Why would a group of Silicon Valley technologists and business executives, who did well as entrepreneurs with Netscape, Facebook, and other household names in the tech world, turn to something as obscure, and let’s say it, unsexy, as the voting process in the United States?
It’s a good question, and we think we have some answers.
You may not follow the voting news as closely as some of us do, but what we see during nearly every election, not just the quadrennial presidential elections, but in many state and local ones too, are glitches in elections technology. Machines break down and often lead to long lines at the polling place. Or precincts don’t have enough voting machines because jurisdictions find them so expensive to buy. Or the vote counting machines break down and lead to delayed and disputed counts and recounts. Or voter registration breakdowns lead to voters being turned away or filing provisional ballots that often are not counted. The list goes on and on.
These are more than “glitches;” these are indicators of fundamental problems. They are all too common and they’re too important to ignore. They undermine the whole foundation of our democracy--the right to have our vote counted as cast in free and fair elections.
Efforts to address these problems after the election of 2000—which ended in the U.S. Supreme Court (Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98) deciding the presidential election—resulted in the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). HAVA authorized and allocated federal funds to help local jurisdictions buy new voting machines. But most of those machines were cobbled together quickly using early 1990s technology and yet remain in service today. Now, we’re a dozen years beyond 2002, and you’ve probably replaced your home computer or laptop four times in that stretch and your cell phone five or six times. Personal technology has changed; voting technology hasn’t.
The machines bought with HAVA money are now wearing out; many have been glitch-ridden since their introduction. However, there is no more federal money to replace them and state and county budgets have been strapped ever since the financial collapse in 2008. Indeed, as the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration said earlier this year, it’s an “impending crisis in voting technology.”
Only three U.S. companies are still building certified voting machines, and they have few incentives to innovate – it’s a relatively small market, there is no money to pay for anything new, and federal standards, which authorize what local jurisdictions can purchase, have not kept pace with change. A group of us in the Silicon Valley finally realized that these election infrastructure problems will never improve without a new approach.
It has been harder than we anticipated. We had to learn (and still are learning) a great deal from local elections administrators who know the process, policies, and procedures of elections way better than we do. But, we’ve done that, and now we work with officials daily on our TrustTheVote™ Project. Their feedback and requirements are driving our work; we’re listening and developing the open-source election technology framework—software and draft standardized data protocols and processes, with their input as the central focus.
All start-ups are hard; so too, this one. And we have the additional burden of not being able to promise any stock bonuses, big returns on investment or “exit strategies.” You see, instead of an IPO-destined commercial venture, we’re a federally tax-exempt 501(c)(3) non-profit California public benefit organization. We are non-partisan, not affiliated with any party or political group. We’re not selling anything. We’re developing open-source election technology that any knowledgeable person can peer inside to see how it actually works. And we’re giving it away to the elections officials.
This is voting technology that election officials can adopt and adapt to their own jurisdictions’ requirements. It is research and development for public benefit and for an imperative civic purpose. And officials will be able to integrate this software with off-the-shelf computer hardware like laptops, tablets, and scanners that are far less costly to buy and maintain.
We are, in essence, a digital public works project. We may not be building a road, a bridge, or fresh water treatment plant, but what we’re building is equally, if not more important “critical democracy infrastructure.”
So, besides outright embarrassment at the voting process in our country, why are we personally motivated to do this? Each of our core team members has his or her reason, but collectively they include one or more of these five motives:
Service and Patriotism
This is first about a heartfelt desire to serve. One of our Foundation’s co-founders is a first generation American; his parents came here at the start of World War II and much of his family served in and around the U.S. military. But he did not. For him, this is his service to the country that gave sanctuary and opportunity to his late parents.
