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An U.S. Election Assistance Commission blog written by former Commissioner Matthew Masterson

California works to improve the voter experience

Apr 21, 2017

When Americans want a pizza, we simply go to an app order one and have it delivered. When we want to watch a movie, we open up our favorite streaming service and push play. To board a plane, we display our ticket on our phone and proceed to our seat. We live in an “on demand” world where we get what we want and on our own terms.

Last week, I had the chance to visit Los Angeles County to get a closer look at the progress the county has made on the development of their new voting system that is designed to offer voters a variety of options on how to interact with and cast their ballot. Their goal is to improve voter experience and the overall usability of the process. In short, they want a system that ensures an accurate, accessible and secure election while being in step with voter needs and the way we live our lives.

That was a theme I heard repeatedly during my trip to California just a few weeks ago. I was there to participate in the Future of California Elections gathering. That discussion largely centered on issues related to California’s push to a new model for voting that gives election officials the ability to better serve their communities. As Orange County Registrar Neal Kelley put it, “Voters are looking to get their ballots on their own terms.”

The use of voter centers and convenience voting is not a new concept. Texas election officials pioneered the vote center approach years ago and many states have moved to implement variations of it. States across the country have adopted various forms of early and absentee voting leading to over a third of voters voting before election day. As the PCEA report highlighted there is wide consensus that voters are pleased to have more flexibility in how they cast their ballots and election officials note that it has created efficiencies throughout the process and significantly reduced lines at the polls and the number of provisional ballots. There’s also broad agreement that with this improved voter experience comes a host of new challenges for election officials.

Today’s election officials have the unique task of also serving as IT managers. The technology used to serve the voting service center model must be flexible, affordable and efficient. It must also be maintained in a way that is secure and protects the integrity of election results. In California, that means voter registration information collected at the county level and DMV must seamlessly and successfully pass through the VoteCal voter registration database to the voting systems, electronic poll books and ballot on demand printers. Anyone who has tried to print correlating letters and mailing labels from a spreadsheet knows that the more steps involved, the more difficult it can be to get everything matched precisely. Yet that’s exactly what our election officials do each and every day on a massive scale.

Similarly, the vast majority of submitted ballots in California will be mailed to voters and returned in a number of ways, including the U.S. postal service and via drop box. Election officials are responsible for ensuring the security and integrity of these ballots as they are mailed, returned and verified.

While some may say it has taken too long to get to this point, voters should keep in mind that modernizing the election process needs to be done in a deliberate evolutionary manner that allows election officials the ability to learn, adapt and improve as they go. At the EAC, we view ourselves as a partner in that process helping to ensure the integrity of all election systems and providing local election officials the resources they need to tackle the many challenges that come their way.

We’ve been proud to work alongside election officials as they’ve evaluated and procured voting system equipment that best supports their needs. We’re also consulting with them as we seek to finalize the next iteration of the voluntary voting system guidelines that will be rooted in a set of 17 core voting system functions instead of in specific system technology. These will be the most advanced standards against which a voting system can be tested in the United States, ensuring improved security, accessibility and auditability of the next generation of voting systems. Even better, these new guidelines are designed to spur innovations that allow local election officials to give voters the best experience possible.

Beyond our election system testing and certification services, the EAC is pleased to also serve as the federal clearinghouse for election administration information, best practices and training that gives state and local officials all they need to carry out successful elections. Our commission is home base for information as wide-ranging as how to recruit poll workers and manage election-related IT challenges to how to maintain accurate voter registration lists and protect local election systems from cybersecurity threats.

EAC is pleased when we have the chance to learn from states like California, where officials are offering voters an experience that better fits their lifestyle. As this model continues to spread throughout The Golden State, the EAC looks forward to partnering with election officials to ensure its success and to share the knowledge they gain with election leaders across the nation.

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