A year ago, the general public learned what election officials in the United States have long known: The current setup is a mess. Old machinery, inaccurate registration rolls, ill-prepared poll workers and convoluted procedures make it impossible for us to conduct an election with a completely accurate count. Moreover, the authority over the election system in the United States is so decentralized and disparate that no single solution can bring elections closer to what the voting public now demands.
But, vote we will--to elect 435 representatives and 33 senators this November and a president in 2004.
Debate over the subject of electoral reform has been vigorous but has resulted in little change. Although all the discussions broadly address the issue of high- and low-level reform, most do not address the need for continuous improvement of the U.S. election system. And not one has looked for lessons from the one sector that has had plenty of experience not just in theorizing about change, but in executing it: the business community.
If election managers sit down to talk shop with their corporate counterparts, they will see that they face similar challenges--quality control, staff development, strategic planning and budgeting, customer service, and, yes, politics.
Although registration and voting must remain a core public function (like justice and defense), election administration can benefit by adopting basic corporate practices for strategy, organization and technology.
The problems of the last national election involved more than technology. And future elections will have comparable difficulties if change is not initiated across all the key dimensions. We need solutions that can lead to the construction of an electoral system that can uphold and sustain reform. Although there is no way to completely guard against error, sound business approaches that address three key elements--people, process and technology--will greatly enhance the planning and execution of reform.
To avoid the problems of the last election, we need to understand and implement strategic planning and technology. To manage this change process, we must:
Apply best business practices to the electoral process
Introduce performance-management standards
Reform the voter registration process
Move toward a digital democracy...carefully
Best practices for elections
In politics, as in business, the concepts for reform cannot be separated from the mechanisms that deliver reform. When the problem of electoral reform is viewed through the lens of best business practices, four basic reform opportunities emerge:
Treat voters like customers. While maintaining election integrity, we must remove obstacles that deter eligible citizens who do want to vote. This stage of reform--involving straightforward, low-risk opportunities--includes such customer-centric questions as, What factors hinder citizens who want to register and vote? How can those factors be reengineered to encourage participation? Functions ripe for immediate action include voter education, registration-form and ballot design, absentee voting procedures, and poll-worker training.
View electoral reform as a series of sequential challenges, not just as one project. We recommend that election officials look at the electoral process just as a manager would regard a company's supply chain, element by element. Such an analysis allows the separation of critical functions (registration, voter education, in-person voting, absentee voting) and players (citizens, government officials, political parties, technology vendors) for analysis and improvement. A step-by-step breakdown of the voting system could take advantage of comparative statistical analysis and benchmarks to identify the specific issues in specific jurisdictions that need immediate attention and encourage key stakeholders to agree on the priorities for change.
Build organizations that can uphold reforms. Election agencies at all levels should be molded into professional institutions that initiate and sustain better approaches to election management. Fresh perspectives and new technologies will have little impact if election agencies remain ad hoc and seasonal.
Develop a technology road map. Today, improvement in election technology is largely vendor driven. Future election infrastructure should allow the infusion of extant and emerging technologies into the electoral supply chain. If we do not use a road map, procurement decisions will be ill-informed and have unintended consequences that do not serve the voting customer. Will such offerings as direct-record electronic (touch-screen) machines actually reduce voter error and endure over time? Without a road map, it's difficult to ascertain.
Voting reform must begin with a coldly analytical examination of what's right and what's wrong. We use metrics every day in business. There's no reason we can't use them in evaluating electoral change, though the process promises to be daunting. Despite some recent calls to institute national voting standards and processes, the U.S. Constitution mandates that individual states oversee the rules that govern voting procedures for federal elections. Most states, in turn, have left counties and local governments in charge of voter registration and other aspects of election administration.
Some states are already acting on reform ideas. Florida legislators, anxious to repair the state's image and electoral system, passed the Florida Election Reform Act of 2001 in May. By mandating statewide standards for ballot design, recount procedures and absentee voting, it shifted authority from the counties to the state, centralizing election reform among state leaders and leaving counties to carry out the state mandates. The act also put real money behind specific reforms: $24 million for machine upgrades, $6 million for voter education, and $2 million for a central voter registration database.
Other jurisdictions, however, lack the resources or motivation for an across-the-board effort.
We recommend the use of metrics to gauge the effectiveness of the system's performance at different stages (pre-election, Election Day and post-election) and during different election scenarios (e.g., high turnouts and low turnouts during general and special elections, runoffs and referendums). Results could be compiled into an election-management scorecard similar to the Balanced Scorecard used by many corporations to track performance in the most critical parts of their operations. An election-management scorecard could measure improvements (or slippage) in the management of internal processes, customer and employee satisfaction, and other areas of election management.
For ballot casting itself, the rate of residual votes (ballots that are uncounted, unmarked or marked incorrectly) is a valid metric. For absentee voting, metrics include the percentage of ballots returned with wrong information or after the deadline. Viewed across jurisdictions, metrics show where the most serious problems exist.
Reforming the entire voting process is all but impossible because it has so many different parts. Reforming part by part, however, can lead to substantive improvement that promises to make a significant difference for the average voter.
