Past Issues of Government Technology

A Vote for the Future

Wi-Fi voting goes off without a hitch in Fairfax, Va.

by / July 29, 2003 0
Following the 2000 election debacle in Florida, the condition of America's election machinery received considerable public scrutiny, prompting a drive to replace aging voting systems with newer technology.

Last year's elections proved a testing ground for new solutions. More than 200 counties nationwide introduced new technology into the voting process -- mostly in the form of touchscreen machines. A brief survey of media reports following the elections showed mixed results.

While no county suffered a complete voting disaster, some touchscreen machines in Florida and Georgia, for example, were misprogrammed or calibrated inaccurately. In other places, machines reportedly froze and had to be rebooted.

Specific problems encountered include two parishes in Louisiana -- Ascension and Tangipahoa -- where touchscreen voting machines manufactured by Election Systems & Software were tested. In Ascension, 200 machine malfunctions were reported, according to The Advocate, the local newspaper. In Tangipahoa, news reports said 20 percent of the machines malfunctioned.

In Broward County, Fla., election officials discovered that 103,222 votes -- including 34,136 votes for the governor's race -- were excluded from the preliminary ballot totals. Fortunately the additions did not change any final election outcome.

In Fort Worth, Texas, ballot results were delayed one day after county election workers failed to set up the software to count the ballots of those who voted straight party. Arguably many of these problems can be attributed to human error and unfamiliarity with new equipment.

The majority of last year's problems were quickly corrected, and for the most part, the impact was nothing more than longer voting lines in some precincts. The lesson in these examples is that when selecting a voting system that harnesses new technology, such systems should be as infallible as possible for both election workers and the general voting public.

Last year's tests seemed to prove that point in Fairfax County, Va. New touchscreen WINvote machines with the latest Wi-Fi technology were deployed in three precincts. Because the trial went so smoothly, the county placed an order with Advanced Voting Solutions (AVS) to purchase 1,000 WINvote units. Fairfax plans to use the wireless system for the rest of county's 580,000 registered voters in the 2004 presidential election.


Filling the Fairfax Wish List
Fairfax County had been shopping for new machines for some time -- even before the 2000 Florida catastrophe. "The primary motivation for looking for new machines was that the machines we are using now are getting old," said Judy Flaig, Fairfax election manager. "The technology is old and the equipment is old."

Over the years, the election staff in Fairfax developed a list of criteria -- a wish list -- they put forward to different vendors. "The machine we bought had much more of what was specifically requested by this particular office over the years than any other vendor," said Margaret Luca, secretary of the Election Board of Fairfax County.

Topping the wish list was a system lacking a single point that could cause systemwide failure. "We didn't want to be dependent on a system that used a central controller -- or some kind of master machine -- so if that master went down, the whole precinct would be dead in the water," Flaig said. "We were looking for something that could stand by itself. With WINvote, if one machine goes down in a precinct, the other nine continue on their merry way. Voting isn't interrupted in any significant way."

Another enticement, according to Luca, was WINvote's size. The actual voting machine has a 15-inch touchscreen and weighs only 8.9 pounds. A complete ballot station, including booth, weighs only 22 pounds and folds into what looks like an oversized briefcase. According to AVS, WINvote is the lightest-weight voting system certified by a number of states. This makes it much easier for election workers to carry and store.

Another concern for Fairfax County was accessibility for citizens with disabilities, which the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) requires by 2006. Accessibility is a standard feature on all WINvote machines.

WINvote's use of Wi-Fi technology also made sense to Fairfax elections staff. "It is going to be a lot easier for the poll workers to open the polls in the morning and close them in the evening," Flaig said. "Certainly from the behind the scenes point of view, the wireless system is going to help us set up machines much faster before each election. It will cut down the number of man-hours needed just to load a ballot into all the machines. That I think is going to save the taxpayers a significant amount of money."


Secure Wi-Fi Operation
According to AVS, Fairfax County will be the first jurisdiction to successfully test, certify and deploy wireless technology across the whole jurisdiction.

"What we have done is concentrate on the poll worker and the election staff," said Bryan Finney, government relations coordinator for AVS. "We realized that introducing a new technology into that poll worker population can have its challenges. Our goal is to reduce those challenges by making the election process as easy as possible for them."

Incorporating a secure Wi-Fi network is what makes the system so easy to use. Before Election Day, for example, all county ballots can be loaded into all the units -- perhaps 1,000 or more -- within a few minutes, saving the county significant resources and election preparation time.

Once the units are dispersed to the voting locations, WINvote offers wireless ballot activation and wireless ballot accumulation. Wireless ballot activation means the election officer simply touches the screen on one unit to activate all units in that precinct. To wirelessly accumulate ballots at the close of an election, a poll worker touches a button on the screen on any unit to accumulate all precinct totals. This data can be relayed to a central headquarters via modem transfer.

"We have the only solution that acts both as a Wi-Fi networked environment -- as that is the most efficient way of opening and closing the polls -- and as a stand-alone environment throughout election day," Finney explained. "That is a very compelling feature that embraces the positive aspects of both -- the security features of being a stand-alone system, but also the efficiencies of a networked system."

The Wi-Fi network, which is encrypted and uses multiple authenticity passwords, only runs for a few minutes at a time. "There really is no way a hacker could break into this during the few minutes that this is up," Finney added. "That's a virtual impossibility."

Another important strength, according to Finney, is that no single device can fail and cause a polling location to go down. "We have built in redundancy upon redundancy. Voter data is stored on each machine throughout the Election Day, as well as in two different places on a hard drive in each unit, and on a separate removable USB drive in each unit.

If a hand count is needed, all cast ballots can be printed out from any machine, or from the amalgamated data. "Our system provides a paper audit trail for virtually every single thing done electronically," Finney said.

WINvote units also are designed to make voting easy for citizens. Different fonts and font sizes can be selected, and the machines can hold different languages.

WINvote is designed to help ensure voters don't make unintentional mistakes. After the voter completes a ballot, he or she is presented with a summary screen showing his or her choices, and given a final opportunity to go back and amend any vote. Finney calls it the "Is that your final answer?" screen.


Positive Response
Of course at the end of the day, what matters most is how well the individual voter is served, and how accurately and efficiently his or her vote is counted.

As part of the Fairfax County test of WINvote, short surveys were handed to voters, and the responses were overwhelmingly positive. "They were over 90 percent to 95 percent positive on most of the questions we asked," Flaig said.

Luca added that voters more than 80 years old were even higher in terms of being positive than the 35 to 45 age bracket. "Although the general perception is that older people might have problems with this new technology, they didn't seem to have much trouble at all," she said. "In fact, they were generally delighted because they could manage it all quite well. The WINvote system is simply just that intuitive."
Blake Harris Contributing Editor