Thursday, November 8, 2012

Electronic Voting in the US - Lagging But On the Way

At one point in time I might have said that voting and the democratic process was extremely important but boring to think about technically. No longer. In fact, this past Tuesday I had the nail biting experience of being on an airplane for most of election day with no idea what was going on. After circling in the sky for the final 30 minutes, with a possible threat of being diverted somewhere far away, we landed in the fog, I flew out of the plane into my car and boogied up the freeway to a friend's election night gathering, arriving just as they called the election for Barack Obama. Technology has come a long way when we can reliably report results so soon after the last polls close.

I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had been able to vote even though I was half way across the country on election day. That is because California provides the option of being a permanent mail-in voter. Very convenient for those of us who are often away from home.

But what about all those people who live places where you simply have to show up in your designated precinct polling place on election day? And all those people for whom this seemingly simple process is fraught with stumbling blocks? Why, as I was reminded last night at the monthly UX Speakeasy meeting, is our voting technology in the US 10-15 years behind our technology in other areas of society?

A few years ago I learned just how divisive the prospect of Internet voting is in this country. While researching the topic of Internet voting for my book, I posted both a blog post and a LinkedIn conversation on the topic and to my complete surprise there ensued a lengthy heated conversation and I received a few, um...spirited emails.

However, as I have suspected since then, the process of dragging and pushing the US towards secure, reliable electronic voting is continuing in spite of efforts from some quarters to stop it.

Last night at the UX Speakeasy meeting, Mike Joyce spoke at some length and in some detail about his experiences implementing electronic voting around the world. Mike covered many of the "usual" topics to those familiar with the subject (verification, validity, security ...) but there was a unique spin to his talk. He posed electronic voting and the challenges of universal enfranchisement as a usability issue. More than a user interface issue. More than a software issue. Voting should be accessible and easy for everyone, regardless of where you are, and what limitations you might have physically or cognitively.

Here in the US we are unlikely to go the way of the Australians any time soon and make voting mandatory for all citizens, however it was quite instructive to listen to how seriously the Australians take voting and how they put in place mechanisms to try and make everything run smoothly for people in far away Perth (look it up on a map and you'll see what I mean) or in the Outback.

Here in the US it sometimes seems as if, in contrast to what we heard last night about several other countries, we go out of our way to make it a challenge to vote. However, after listening to Mike last night, I am more convinced than ever that the US is going to get Internet voting implemented sooner or later. Of course it won't be perfect, but tell me, honestly, is the current system anywhere close to perfect? And shouldn't we make it easier for people to vote so that fewer people will view it as a burden or an inconvenience? Let's encourage and support participation in the democratic process.

Oh...we had our own little vote last night. UX Speakeasy is busily deciding what the theme of our next mini-conference will be. After polling our membership recently for ideas, we developed a ballot for people to mark up and submit. Not electronic alas, but truly in the spirit of the day and of the week.

Do you have an opinion about the next mini-conference? Then vote!

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