Undecided on e-voting

Market grows slowly, but integrators see promise with voter registration systems

1865: Wooden ballot box with marbles

1880: Acme voting machine

1944: Instructional model voting machine

1991: Votronic touch screen vote recorder

The market potential promised in the Help America Vote Act of 2002 has yet to materialize for government systems integrators.

The federal government has been slow to establish the Election Administration Commission required in the law to coordinate reforms. The debate also continues over how to ensure the security of new voting systems, such as by requiring paper confirmation of votes.

The result is that the states have received only about half of the $3.86 billion in federal grant money provided by HAVA to replace obsolete voting systems and build statewide voter registration systems, said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a Washington think tank studying election reform.

Although 70 percent of the grant money is to be spent for new voting machines, most integrators have left that business to voting machine manufacturers and have instead pursued work such as building statewide voter registration systems, which are funded by the remaining 30 percent, industry officials said.

The market opportunity is far less than integrators hoped it would be, said Holli Ploog, vice president and general manager of Global Public Sector Programs at Unisys Corp.

[IMGCAP(2)]"We don't see this as a $3 billion market," Ploog said. Instead, integrators are competing against each other for a $500 million opportunity centered on voter registration systems.

The election reform opportunity does not have strong appeal to state and local market systems integrators because they are unable to leverage such solutions into broader initiatives, said Amy Santenello, a senior research analyst with the Government Strategies Group at market research firm Meta Group Inc., Stamford, Conn.

"E-voting doesn't provide a long-term, enterprisewide opportunity" for systems integrators, she said.

The Voter Registration Opportunity

HAVA's impact on the 2004 elections next month will be light at best, industry officials said.

[IMGCAP(3)]Most of the change so far has involved election administration procedures and not major deployments of new voting machines or voter registration systems, said Meg McLaughlin, president of Accenture Ltd.'s eDemocracy Services.

"The big technology projects have been delayed," she said.

Government officials agreed. Speaking for his state, Utah CIO Val Oveson said, "This election will be conducted exactly the way the 2000 election was conducted."

Still, companies such as Accenture, Unisys, Covansys Corp. of Farmington Hills, Mich., and Saber Consulting Inc. of Salem, Ore., are chasing opportunities to install statewide voter registration databases.

The opportunity will likely be significant because four-fifths of the states have not yet met HAVA requirements.

The election market's slow development is benefiting state and local governments because contractors are getting better at building voter registration systems, said Matt Miszewski, Wisconsin's chief information officer. "The good thing for those of us who waited is that the systems are now less expensive," he said.

More than a half dozen states are either seeking or evaluating proposals for statewide voter registration systems, according to McLean, Va.-based market research firm Federal Sources Inc.

Among states evaluating proposals are Kansas, Maryland, New Hampshire, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. Responses are due in Iowa and New Jersey in October and November, respectively.

Integration work associated with voter registration systems is similar to work involved in building driver license registration databases, Ploog said. Although Unisys has not yet announced any contract wins for voter registration systems, the company is tracking opportunities throughout the nation, she said.

[IMGCAP(4)]This year, Accenture won contracts for statewide voter registration systems in Colorado, Kansas and Wyoming, McLaughlin said. The company won similar contracts with Arkansas and Pennsylvania in the first wave of contracts awarded after passage of HAVA.

The Wyoming contract for a voter registration system and election management services is worth $8.5 million, state officials said. In 2002, Accenture won a $18.5 million contract from Pennsylvania for a voter registration system and election management services.

This year Covansys nabbed voter registration system contracts worth $2.8 million in Rhode Island and $3.4 million in Idaho. The company is teamed on projects with PCC Technology Group Inc. of Bloomington, Conn. Saber Consulting is implementing Oregon's voter registration system.

Despite industry's disappointment that election reform hasn't sparked a big market opportunity, analysts and voting experts remain outwardly optimistic about it.

"This is not a market that is going to close in 2006," said Christopher Baum, vice president for public sector research at research and consulting firm Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn. "It's going to continue for as long as people vote. Voting is not something government looks at once every four years."

A Wait-And-See Approach

With the federal government offering through HAVA to buy out punch card and lever machines, counties across the nation are gradually converting to e-voting systems.

E-voting, using direct recording electronic (DRE) devices, is preferred to paper ballots, Chapin said. Voting electronically prevents overvoting, is easier for disabled voters to use and can more easily be used to provide multilingual ballots, he said.

Since the 2000 presidential election, e-voting has gone from pilot stage to full-scale implementation in one fifth of the nation's 3,066 counties, according to election management services firm Election Data Services Inc. of Washington.

The firm estimates that 50 million registered voters will use e-voting systems to cast ballots in the upcoming presidential election.

But some states are deliberately putting off buying new equipment to replace old systems until they see how well new electronic voting machines perform in the 2004 presidential election, Chapin said.

"Because they saw the controversy that cropped up in the early adopter states, some states have decided to go slow or postpone indefinitely new technology purchases. They would rather take longer to make what they believe is a good decision than make a questionable one sooner," Chapin said.

Playing leading roles in the e-voting drama in the upcoming election are Delaware, Georgia and Nevada. These three states have converted all of their counties to e-voting.

Also worth watching are large states such as California, Florida and Texas, which have converted a significant number of their counties to e-voting.

The test facing these states in the November election is whether their new systems record votes the way they are supposed to or crash and must be taken offline, analysts said.

"The 2004 presidential election is really going to be the election to increasingly get all of the bugs out of e-voting solutions," Meta's Santenello said. "It's going to be a test of whether they've figured out how to provide the perception of a secure solution."

Images: Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History

Staff writer William Welsh can be reached at wwelsh@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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