Elect IT: Technology and the Democratic Process

On Election Day 2008, Americans will head en masse to the polls to cast their ballots in an undoubtedly historic election. But what the average voter might not realize is this election is historic in more ways than one.

Not only has information technology enabled voters to have more access to information about the candidates and the electoral process, but it’s never been easier for people to participate in the process, as the Internet has helped break down barriers to both transparency and accessibility.

“People expect to get the information they want with a quick Web search, and as more people experience the power of having information at their fingertips, it will be increasingly difficult for the government to keep any of its information behind closed doors,” said Daniel Newman, executive director and co-founder of MAPLight.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to show the public the connection between money and politics.

IT has opened those doors, as voters have better access to candidates’ views and finances, as well as a clearer understanding of how to register, where to vote and what’s on the ballot.

Improving Transparency

In prior years, public government information was held captive, available only to those who could afford to pay a fee.

“Government agencies would often make their data sets available only in bulk on big computer tapes,” Newman explained. That meant it was practical only for large database companies to load these tapes onto their computers and sell access by the hour back to the public.

“Citizens had to pay fees to search databases that were public information and generated by tax dollars. As we’ve moved toward the Internet era, [it’s become] possible [for] government agencies to make all this information available. And they can do it relatively inexpensively.”

One such agency that has made tremendous strides in this effort is the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that discloses campaign-finance information for presidential, House and Senate candidates.

Five years ago, the organization’s Web site was difficult to navigate; now, with a few clicks of the mouse, a user can find out how much money a candidate has raised, who contributed to the campaign and how the candidate spent those funds.

“I look at information technology, here at the Federal Election Commission, to act as a facilitator and to make it easy for people to become educated on the campaign finance process,” said Alec Palmer, chief information officer and co-privacy officer. “The easier that we can make it for the individuals doing research, or for the general citizen from just a point of curiosity, the better off the democratic process.”

MAPLight.org is another example of improved transparency. This particular nonprofit uses three databases of information to illustrate the connection between campaign contributions and how legislators vote.

“The hundreds of millions of dollars that politicians raise to run their campaigns often comes from interest groups that have a stake in legislation,” Newman said. “Even though many people know this general concept, there was not much information out there on the specifics of how money influences legislation. So [we] set out to build what would be a continuous example generator of how money influences our political system.”

The first component of the example generator is how each member of Congress votes on every bill. To get this information, MAPLight uses GovTrack.us, an automated service that polls the Library of Congress site every 15 minutes to determine whether any recent votes or changes have been made. GovTrack.us then “downloads those changes, parses it into a structured format and then MAPLight imports” that information into its MySQL database, Newman said.

The second component of MAPLight’s research is the campaign money that’s given to each member of Congress, a record of which is filed with the FEC. The Center for Responsive Politics — a nonprofit research group — takes that information, processes and analyzes it, and then classifies each contribution into one of 400 industry denominations (e.g., oil company, environmental group). Once a month, after the candidates have filed their reports, MAPLight imports the data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

The third and final component is collected in-house through intense manual research. MAPLight’s research team selects a bill and reads the congressional testimony about that bill. If any of the speakers came out in support or opposition of the bill, the researchers log into the back-end Web database, make a note of which organization the speaker represented, whether the speaker was a supporter or opponent and the source for that information. This process is repeated with news databases and Internet searches.

In the end, these three sources work together on the site to provide information such as which organizations gave money to which politicians, how those politicians voted on specific bills and whether there’s a connection between the money given and how the politician voted.

“All of this information would have taken days, if not weeks, to collect and analyze before MAPLight.org came along,” Newman said. “What [you] see that you could never see before is how money correlates with the votes.”

For this upcoming presidential election, MAPLight also has downloadable, customizable widgets that can compare funds raised by Sen. Barack Obama to the funds raised by Sen. John McCain. There are similar widgets for the congressional candidates.

“Often people say, ‘Well, so what if there’s more information? Do people really want more information?’” Newman said. “It’s not so much [that] people will check MAPLight as often as they check the weather report. No, rather journalists, bloggers and active citizens [who] are already the sources of information for their communities will rely on MAPLight and other cutting-edge tools to extract key pieces of information. That power to drill down quickly to get a key connection will revolutionize democracy.”

Behind the Scenes

IT hasn’t just had an impact on information accessibility; it’s also had an impact on the electoral process. For instance, in Minnesota, technology has affected the way information is distributed to the public, how voters cast their ballots and the way election results are reported.

In terms of informing the public, Minnesota provides online information about the electoral process such as what’s on the ballot and where to vote. But this year, Minnesota went above and beyond and developed the Caucus Finder, which is based on Polling Place Finder, in preparation for caucus season. The application, the first tool of its kind, allowed residents to enter their addressees and find out where all of the political parties in Minnesota were caucusing.

To obtain the caucus locations, though, the state had to coordinate with each of the parties. “We gave [the parties] an Excel spreadsheet,” said Ted Lautzenheiser, chief information officer for the secretary of state’s office. “They would fill it out, and then we had the ability to load that into our system. We used DTS [data transformation services] and SSIS [SQL server integration services] packages and SQL server to load the data from Excel. Sometimes, it’s not how technically eloquent the solution is, but are you using a solution that everyone can use?”

