Auburn professor and national Institute for Election Administration Research and Practice director comments on election technology in light of Iowa caucus issues

Published: February 04, 2020
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Auburn University political science professor Kathleen Hale—who directs Auburn’s partnership with the Election Center (National Association of Election Officials) to professionalize the public administration of elections through its national certification program – comments below about the inherent risks and benefits of technology use with elections in light of last night’s issues involving the delayed Iowa caucus results

Hale directs Auburn’s Election Administration Initiative and graduate program in Election Administration. She teaches courses in election administration, qualitative methods and intergovernmental relations, and her research examines how to improve capacity of government and nonprofit organizations to address public problems.

In regard to the issues with last night’s Iowa caucuses, some are pointing to the introduction of new technology as a possible culprit, specifically a newly developed app. From your experience, how cautious should we be in adopting new technology into our election process, and do you expect to see more similar events to occur as we move ahead in the election cycle?

If we think about elections as the way we measure democracy, of course new technology will be a part of that process. And implementing new technology takes time if we want to perfectly capture voter intent. We want everyone who is eligible to participate, and we want to be transparent about what we are doing, and above all, we want to be accurate. But we also need to be efficient, because time and resources are not endless so there is a trade-off. This means we have to commit to developing, testing, training and piloting new ideas. It also means time to determine results, and time to verify information. If what we want are instant results with new technology, we can expect to be inaccurate at least some of the time, and that is unfortunate. 

Could you tell us a bit about Auburn’s work with the Election Center and how you are training election officials to be prepared for the latest in election technology?

In partnership with the Election Center, also known as the National Association of Election Officials, Auburn faculty work with election officials, vendors and other system stakeholders to understand their current operating challenges to build capacity for the future. We meet regularly around the country to talk about issues and work together to identify paths to address these. As one example, our joint research with the Election Center indicates that election offices are significantly under-resourced – although there is variation across the 8,000 local offices around the country, our study indicates that the average portion of a county budget spent on election operations is about 0.5 percent—more or less in some places of course, but likely less than 1 percent most everywhere. That is not a lot of investment for the government function that undergirds our democracy. Regarding technology specifically, in our national certification program for election officials, we are currently focusing on risk assessment and risk management for offices, which involves all the various technology systems and processes and the people who come into contact with them.  Risks come in many forms, and cyber risk is certainly one of those categories. Building awareness of even very simple problems has a big payoff, especially at the local level. Most local offices around the country are small, and many offices have responsibilities for functions other than elections, such as licensing and recording.

How varied is the use of the latest technology – including apps – within our election system nationwide?

No national census has been taken of all the various election technology applications in the field, but we see apps evolving in all sorts of areas. One example is using an app to determine poll site wait times (Winston-Salem, N.C.); another example is to use apps to locate poll sites and provide directions for voters. And more recently apps have been used for troubleshooting at precincts, and in a few examples of precinct reporting. Voting systems themselves are beyond their useful lives by most accounts, having been purchased a decade ago or more with federal funds under the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Given concerns about cyberthreats, any reporting apps will need to be carefully vetted, protected, and verified. Each new election technology has two sides—technology can make elections more accessible and more efficient, but they may also be vulnerable from “bad actors.” The implicit suggestion of critics of the use of technology in elections is that we should move to paper for every part of the system because it is easier to audit—but that’s also not realistic. The challenge we face is how to build and protect technology that helps, and not hurts, our democracy. And this takes resources.

How can we prevent what occurred in Iowa from happening elsewhere in the future?

In terms of technology issues, what we know about risk management is that we can’t prevent threats and that there is no such thing as a perfect roll out of technology.  What we have to be able to do is systematically identify risks and develop contingency plans, and encourage patience when the system is actually working, even if slowly—that is the approach we are taking with election officials around the country.