e-mail address is rishi.sood@gartner.com.

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