President Obama has indicated support for pursuing election reform in his second term. He went as far as mentioning it in two major speeches. On election night he said, “I want to thank every American who participated in this election whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time. By the way, we have to fix that.” In his second inaugural address he said, “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” If he ever gathers the courage to move beyond mere words, I have another solution he should seriously consider.
Disenfranchisement through long lines is a problem if you care about the right to vote and the integrity of the electoral process. Yes, disenfranchisement does occur when systems are established that predictably produce long lines. One study estimated, that in Central Florida alone, up to 49,000 were deterred from voting because of long lines on Election Day. Professor Theodore Allen remarked: “Without understanding the importance of ballot length as a variable, it would be surprising to see from the data from 2012 in Central Florida that lower turnout was recorded in the locations with the longest waits. This is because longer ballots (not higher turnout) likely caused the longer lines which, in turn, suppressed the turnout.”
We can put a man on the moon, but we still have to stand in line for hours to vote?
You would think we could design a better system that doesn’t create this burden on a person’s right to vote. Commonly mentioned solutions include longer early voting hours and more voting machines. We should consider a new option: Print-at-home ballots. It would be a cheaper, more efficient, more secure hybrid of vote-by-mail and traditional in-person voting. This is NOT Internet voting.
When you arrive to vote at your polling place your time is spent in three stages: 1) waiting in line, 2) checking in with the poll worker, and 3) filling out & casting your ballot. A print-at-home ballot system eliminates the third stage. According to a post-Help America Vote Act study, the time wasted on this third stage is actually getting worse.
Again, although the county had purchased many more machines, there were long waits in a few polling places because the allocation was insufficiently tuned to account for variations in how long people took to vote. This is a function of the length of the ballot, the complexity of some of the issues, whether voters have studied the ballot ahead of time, the structure of the voting process and how quickly voters assimilate the information.
An unexpected and unfortunate characteristic of some of the new machines is that they tend to require more time for most voters to get through the ballot. Rather than seeing the whole ballot at once, as on older lever-pull machines, voters are guided through one office or issue at a time. Also, when a voter skips an office or question, the machine prompts to make sure the non-vote was intentional. This feature apparently causes many voters to pause and reflect, substantially increasing the average time voters spend casting their votes.
A system that would allow voters to make and enter their decision before they get the the polling place would make a tremendous impact on the amount of time spent in line.
The technology needed to create a print-at-home ballot is already available and familiar. It is an extension of the concept of print-at-home ticketing commonly used at airports, stadiums, and movie theaters.
From your computer, you enter information about the transaction and it is recorded in a scanable barcode which is printed with a text description of the purchase. When you arrive on location you skip a line and an employee scans your paper and lets you in.
How a Print-at-Home Ballot System Could Work
Here is a rough outline of what it would look like for a voter.
- Download the ballot: On a computer, go to the state’s election website. Enter your address. You will be given a link to download the ballot for your particular precinct. Download the ballot (a program that will not connect to the Internet and is inaccessible from the Internet).
- Fill out the ballot: The program will guide you, just like the touch screen system many places have now. Take as much time as out like. You can even open a web browser to research issues you didn’t know were on the ballot. The final screen in the program will give you a chance to double-check your choices before you decide to print it.
- Print the ballot. Read the printout to check for errors. If there are errors fill out the ballot and print again.
- Take it to your polling place. Hey, look: the correct polling place is automatically printed on the ballot.
- Arrive at the polls. First — possibly while you are waiting in a much shorter line — a poll worker, using a tablet computer will scan your ballot’s barcode. The voter looks at the tablet to see that it matches the choices on their printed ballot. This is a check for errors in the barcode. If it doesn’t match or scan properly, the voter can use a traditional voting machine or go print another ballot. This poll worker could carry several tablets (since they are so small and lightweight) and serve multiple people at once.
- Cast your ballot. After initial barcode verification, the voter checks in with the poll workers sitting at the table to check identification (almost exactly as it is done at airports). The ballot is scanned again, and the voter is again given the chance to verify it on a screen. (This is a check against a malfunction of the first tablet). The voter touches Accept and the vote is cast and counted. The paper printout is left with the poll worker, providing a ballot that can be used in a recount.
The voting experience is fast and simple. You can make and record your voting decisions from the comfort of your own home instead of feeling rushed in the voting cubicle. Of course, I can hear some concerns already.
What about people who don’t have a computer or printer? The simplest answer would be they could go to a friend’s house. Other options would be making sure computers with printers are available at all public libraries and a few at the local board of elections office.
But what about “voter fraud?” It is not any less secure than absentee ballots or voting by mail. If you object to print-at-home ballots you have to support ending those methods as well. But unlike those, the print-at-home ballot requires an opportunity for in-person identity verification. Unlike those methods, soiled, damaged, or lost ballots can be easily replaced.
What if I like having long lines in certain places because I gain a partisan advantage by suppressing certain voters? Well, I guess you are out of luck. You’ll have to come up with other ways to rape the republic.
Advantages of the Print-at-Home Ballot System
- Shorter Wait Time: Time spent filling out the ballot at the polls is eliminated
- The Verifiable Paper Trail: A printed ballot is available for recounts, unlike touchscreen only systems
- Cost Effective: Allows for fewer voting machines per precinct.
- Revenue Potential: Election infrastructure can be partially funded by selling ad space on the printed ballot (obviously, non-political ads only).