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U.S. Elections Face a Crossroads on Rights and Technology

Most of the American electoral system functions as it has for hundreds of years, relying on manual processing of paper records.

Most of the American electoral system functions as it has for hundreds of years, relying on manual processing of paper records.

Most Americans believe that voting is their right, like freedom of speech or freedom of religion. But the right to vote doesn’t appear anywhere in the Constitution. Americans have historically faced legal obstacles to voting based on race, property ownership, gender, or age, while others were limited based on procedural confines such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Some of these restrictions were statutory. Others were administrative and further defined by court decisions and opinions. For example, here in Arizona, Native Americans did not get the right to vote until 1948 through a court case challenging a 1928 decision that denied that ability.

Regardless of when or how certain groups have won enfranchisement, election administrators, voters, and advocates need to consider how technology can be an empowering force to ensure eligible voters have easy access to the process.

Today, most voters can register and obtain and cast a ballot without problems. But in 2013, and moving forward into the 2014 midterm election cycle and beyond to the 2016 Presidential Election, challenges still face some U.S. voters, including:

* Voters with disabilities. Many succeed in voting only with assistance or with extreme perseverance and determination. In a system that relies heavily on sight, mobility, and fine motor skills, finding a way to break down these barriers is critical for millions of U.S. voters.

* Military and overseas voters. Despite advanced technology, many people still struggle with time and distance in casting an effective ballot.

* Illiterate and non-native English speakers. Literacy and the elevated language used on ballots is an issue for many voters, particularly new citizens and those with limited English proficiency.

In the last five decades, several federal laws were passed to protect voters and reduce barriers. Those include:

* The  Voting Rights Act of 1965, and its expansion in the mid-1970s to include minority language provisions;

* The 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18 in 1971;

* The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984;

* The Uniform and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986;

* The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990;

* The National Voter Registration Act of 1992;

* And the Help America Vote Act of 2002—legislation aimed at ensuring access and assistance.

But in recent years, much state legislation has shifted from protecting voters to protecting the process, aiming to maintain the security and integrity of the system. So our present-day battle is maintaining the delicate balance between access and accuracy.

Laws requiring documentation of citizenship at the time of registration or identification at the polls are sweeping the country as initiatives and state legislation to address what are actually infrequent instances of voter registration and voting fraud. The question should not be whether it is acceptable to have a single fraudulent vote cast to offset an eligible elector, but if it is acceptable to have thousands of votes go uncounted in order to guard against potentially fraudulent votes in our midst. Voters who do not provide identification at the polls on Election Day reflect the entire pool of registered voters: they are Republicans and Democrats, Hispanic and non-Hispanic, old and young.

Providing online voter registration and services such as polling-place search tools, ballot request channels, and ballot content information will free voters from relying on third-parties to turn in their registration forms, clerks to make sense of their illegible handwriting, or their own best guesses about their polling location and what ID they should bring.

In an environment of dwindling resources, higher voter expectations, increasingly complicated processes and aging voting equipment, election administrators have tough choices to make.

To be sure, technological solutions can save resources in the long run. For every voter registration form that comes in via the online voter registration system in Maricopa County, Ariz., where I work, the department saves $ .80 in processing costs. We have processed more than 325,000 forms per year here since 2008, and have seen additional savings from cuts in printing expenses of more than 75 percent each year.  But most jurisdictions lack the budget to outlay funds for such changes. And faced with the inevitable expense of replacing multimillion-dollar voting systems, few jurisdictions can afford other expenditures.

It is important to recognize what voters want, what they expect, and what they already believe to be true. The 2012 Survey of the Performance of American Elections demonstrates that more than 1 in 3 Americans does not know how to change their voter registration or believes that the postal service or election office automatically updates it when they move. That might have been the intent of the National Voter Registration Act, but it isn’t the reality. Full implementation of “Motor Voter” hasn’t been achieved, as half of all voters are also unaware that they can register or update their registration at motor vehicles offices.

Another study shows that 1 in 8 voter registration records is incorrect—either missing information or containing wrong information. Voter registration records are the foundation of the electoral process, documenting who is eligible to vote, run for office, or sign petitions. Improving registration records quality by providing voters with online services and cross-governmental data comparisons satisfies the desire to protect voters and the process. It is the right path to take.

But a question remains: Who will pay the fare?

Tammy Patrick is a Federal Compliance Officer for Maricopa County Elections in Arizona. She will speak about the future of U.S. election at the Techonomy 2013 conference, Nov. 11-13. Follow conversations about the event @Techonomy and #Techonomy13.

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