When Louisiana voters go to the polls to elect a governor in 2019 — if all goes to plan — they will cast their ballots on iPads.
Secretary of State Tom Schedler said he’ll ask the incoming administration of Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards and the Legislature for money to roll out this new way of voting.
The idea was first broached in 2014 by a presidential commission. A few counties, such as Denver and Los Angeles, already are experimenting with it, but Louisiana could become the first state to adopt the new technology.
“It is a drastic change. We’re going to take it slow, but this is the best way to go,” Schedler said.
His plan is to replace voting machines with tablet computers over the next three years, starting with the big parishes around Baton Rouge, Lafayette and New Orleans. This will give time to work out the kinks and train staff, as well as voters, on how it all works.
“Money is the big obstacle. But we don’t have a choice,” said Schedler, a Republican who also is president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Like most elections officials around the country, Schedler has to replace voting machines. Louisiana has 10,000 of them, all about 15 years old and wearing out quickly. The machines on which voters now cast their ballots are no longer made, and even if he could find replacements on eBay or somewhere, the machines would cost about $5,200 each.
That means the Legislature, in addition to filling a $1.8 billion hole in the budget, would need to find about $150 million to complete the process.
The alternative is shifting to more technologically advanced tablet computers, like the iPad, which cost about $300 each. Schedler estimates — his staff is still working the numbers — the shift will cost about $45 million spread over three years.
And there could be other savings, as well. Tablet computers are about the size of a piece of typing paper and a half-inch or so thick. They can be stored in a locked filing cabinet between elections, instead of the 66 guarded warehouses now used, he said.
After the 2000 election — known for “hanging chad” ballots and a U.S. Supreme Court voting along party lines to award the presidency to George W. Bush — Congress put up $2 billion to repair some of the severe technical problems voters faced. Most states, including Louisiana, bought voting machines.
Now, 15 or so years later, the technological cornerstone of democracy, as one comedian put it, is as antiquated as flip phones.
New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice warned that the nation’s elections are facing massive breakdowns because jurisdictions are using machines designed and engineered in the 1990s. Forty-three states need to replace voting machines. “We ignore it at our collective peril. A majority of jurisdictions in 2016 will be using machines at or near the end of their projected lifespans,” the reports states.
The federal government is not putting up money this time around, and, so far, state governments haven’t felt much urgency.
In Virginia, where each county uses its own system, the Brennan Center reported machines crashing in 2014.
An investigation discovered that the wireless cards various systems used could be hacked. Twenty-six Virginia Beach machines used a touch-screen with an “alignment problem” that registered votes incorrectly. Across that state, 49 localities reported malfunctioning voting machines, including the one used by Gov. Terry McAuliffe at a Richmond precinct.
A proposal to borrow $28 million to buy machines for local authorities in Virginia was removed from the state budget earlier this year by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Opponents raised concerns about taking on more debt and about interfering with local elections officials.
Schedler said he’s sensitive to security concerns, particularly in an era where hackers have been able to access all sorts of personal records from seemingly impenetrable databases.
But in this aspect, Schedler said, Louisiana’s unique “top-down” system of governing proves beneficial. Where most states handle elections on the county (parish) level, Louisiana’s system is centralized statewide in the Secretary of State’s Office.
That means the state buys the machinery, controls it and maintains it. The voting procedures and experiences in Caddo Parish are fairly similar to those in Jefferson or Tensas parishes. In other states, the machinery, security and practices differ from locality to locality.
Schedler said he would follow the same system for iPads that is used now.
A few days before every election, Secretary of State’s Office staffers drive to each parish and deliver the agency’s laptops and the cartridges that activate and count the votes on each machine.
When polls close, the cartridges from each machine are removed and taken to the parish registrar of voters’ office, where elections officials download the cartridges onto the state laptops. Tallies are transmitted to Baton Rouge on an internal line — the open Internet is not used.
Digital technology also would allow Louisiana to set up centers that would allow voters to cast ballots from out of town, rather than having to be in their home parish to vote just in traditional precincts. The technology is such that elections personnel across the state can ensure the voter’s identity, then call up his or her precinct’s ballot.
This would be a boon to college students, who have among the lowest voter participation rates, Schedler said.
Under the current system, an LSU student from New Orleans or Shreveport either has to return home to vote or request in writing that their home parish’s registrar of voters mail a ballot.
“We tell young people how important it is to vote, and then we make it very hard for them,” Schedler said. “Under this system, we can put a voting center at the student union.”
Amber McReynolds, director of elections in Denver, said voters turned out being more comfortable with tablet computers because they were more familiar with the new technology. “Voters found it a lot more intuitive,” she said.
Moving to a new voting technology has been politically controversial from the beginning. But in 2014, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration issued a report noting that elections software “can be integrated with off-the-shelf commercial hardware components” and suggesting a move toward tablet computers.
Steve Trout, the Oregon elections director, testified to the commission that the hardware allows for add-ons that can make it easier for the disabled and blind to cast ballots. Drew Davies, of Oxide Design Co., testified that the devices could allow voters to “pre-fill” their ballots on their own mobile devices prior to arriving at the polling location, which could speed the process and keep lines shorter.
Schedler gets almost giddy talking about this possibility.
Pulling his own smartphone out of a pocket, Schedler acted out how to use the GeauxVote app to open the ballot unique to the voter’s precinct. Fingers pantomimed punching the screen as he said, “You could fill this out together at a club or you can sit at home” and vote after studying the wording of various amendments and candidates. The smartphone would create a bar code, much like an airline ticket, on the ballot.
“Then you bring your phone to the voting center and scan it, and your ballot selections come up on the iPad,” Schedler said waving his phone under a random book that stood in for a “digital ballot-marking device.”
“You check the ballot, make any changes you want, then press the button. You’re good to go,” he said.
Like all changes, Schedler said he is a bit nervous about embarking on one that will revolutionize the way people are used to voting. But he’s studied it, as has his staff and a special committee. He’s confident this is the right way to go.
And one thing is clear: The current machines have to be replaced — and soon. “If we sit back and push the marble down the road, it will be a crisis,” Schedler said.
Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.