Because voting begins with registration, it makes sense that reform should begin with that process. Voter registration rolls are hard to maintain and update, requiring constant attention. People die, relocate and change their names--life events that require updates to registration rolls. Voters cannot be counted on to alert election officials to such changes. Furthermore, election agencies vary in the way they handle their rolls. Some still store registration forms in boxes and manually update registration. Others agencies digitize all completed applications and never refer to the paper originals. Only rigorous performance analysis can find an optimum system for a particular locality.
The creation of state-level registration databases has emerged at the top of reformers' must-do lists. Officials charged with registration management would be smart to follow the examples of database-driven companies, such as credit card marketers, and better track the voting population.
Public and private databases are powerful tools. But they require tight security and management, since they aggregate names, addresses, Social Security numbers and dates of birth--all the elements needed for identity theft or fraudulent voting. Even well-guarded, centralized electoral rolls worry privacy advocates. Some states retain the right to sell the voter information they collect; others provide it, with limited safeguards, over the Internet.
A major problem with using the Internet for elections is assuring the voting public that results are true and accurate. Emerging technology, however, promises enhanced security that reduces the chance of flawed registration and tabulations.
The Defense Department?s Medium Assurance Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) technology has emerged as a principal means for achieving secure Internet transactions with any party, known or unknown. Although PKI technology ensures a secure link across the Internet, it does not guarantee that the user is who he or she claims to be, since an unauthorized user could steal a person's private key and obtain the PIN code.
Combining three types of identification and authentication mechanisms helps mitigate this security problem:
Tokens (something you have): a diskette or smart card that stores a private key.
Passwords (something you know): a verbal or alphanumeric identifier.
Biometrics (something you are): measurable physical characteristics, such as a fingerprint, an iris, or facial features.
Biometric products in the workplace already are proving the technology?s viability. Examples include Walt Disney World's use of hand geometry systems to authenticate season-pass holders; the Home Shopping Network's use of voice authentication with its telephone-ordering system; and the New York Department of Social Services' use of fingerprint authentication systems to verify the identity of entitlement program participants.
Stepping up to digital democracy
The decentralized, antiquated U.S. election process means that reformers should look for short-term, low-risk opportunities for change.
Within most states, there has been little coordination in voting equipment from one county to the next. Each one bought whatever system it wanted, with little consideration of the eventual desirability of linking election machinery across a state.
For the 2000 election in Florida, 41 counties used optical scan machines (which read ovals filled in by voters), 24 counties used punch cards, one used lever machines, and one used paper ballots. The reform act signed by Gov. Jeb Bush in May imposed some order on this agglomeration by prohibiting punch-card systems.
At the same time, small-scale use of the Internet has met with some success in elections. In Alaska last year, the Republican Party was faced with the problem of overcoming such common voter deterrents as vast distances between homes and polling places, lack of transportation, and unreliable postal service. The state GOP used the Internet to conduct a presidential straw poll. Republicans were able to vote using a system developed by VoteHere.net. Although the nature of the nonbinding straw vote was too informal to judge its efficacy fully, a number of voters were able to overcome previously insurmountable logistics problems and cast a ballot.
In Arizona, the Democratic Party worked with Election.com in an Internet voting program that increased turnout in its statewide primary by an astonishing 676 percent from the 1996 primary. The party sent all 843,000 registered Democrats a PIN that let them access the party's site or Election.com. Participants were prompted to answer several personal questions; answers were compared to information on registration cards. After authentication, a ballot appeared on the screen. Voters selected their candidates and submitted their votes. Of the 86,000 Democrats voting, 36,000 cast votes online, 32,000 via mail, and an additional 18,000 voted in person.
Although the systems in those experiments allowed citizens to vote with relative convenience, full certification of a voting system requires much deeper engagement. Any equipment used in traditional elections must undergo a rigorous certification process by an independent testing organization. The purpose of this procedure is to provide third-party verification that the equipment meets the stringent requirements established by federal and state standards. There is no evidence that either of these systems would have passed such intense scrutiny and evaluation.
The ultimate change management project
Our analysis suggests that there are at least as many poor ideas as good ideas in the voting reform marketplace. Recent missteps are proof that, even with the best of intentions, some states and localities have made--and will continue to make--reform decisions that could haunt their electorates.
Just as is true in business, being first to market with a new product does not always ensure success. Some localities are purchasing election-related technology without getting answers to some fundamental questions: What will election authorities do if, after limited state and local dollars have been spent, there are as many lost votes as in previous elections? What sorts of lawsuits will stem from poor reform decisions? Will part-time, volunteer election authorities be able to manage new technology placed in polling stations?
The lessons won't come easily. Reformers in the U.S. are working at an operational disadvantage. The simple truth is that the world's most influential democracy likely will be a follower, not a leader, in digital democracy.
The politicians and academics who have embraced electoral reform as their cause celebre have platforms, passion and the public's attention. Yet, because they most often have not worked in business, they lack a manager's experience with large-scale performance improvement.
Before any real change becomes effective, the managers of the electoral system will have to learn more about business--the principles that should be the foundation of the electoral process.
By applying these practices, they can build an election system that is faithful to our founding principles and the envy of the rest of the world.
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Reprinted with permission from strategy+business, a quarterly management magazine published by Booz Allen Hamilton.