Also from a patriotic standpoint, many of us believe that repairing, upgrading, and innovating our elections systems and infrastructure rises to the level of a national security project. Today, hackers intrude, disrupt, and terrorize our nation’s digital networks from financial services to military installations, to national business brands, and there is evidence they have already poked into our most critical infrastructure, including the electrical grid. It would be an ideal act of terrorism to significantly disrupt an American election. As computers and networks inevitably permeate the process of elections, that opportunity will grow. We believe improving the integrity of our elections technology is an effort to preserve democracy and address a potentially serious issue of national security.
It may be hard to believe, in light of financial excesses of the digital age, that there are people in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the technology field who chase something other than money, but we do exist. We chase success that is not measured in financial net worth, but in achievement and in disruptive innovation. That is a characteristic of the majority of our core team. We’re working for the sheer gratification that our efforts can make a difference; and potentially we can make some history in doing so.
Make Government Innovative
We believe that government has to be brought across the chasm of ages from the industrial age into the digital age; we want to make the government information-technology sector more innovative. The challenge includes understanding that citizens communicate with government using 21st century technology, while government responds using 20th century technology with 19th century processes. We think this project, in its open-source collaborative model, represents a blueprint for how to do so. We believe that major civic technology projects like healthcare.gov—a vital government service—can avoid many pitfalls if they are organized and managed differently.
As our democracy becomes more digital, it is a challenge that our most foundational aspect—our right to free and fair elections—relies on proprietary technology owned by three companies who have little business incentive to innovate. And coming from the commercial sector ourselves, including some of us involved in venture capital, we understand the need of new products “to pencil out” for their investors and shareholders to provide a decent return. But, voting technology is critical democracy infrastructure that should be held by and for American citizens and not subjected to the sometimes-unavoidable mandates of a commercial agenda. We must avoid the inevitable collision of commercial mandates and the public interest—especially at the intersection of our democracy. Therefore, this is an ideal opportunity for open source, open standards, and open data—publicly owned and not-for-profit.
To put a fine point on this, there is plenty of commercial opportunity in preserving democracy. Existing election technology and service vendors could take the TrustTheVote Project election technology, at the request of election officials, and adapt, deploy and service it. But these vendors would no longer have to weigh the heavy R&D investment required to build the kind of quality systems necessary to ensure the verifiability, accuracy, security and transparency our elections require. What’s more: elections officials would have more choices of vendors—only now those vendors would function as systems integrators.
You see, today technology is necessary for U.S. elections--129 million ballots were cast in the 2012 presidential contest--which every four years has a constitutionally mandated, time-certain conclusion—that is, on the 20th of January in the year following a presidential election, power must orderly transfer at noon. It’s a constitutional thing. So, the opportunity to “do it over” if there is a serious error or breakdown simply does not exist. America needs digital tools to be able to process and count the sheer volume of ballots.
Similarly, technology is crucial to the right of every citizen regardless of accessibility challenge or disability, to cast a ballot. But the technology should never be a drag on election integrity; rather technology should enable elections that are more verifiable, accurate, secure, and transparent so that there is greater public confidence in election results. That will help us preserve our democracy.
Finally, this is about an important desire to give something back—many of us have benefited from the information-technology revolution and the resulting digital economy. Sure, we’ve read the media coverage of that small portion of technocrats who do not share the larger belief in doing good for others. But rest assured that is far from the prevailing attitude. In fact, we believe what we’re working on is an ideal opportunity to do something for the good of our democracy.
So, Why us? Our motives range from patriotism to philanthropy—with the added incentive of being able to innovate, and maybe make some history in the process. But regardless, this thing we’re doing is about rebuilding confidence in elections and outcomes, and helping preserve our democracy. We think our method—open source--can reinvigorate a flagging niche industry for voting machinery at the same time it helps ensure the integrity of our critical democracy infrastructure. Nearly two decades ago, many of the same members of the TrustTheVote Project team were part of another innovation: making the Internet accessible to everyone and creating one of the greatest democratization tools in modern history…not to mention catalyzing the commercial Internet. We’re at it again—an innovation effort to make voting and the administration of elections a delight for citizens and government alike.
Seriously, we think this is going to be awesome. We hope you agree.