Animation of people carrying voting cards and placing them on a computer with the font vote on the screen.

To no one’s surprise, the U.S. presidential election is the most widely followed of any country on the planet. What is surprising is it also has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the developed world.

A large factor contributing to the low voter turnout is the inaccessibility of voting information and physical polling stations.

According to a Metova survey of over 1,000 connected citizens, 67% of the citizens who didn’t vote in the last presidential election would have if they could have voted on a mobile device. While this may seem like a lofty idea, in truth, we may be a lot closer to this reality than not. There are some incredible strides being made in legislation, voting technology and accessibility measures, which are set to shake up the form of democracy as we know it.

Let’s explore the voting technology set to revolutionize future US elections.

Voting and Voice-First Devices

Imagine: It’s November 3, 2020.

You’ve just gotten home from a hectic day at work. And then it dawns on you. You still have to vote.

You rush to grab your laptop to review the candidate websites before you head down to the polls, but it’s dead.

The house is silent while your brain is turning.

“Hey Alexa, who’s on my ballot?” you shout towards the kitchen.

“For California, there are nine federal and statewide contests appearing on LiveBallot. The first three contests are governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state…,” Amazon’s smart home device replies back.

Alexa proceeds to tell you information on every candidate, and plays you their audio platform. You then verbally tell her which candidates you want to vote for, and Alexa texts you the selections into a scannable ballot with a barcode for your smartphone.

You grab your car keys from the kitchen counter, run to the car and head to the polling station before it closes.

Whipping into the parking lot, you run from your car into the polling station, walk up to a Microsoft tablet set up at the voting booth, and scan your barcode. You’re done – your vote has been cast.

You’ve finally exercised your democratic right (and your cardio capacity) for the first time in years.

What’s most surprising about this story is that, with the emergence of services like Democracy Live, you can expect this scenario to be a reality in time for the 2020 U.S. Elections.

How Has Technology Changed Voting?

Democracy Live is the voting technology leader in the U.S., specializing in advanced electronic balloting and voter information. They’ve partnered with Amazon, Microsoft and Dell to completely modernize voting for every American.

Bryan Finney is the chief executive officer of the Seattle-based tech company and was recently named the vice-chair of the Homeland Security Elections Executive Committee.

He says they currently have the voting technology in place to make the story above a reality for the looming 2020 U.S. presidential election.

“The core technology is there (to do the scan voting), again we have to get the (different) states to allow for that but that is ultimately where we’re going to be headed. I expect in 2020 we’ll be doing that in a number of jurisdictions,” he says.

“It’s going to be [used to vote for everyone] from the president down to the school board.”

Unbeknownst to many, is the fact that a simplified version of this Alexa offering already exists.

In 2018, Democracy Live partnered with Amazon to create an Alexa Skill called LiveBallot. It’s the first audio ballot on the smart home device. During the statewide fall elections in 2018, LiveBallot allowed voters to ask Alexa, ‘Who’s on my ballot?’ In response, Alexa provided users with ballot information, as well as the ability to listen to their candidates’ audio platform.

Watch this video to see how easy it is to get ballot information from LiveBallot on Alexa:

Mobile Voting for the U.S. Presidential Election

In a not-too-distant future, Democracy Live’s voting technology will allow you to cast your ballot through your phone after getting all your ballot information from your smart home device in the comfort of your home. No more waiting in line at a crammed polling station after a long day at work.

“One of the things we’re looking at doing down the road is [enabling individuals to] just ask ‘Alexa, who’s on my ballot?’, and then listen to the candidates, decide who you want to vote for, mark your ballot, send your selections to your phone and cast your ballot through your phone,” Bryan says.

He also didn’t rule out Democracy Live perfecting a completely mobile electronic voting process, which could have a seismic impact on increasing voter turnout within multiple disengaged demographics.

“Especially with the younger generation,” he says. “They’ve grown up using smart devices.  Imagine that your ballot buzzes in your pocket [to alert you that] it’s now available, and then allows you to mark your ballot, and eventually just vote. I think that would have a remarkable impact,” he says.

“We’re not quite there yet, but I think you really can’t hold back the tide. It’s going to get there eventually.”

Help America Vote Act

“You gotta have the problem first before you can solve it,” Bryan explains.

It’s no coincidence that Bryan’s idea for Democracy Live and America’s first real accessible voting act both came just after Y2K.

In 2002, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed by the United States Congress to address improvements to voting technology and help with voter access.

U.S. Congress passed the act after the 2000 Presidential Election, where some major logistical and accessibility issues arose.

This act initially helped provide some required standards, including:

  • Provisional Voting
  • Voting Information
  • Updated and Upgraded Voting Technology Equipment
  • Statewide Voter Registration Databases
  • Voter Identification Procedures
  • Administrative Complaint Procedures
  • Federal funding to help states update voting equipment and meet new requirements.

During the 2016 election, 40% of polling places that were surveyed fully accommodated people with disabilities, according to the General Accountability Office. Contrast that to the 2000 election, where only 16% of polling places were fully accessible.

Progress, albeit slowly, is being made since HAVA was introduced.

Disabled Voting Technology

Clearly, these voting technology innovations have major ramifications for the disabled community’s civic engagement too.

Currently, 30 million voters in America have some form of disability. Ensuring every person has equal access to vote is a legal right. It’s actually in Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which requires state and local governments ensure all people with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to vote.