The tool proved unexpectedly successful, and the state had an unbelievably large turnout for the caucuses, four times more than in 2004, according to Mark Ritchie, Minnesota’s secretary of state.

“From our perspective, we already had this great thing called the Polling Place Finder that had 90 percent of the machinery that was necessary,” Lautzenheiser said. “By far, the huge value for the Caucus Finder was recognizing that we had the tools, and with just a few simple applications of the tools and some minor process development, we could really have something that would be worthwhile to the public.”

While IT has changed the way information is distributed to Minnesota voters, it has not affected the actual voting process all that much, as direct recording electronics (DREs) are illegal in the state for security reasons. Instead, voters go to the polls, vote on a paper ballot and then insert that ballot into an optical scan machine that then tabulates all the votes at the precinct level.

“It’s a system that Minnesotans trust deeply. One result of that trust is that we have the highest voter turnout in the nation,” said Ritchie. “Most states that are looking to find a more dependable, less expensive system find themselves moving toward our approach.”

With the 2008 presidential election just around the corner, the state’s IT staff has been working at full speed since January, making changes, collecting candidate names, running tests and synchronizing the systems. When the polls close on Election Day, the optical scan machine results are brought to each county seat, and the counties can enter them either manually or electronically into the state’s election reporting system. Then the public can begin viewing the results.

During the course of the night, there’s nothing quite like the climate in the IT department: It’s a mixture of optimism, anxiety, excitement, frustration and, ultimately, exhaustion, Lautzenheiser said.

“As far as the environment, it’s optimistic and quiet around 8 o’clock as we unlock the system,” he said. “Then we’re anxious to see the results [come] in, just so we know all the processes of the system are working. As the first couple counties’ data comes in, we watch carefully to make sure there are no issues with the files being processed and loaded on the system.

“From about 9 o’clock to midnight, there are many counties on the system, and the amount of activity increases rapidly. There are definitely issues that can arise, so we’ve got many monitors set up [and] we’re looking for anomalies.”

Being involved in the development of IT tools that improve the electoral process is an exciting field and it will only become more so in the future, as states and organizations begin experimenting with the prospects and potential of online voting.

“Today, if I go to my Polling Place Finder, I can see my entire ballot. That begs the question, how come I can’t vote online?” Lautzenheiser said. “It’s not a question of if; it’s more a question of when. [But] although [it’s] becoming more and more technically feasible, there are still many social, political, legal, financial and security hurdles to voting online.”

His views, however, are not supported by Minnesota laws or the Office of the Secretary of State.

E-Voting: Secure or Not?

Because of the infamous hanging chads in the 2000 presidential election and the resulting uncertainty of voter intentions, electronic voting (e-voting) entered the scene.

“In 2000, you were dealing with paper ballots,” said David Beirne, executive director of the Election Technology Council, a trade association that represents the voting system platforms for 90 percent of the registered voters in the United States. “Anytime you inject that type of item, it’s not a series of ones and zeroes or binary codes: It’s subject to interpretation. Electronic voting systems were pretty much the natural evolution for eliminating questions about voter intent.”

But with e-voting comes the need for security, and now there’s a robust discussion nationwide on the integrity of DREs and other e-voting platforms.

“A big concern is that these have lacked independently auditable voting records and that the internals are a black box,” said Micah Altman, the associate director of the Harvard-MIT Data Center and senior research scientist for the Institute for Quantitative Social Science in the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard University.

“What happens is that you touch the screen, and it records [the vote] in memory. You can go and examine the tallies, but that’s not really an effective record because there’s no trail of individual votes. Combine that with the fact that these are all fairly complex pieces of software and they are not really open to inspection, [and] it raises the possibility that either intentionally or unintentionally something could go seriously wrong with the voting system.”

But any voting platform has security concerns, Beirne argued — even paper ballots can be tampered with.

“From a computer science standpoint, the machines are not hooked up to external networks, so that eliminates 80 percent of your known threats right there,” he said. “Then it comes down to the procedures you use. Regardless of how good your technology is, you have to have procedures built around it to encapsulate it, and that’s true for paper systems, [too].”

The development of e-voting devices makes one wonder if the Internet will become the next viable platform for voting. It’s never been used in U.S. elections, but there was an attempt by the Department of Defense to set up a system for military personnel to vote over the Internet. It was canceled, though, due to “deep security flaws,” Altman said.

“Technology can make it easier [to vote],” he explained. “But a lot of the newer technology, and certainly the Internet voting technology, is just not ready for prime time. It’s unable to provide the integrity that we should expect in an advanced democracy.”

Beirne himself isn’t sure what the future of voting holds. If people expect DREs to be absolutely secure, there’s no telling how the electoral process will change in the future.
“If the model we’re trying to pursue is an absolute threshold, then it’s going to be very difficult for electronic voting to continue to take hold,” he explained. “It’s difficult to know where the future’s going to take us. We’re going to have to see how it plays out and see how comfortable voters continue to be with electronic voting.”

– Lindsay Edmonds Wickman, lwickman@certmag.com

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