Faraway service members will have an easier way to absentee vote

The Defense Department is testing the prototype of new technology for enabling absentee voting.

Military services members might be serving far from home, but many of them still choose to vote. Now the Defense Department is testing the prototype of new technology for enabling absentee voting. The project is funded by DARPA. For how it works, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Dr. Ben Adida, the executive director of VotingWorks.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin Well, tell us about the DARPA project, what your company’s doing under it, what it is they want from you.

Ben Adida So DARPA, as you may know, is the research arm of the Defense Department. And they research any number of things, including military technology. But in this case, they wanted to look into better ways to make military voters first class. And we as an organization that cares deeply about voting technology being accessible to all. We bid on that proposal, and we were selected a little more than a year ago to fulfill this contract. And we’ve been working on it for a little more than a year. We’ve got a little less than a year left on this contract, and it will provide when it’s done, a prototype of a voting system for the military that is open source, which means that all the software is available for everybody to see, which means somebody else can pick it up. It’s not going to be a proprietary voting works product, but it’s important to know that it will be a prototype. It’s not going to be ready to deploy. It’s not going to be in use in 24 or anything like that. It’s the beginning of a careful and deliberate process to see if we can do better by our military voters.

Tom Temin Voting systems now have, for the most part, an integration of some kind of a console or a user interface machine that is not a PC for the most part, and some software system underneath. And then at the other end there’s a tallying system that’s connected. Does this change that basic architecture or what is it we’re looking at here?

Ben Adida It doesn’t change the basic architecture of how voters experience the voting system. It changes it a little bit in terms of how they get their ballot and how they cast their ballot, because again, they’re deployed in the field. So, for example, if you are at home in the United States, you are likely voting on a paper ballot with bubbles that you fill in, and you’re likely either mailing that in if you’re in a vote by mail state, or you are putting it into a precinct scanner at your town hall, or at your precinct, or wherever you may be voting in this case, because scanning ballots in the field is particularly tricky. Scanners are very finicky. Instead, we have a system where voters fill out the ballot on a screen on a touchscreen, and the ballot is printed live so they can verify it and then mail it. And so, everything is provided in a voting kiosk for that to happen. I want to be clear. What I’m describing here again is a prototype. It may change significantly as we go through more user testing, but that’s the vision we have right now a standardized approach, a standardized kiosk that is secured that, as you mentioned, is not a generic PC. Can’t play solitaire on it. It’s not an option. All you can do is receive your ballot and very importantly, authenticate with your CAC, which is the common access card that military members have, which has a chip on it, which has strong cryptographic signatures on it that allows for this authentication. And using that card and using the ballot that’s been loaded onto the machine, they can vote in their election of their county with their local elections, their state elections, their county elections, and get that ballot printed live and mailed from there. We’re also considering, as part of this prototype, an electronic return of that same data at the moment that the ballot is finished. And so, there’s two paths. There’s the electronic data that will arrive same day, of course, and the paper, which could be delayed. It’s one of the key issues for military voters, which is that they have trouble getting their ballots in time, and they have trouble returning their ballots in time because, you know, there’s limitations to the military Postal Service, of course, right. Especially when they’re in the field. And so, getting that digital return, which is then confirmed by the paper return, is really important to get military votes counted while still having that paper ballot for auditing whenever the audit happens after the election.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Ben Adida, executive director of Voting Works. And you answered what was going to be my next question. Why bother with the electronic when all you’re going to do is print it out? It is the electronic act of voting that is recorded and tallied under the system. And as you said, for verification and auditing, post facto. That’s why the paper is created.

Ben Adida That’s correct. And so, if you think about how voting happens at a precinct at home in the United States, that’s the same thing. You scan your ballot, and the scanner turns it into electronic data, and it is the electronic data that is tabulated and released on election night or the next morning. And then later there is an audit that makes sure that the electronic data matches the paper that was cast by voters. So, it’s the same principle that we want to apply in the field. We don’t want anything significantly different. However, because the electronic vote is being transferred over a long distance, as opposed to just being shuttled around with a USB drive, there is extra security and cryptography involved in securing that electronic transfer, but the reason we do that, as opposed to just mailing in the paper like you would a normal absentee ballot, is because we have seen many failures in the field of these ballots, just never making it in time. And rather than continually pushing back the date of receipt, which pushes back official results, we can say, well, the electronic copy is going to get there by election night, which means you can close the election, on election night. And as long as the paper gets there in time for the audit, you’re good. I think innovation happens sometimes with very small observations. It’s not a major thing that we noticed here. It’s just a small gap between the date of tally and the date of audit that we can then use. We can use that gap to enfranchise military voters.

Tom Temin And what is required on the part of the local precincts because you mentioned it’s not just for, say, the presidential race or the national elections, which is really only one choice. Everything else is state based and sometimes county and city based to get that information into what is presented to that service. Member far away, one is from Nebraska, and one is from Florida.

Ben Adida That’s right. So again, with the context that this is still research, and we haven’t solved all the problems, we wanted to talk about this openly. So, there can be discussion about how these problems can be solved. The way we are envisioning that happening right now is thanks to the latest federal certification efforts for standard voting equipment. There has been a standardization of data formats for election definitions. And so, counties, which is usually where voting is administered at the county level, would need in this system, a dedicated laptop or workstation that allows them to upload the definition of their election into the system. And by definition of election, I mean which contests, you know, which candidates, all of that, and then which ballot style gets assigned to every voter. Right. Because depending on where you live, you might be in a different congressional district, a different water district. And so, you might be voting on different contests and getting all that information in the standard format, then loaded into the voting kiosks so that voters can be presented with exactly the ballot that belongs to them. But there is some need for equipment. It’s minimal, but some equipment at the jurisdiction level.

Tom Temin And how do you test a system like this? Just hold a mock election and see if it comes out.

Ben Adida It’s a fantastic question. So, the way you want to develop and test a system like this first is slowly and carefully. You don’t want to change elections too quickly. So, what we’ve done so far is we’ve run usability tests on a couple of prototypes, which is, you know, obviously not real elections. Just here is a fake election. We’ve gone to one military location within the US to run this usability test. We did a usability test at Fort Knox, and we’ll be running some more in the next few months as we get feedback and improve the system and so on. But all of these are fake. They’re not real elections, right? This is just for usability testing. And then our hope is that maybe in the next year, 18 months after the 24 elections, probably in 25, our hope is to run a pilot, which would be it in a real election, but at very small scale. You know, tens of voters maybe would be the right way to do this so that if something goes wrong, there’s a way to address that and make sure those people’s vote still get counted, but also get some important feedback about how this works in a realistic setting. And after a pilot, that’s when you might think about, okay, well, this thing’s worked. Maybe we can think about scaling that up. But again, slowly, deliberately in the public eye. So, all of people’s questions can be answered.

Tom Temin And probably a good thing it’s not going to be ready for this fall’s 2024 presidential election.

Ben Adida Absolutely not. Technology in our daily lives moves very fast. Technology and elections must move very slowly. It’s required for us to be careful and mindful that you can’t introduce things so quickly that elections that go wrong, right? That’s just not acceptable. So slowly, deliberately, and definitely not in 2024.

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