By Carl HoweAnother election, another disaster for electronic voting systems. As Engadget notes, electronic voting machines continued to rack up problems from failures to start to improper recording of votes in numerous battleground states in Tuesday's election. And in Pennsylvania, one voter was so frustrated with a voting machine that he smashed it with his cat paperweight, leaving election officials with the interesting problem of figuring out how to get the votes that had already been cast off the now-broken machine.
This is going to be fodder for late-night comedians for years to come. And that means a serious marketing and communications issue for voting machine manufacturers Diebold (NYSE:DBD), Sequoia, and ESS: unless they take serious and clear action to re-establish voter trust, their role in helping America vote is about to end. Anyone suggesting that their community or state buy their machines today would be laughed out of office.
So what can these companies do? Unfortunately, trust once lost is not easily regained. No flood of press releases is going to fix this problem. These companies are going to have to retool both their product lines and marketing processes to gain that trust.
How can they possibly do that in the face of lawsuits, conspiracy theories, and a new political customer base? Building trust will require at least four steps:
1. Publicly admit that the current approach isn't working. Given the coverage of voting machine problems in the last three elections, fighting public perception that these system is flawed is a losing battle. The only way to make progress on trust is to admit that the voters are right. the alternative is going out of business altogether, so there really is nothing to lose by doing this.
2. Focus on paper. Everyone understands paper ballots and how they work. If voting machine products focused on keeping those paper ballots sacrosanct and simply making them easier to count and record, voters will immediately understand the process and how it works. Further, the paper ballots will provide an verifiable audit trail and a way for people to vote in the face of power failures and other natural disasters. And all voting machines should produce paper results summaries for audits and comparisons with the actual ballots.
3. Adopt an open development process with the participation of independent third parties. Given the poor track record that voting machine companies have had to date, the only way the public will ever trust these systems is to have third parties understand them, vouch for them, and certify that they work properly. And that means involving them in the actual development process. If voting machine companies involved representatives from the Europe and Asia in their development, they would expand their target market -- and their potential profits -- while building trust that the systems weren't built to favor anyone.
4. Develop an iron-clad audit process for third party observation and proof of results. We have independent auditors for financial records; we should have similar capabilities built into the voting processes and machines so that anyone from KPMG to international election monitors can validate that the final tally is correct. Certifying an election should be a process that can be done by ordinary accountants and politicians, not something that requires an advanced degree in computer science.
Here in Massachusetts, most of us already vote with optical scanning systems that allow sampling and auditing of results. While this system also has vulnerabilities and flaws, voters trust it because it's obvious that the paper ballots can be counted by ordinary people to get a result. Diebold, ESS, and Sequoia need to market products that have similar benefits and transparency. Because, quite frankly, if they don't, they're going out of business. Voting really can be that simple.