Technology Can't Solve Voting Problems -- But You Can!

February 28, 2008

Last week the Bay Area hosted a symposium: "Majority/Minority State: Turning Power in Numbers into Power at the Polls in 2008," on the future of electoral politics in California. The starting point for the conference was: population numbers don't automatically lead to power, or to representation, especially in elections.

For example, although Latinos dominate California in number and in population growth, many are currently under 18, and many others are not citizens. Neither of these groups is eligible to vote, so Latinos who live here, depend on our education and health systems, and contribute in many ways (especially working and paying sales tax) are not represented. The age issue will fix itself, as time goes on, but even then, being old enough to vote is not the same as being registered to vote, which is not the same as being able to vote.

A popular controversy in voting politics right now is about voting machines -- there is a huge amount of evidence that computerized voting is unsecure (often easily able to be hacked) and possibly unreliable, and often un-checkable (since the machines are owned by private companies who use trade secret law to prevent anyone from examining how the votes get counted or from checking on errors).

However, non-technological problems are the most powerful barriers to voting, especially for the poor and people of color. A workshop on voter protection issues brought all these issues into the bright light of day. What was intense about this workshop was the time spent by the speakers on simple, undramatic ways people can be denied the right to vote. Many of these are not planned or malicious (unlike, say, the Voter ID movement), but they hit people of color and the poor, as well as other disadvantaged groups, especially hard. One story from the Berkeley polling station during the recent primaries illustrated the kinds of problems that are most common:

Despite being in the middle of a town that you might think would be pretty politically savvy, by around 3 p.m. on the day of the California primary, the Berkeley polling place was turning people away. Not because people hadn't registered, but because the polling place had simply run out of ballots. Unprepared for the higher turnout, the workers simply had to wait for more ballots to arrive, and turn people away in the meantime.

Amazingly, there were apparently no poll observers there other than the poll workers, who could have reported the issue more widely. The ballots were back at 5 p.m., but who knows how many people didn't vote that day because of such a simple mistake? In fact, 14 precincts in Alameda county alone ran out of ballots on February 5. This is a shame for everyone, but of course people who can't afford to take more time off from work are especially unlikely to get the chance to vote, since they can't wait around.

In addition, the amount of ballots and voting machines is based on past turnout -- places where not so many people have voted get fewer machines and ballots. Since low turnout can come from low registration, as well as from people's feeling they are not being represented, the current election's focus on new voters plus the presence of candidates that will likely motivate especially the Black population, means many places may be unprepared for an increase in turnout. This is what happened at the primary, but some of that newfound political energy went to waste.. we must help our polling places do better when the election comes around in November.

The good news is there are a host of organizations around that are trying to deal with these problems in a variety of creative ways.

One nice use of technology doesn't solve problems of access, but helps report and publicize those problems. The Electronic Frontier Foundation working in Coalition with the People for the American Way Election Protection Program has started the Total Election Awareness project, which allows voters and observers to report problems at the polling places to a hotline that will collect the information and republish it in realtime. What this means is that all election protection activists as well as the general public, can have easily accessible information about what is going on, which can help them mobilize to fix problems as they arise, and prepare for the next round of elections.

But it will still require people to get involved, on everything from building the (open-source) code, to staffing the hotlines and entering the data. In addition, the traditional problems with voter registration and voter access still can only be solved with more actual humans getting involved.

There are lots of ways to get involved, here are some national organizations that can show you where to plug in. Many local community organizations may also be involved at the city and county level. It's time to start thinking about how we can make sure our election process is fair, accountable and represents those who depend on and contribute to the society we live in.

People for the American Way Election Protection Program (PFAW)

Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF)

Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF)

NAACP legal defense fund (NAACP)

Larisa Mann writes about technology, media and law for WireTap, studies jurisprudence at U.C. Berkeley and DJs under the name Ripley.