But, accessibility isn’t an issue that’s just limited to those with a physical disability. Especially when it comes to accessibility to voting and election information, many other individuals need to be considered such as those with:

  • A variety of literacy levels
  • Audio/visual limitations
  • Cognitive issues or intellectual disabilities
  • Socio-economical limitations (access to transit, technology and information)

That’s why Democracy Live created OmniBallot, which is a universally accessible balloting platform that disabled voters can use in the comfort and privacy of their home. It’s an electronic, fully accessible vote-by-mail, absentee solution and is also used by military members and overseas citizens. The OmniBallot Tablet is used in physical polling location for voters with disabilities and is HAVA compliant.

Since its launch in 2015, more than one million voters with disabilities have used the system.

OmniBallot’s offerings to the disabled community in the U.S. have been so impactful, it recently won the prestigious Zero Project award for accessible voting technology.

Bryan says giving the disabled community the independence to vote privately from the comfort of their home is liberating.

“What we’ve been told by members of the disabled community, the ability to independently mark your ballot, without having to ask somebody to vote for you [is freeing]. [Otherwise without OmniBallot] most have to find a friend, family member, neighbor or somebody to vote for you,” he says.

Curbside Voting

There’s an alternatively interesting election innovation that allows voters to place their ballot from another familiar place, their vehicle.

Curbside voting is becoming increasingly popular across a handful of states as a creative workaround for many to avoid the frantically long lines.

Even, Miley Cyrus has taken advantage of it.

In Texas, Tarrant County made it easy for people to vote curbside in a recent fall election.

Tarrant County allocated handicapped parking spaces and equipped them with a special button that alerts election workers when curbside voting assistance is required. Election officials brought a ballot to the vehicle, so that voter could cast their ballot without getting out of the car.

While initiatives like curbside voting are helpful, there’s an underlying issue that still remains.

Most small-town counties, the kind that elections are won and lost on, are ill-equipped to communicate any basic voting and election information to all its citizens.

That’s what makes the Center for Technology and Civic Engagement’s under-the-radar, data-driven approach, equally as valuable as any new policy or jaw-dropping voting technology.

Educating Election Officials

There are over 8,000 different entities that are directly responsible for administering elections in the U.S. Meaning there are 8,000 different places that need to filter the simple questions voters are asking like ‘who’s on my ballot?’

Thankfully, the Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL) has been rounding up tons of election data from these entities and turning them into easy-to-consume datasets. The datasets answer the most important civic questions like ‘who’s on my ballot?’, ‘who represents me?’, ‘what do my elected officials do?’ These datasets allow information to be found in the places where people are already looking for answers (Google, social media, etc).

It’s a process that has taken the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization years, as they’ve had to round up crucial voting and election information via fax, phone call to county clerks and other laborious means. They’ve done the dirty work, so in the future, voters won’t have to do the same.

The CTCL datasets have been accessed over 60 million times.

“Part of what the civic data team is doing is taking information from places that aren’t intuitive, for instance, their county clerk’s office, and putting it places where people already are [looking] like search engines and social media platforms,” says Kurt Sampsel, the project manager of government services at the CTCL.

He manages their online elections toolkit resource for election officials. Kurt also builds the professional development curriculum and trains those tasked with running elections.

“The idea of calling or faxing a government office to ask about what’s on the ballot is not very intuitive to a lot of voters. But if there’s a tool that pops up on their Facebook account or in Google that provides the same information, that’s a really different experience,” he explains.

The initiative to round up important election and voting information into tidy datasets that elections officials can easily distribute to voters is only half of what the CTCL’s mission is.

The other half involves making sure county and state governments actually communicate that election and voting information in places where people are looking for answers.

Elections Websites that Need Improvement

Would it surprise you to learn most election authorities still don’t have a website?

Unfortunately, this is the case across many counties in the U.S.

“A lot of election authorities don’t even have a basic website to provide voting information,” Kurt says.

Because of this glaring shortfall, Kurt and the team at the CTCL made sure their first training course was focused on helping election authorities to set up a website.

But why are so many election authorities failing to do what many would consider a very basic and obvious way to modernize the voting process?

In most cases, local government officials are working with a limited budget and outdated technologies. To add to that, most of the time, the staff are incredibly busy and may not have ever received training to bring them up to speed with digital communications, especially smaller counties.

Picture a small county in Missouri, where a 60-year-old woman has been the county clerk for decades, she’s so busy serving the public that she’s never had time to get up to speed with modern voting technology practices. This is a profile of the many election officials the CTCL trains and wants to educate further.

“These folks need a little bit of a boost in order to serve their communities in a better, more effective way,” he says.

Accessible Communication for Election Officials

Kurt and his team provide government officials with best practices that they’ve collected from the field nationally. The CTCL provide training courses so they can learn new skills like using social media to communicate with voters, how to make their existing website mobile friendly, as well as how to make a website accessible for all users.

Since launching the Accessible Communication for Election Offices course in the summer of 2017, 83 election officials from the U.S. and Canada have been trained by the CTCL.

Little by little, the CTCL is impacting how accessible election and voting information is to all Americans. It just isn’t the glamorous solution to U.S. elections that first comes to mind.

“There are a lot of attitudes out there about how you just need a really cool voting app or you just need this awesome algorithm. For us at the CTCL, we think that…the trick lies with the people in government who administer elections,” Kurt says.

“It’s not a sexy, techy Silicon Valley solution to focus on these local people who work in government. In some ways, it’s not where your mind would go initially but these people are really important and they do critical work. Our work is focused on supporting their work.”

Between the ground level approach of the CTCL and the groundbreaking innovation of Democracy Live, it appears the 2020 U.S. elections is set to be the most forward-thinking yet.

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