In-person voting and pandemics don’t work together. With the amount of uncertainty for different social distancing timelines and considerable election dates ahead, for both primaries and national, a plan seems unclear and challenging. All mail-in voting? Is it finally time to switch a to a digital medium? Is that possible?
Campaign technologies and services have become a multibillion-dollar industry, mostly in the form of digital advertising, communication, and data analytics, which have created a steady wave of new startups, approaches, and infrastructures. The same is not so obvious when it comes to actual voting technologies.
Innovative voting technology is almost only in the spotlight when things have gone quite poorly. For example, the 2020 Democratic Iowa caucuses had significant reporting difficulties through a new platform created by Shadow Inc. The tech was meant to be used for precinct captains to relay vote totals. It didn’t go well. Several precincts had delays in reporting of several days, and, in some cases, needed recounts.
Eventually Shadow took responsibility and tweeted: “The underlying data and collection process via Shadow’s mobile caucus app was sound and accurate, but our process to transmit that caucus results data generated via the app to the IDP was not."
The very public and poor performance of a new voting tech solution is unfortunate. As writers at Bloomberg reported “While there is broad consensus among Democrats that they need more advanced tools, the performance of Shadow’s app in Iowa has hardened the opposition many people have to the insertion of digital technology in the voting process itself.”
However, it is inevitable that advanced democracies need more advanced voting infrastructures. But how precisely and at which degree should they be deployed is the really complicated part. When we think of voting technology, probably what comes to mind is an app or website you could log onto with a very clean interface with all the information you’d need and the ability to vote through that interface. Log in. Hit buttons. Move on.
But the voting tech landscape is not that simple. Due to a combination of very high stakes, partisan motivation, user adoption, and, perhaps most crucially, security, the innovation community around voting technology is varied in both scope and mission.
To get better insight into this innovation community, we’ve selected a handful of intriguing startups that are commited to advancing voting technology in a way that is helpful, inclusive, and secure.
Voting Technology Startups That Are Building a Better Infrastructure
BallotReady is not specifically voting technology in the ballot-casting sense, however it greatly improves a key lapse in United States voting education: policies.
While learning about different large-scale candidate policies, like presidents, senators, etc. is often easy and explained by large media outlets, it can be quite difficult sometimes to learn more about local representatives, congressional reps, and judicial reps. BallotReady is trying to fix that.
BallotReady wants to make is exceedingly easy for any voter to understand what they might be voting for. Landing on their website, you immediately see “Every candidate and referendum, explained.” Simply type in your zip code and BallotReady lays out in clean design all you may need to know about an upcoming election in your area.
2. Clear Ballot
Though the Boston-based company has only raised about $18M since starting in 2009, Clear Ballot continues to make serious strides. They were federally certified by the election Assistance Commission in October 2019 and were selected by New York City in January 2020 to election audits.
The company strives for expediency, ease-of-use, and transparency. Their “browser-based software, used in conjunction with commercially available hardware, scales to election jurisdictions of all sizes, and responds directly to the budgetary realities of counties and municipalities. Our election technology is used in nine states, and our ClearVote voting system is EAC certified.”
3. Democracy Live
Democracy Live is the largest provider of cloud and tablet-based voting technologies in the U.S. They are a multi-faceted platform that is driven to allow anyone, anywhere to vote easily and securely.
In January 2020, they made headlines in the New York Times for being selected by King County in Seattle for a pilot mobile-only election. The election was not a huge mainstream event; however, the Times wrote:
“More than a million registered voters in the Seattle area can now cast a ballot for an obscure election using a smartphone or computer. Organizers are calling the pilot program the largest mobile voting effort in the country.”
A graduate of MassChallenge’s Boston Program in 2017, Voatz is a mobile election voting platform, secured via smart biometrics, real time ID verification, and blockchain for irrefutability.
The process goes like this:
- Voters download the Voatz app.
- Verify their identity by taking a picture of their government ID.
- Then finger print scan with added use of facial recognition.
- Then you vote. When the vote is cast, it is also backed up with a paper copy.
In the 2018 midterm elections, Voatz was used in 24 counties as a pilot program in West Virginia. The program was restricted to active military and overseas voters. Though this may seem small, it’s actually a gigantic step in mobile voting becoming closer to a reality.
5. Vote at Home
This one is a curve ball: Letters.
Letters are technology. And while they definitely seem like dinosaurs in the realm of the rest of the technologies in this piece, letters are secure and accountable.
Many voters face difficulties in accessibility either due to their job, the location of the ballot collection, or because of a pre-existing disability. Vote at Home, while not as trendy as blockchain or multistep identifications, has the same goal: make it easier for everyone to vote.
The problem they tackle is getting more states to have the functionality to make mail-in voting more inclusive and actually possible. Vote at Home works with voters, policymakers, and election officials to improve their mail-in voting options.
Also leveraging blockchain technology, Votem offers a variety of services for democratic infrastructures including online voting registration and electronic balloting. A partner of the Blockchain Research Institute and the National Association of Secretaries of State, Votem has high aspirations. 1 billion people using their platform by 2025 is just one of them.
7. Voting Solutions for All People (VSAP)
VSAP is a novel publicly owned voting system originally created for Los Angeles counties. As written by Vox reporter, Rebecca Heilweil, VSAP “will introduce new touchscreen pads and a paper record of every vote. Those machines will be used in the California presidential primaries, and if all goes well, they’re expected to be used in the general election as well. LA County built the platform with help from London-based election tech company Smartmatic, whose CEO recently argued on Twitter that Iowa invested too little in its election technology and therefore suffered from a ‘lack of technology.’ ”
8. Election Systems & Software (ES&S)
ES&S is not really a startup. They are actually the world’s leading provider of voting equipment and election support services. However, their approach to innovation is what makes them unique. Based out of Omaha, Nebraska, ES&S keeps their focus always on future approaches and technology to advance voting in US for the better.
One of the ways they do this is leveraging their participation in the Straight Shot accelerator in the Omaha area to stay tapped into bold ideas and agile innovation. From creating voting verifiable paper to smarter automation for voting registering and tallying, ES&S’s main mission is very simple: Better Elections Every Day. And by using all their means possible to continue innovation, they’ll likely stay ahead of the evolution voting will continue to take.
Here’s a quick video of how ES&S handles and thinks about modern ballot tallying:
Video: How are Ballots Counted? - Election Systems & Software
So, What Is the Future of Voting Technology?
While on the surface, democratic voting appears very simple -- ask, answer, and tally. But we know it’s not that simple. On top of legislation and bipartisan motives, accessibility to voting is one of the biggest hurdles innovators are trying to remove.
However, due to the intense scrutiny and epic stakes at play during large local and national elections, advancement beyond a physical location and a paper ballot has been quite slow compared to the rest of the technology citizens regularly interact with.
As the above highlighted companies show, there is real effort and real improvement being done, but the precise direction of genuine advancement is still a little up in the air. Roll out and deployment for this new equipment and approaches is very cautious. There is no “move fast, break things.” Because, in addition to the goal of more accessibility, is the paramount need for better security.
A few illuminating pieces that discuss the difficulties innovators and legislators face when trying to advance voting technology are below. Though there is real validity to many counter arguments in voting tech, there is no real debate that changes are greatly needed for our current infrastructure.