There’s no reason to have a plan B because it distracts from plan A.
When our first Congress met, we carried exports in the holds of wooden sailing vessels. We plowed our fields with oxen and other animals. We rode horses or drove horse-drawn carriages or carts between towns and farms, to market, and to voting locations. Representatives and senators held the first sessions of Congress in Federal Hall in New York City, where they met face-to-face just as they do now. But now our nation in the twenty-first century operates electronically and with more efficiency and effectiveness because of the tools that even school children have available—smart phones, computers, and tablets. Our democracy must be adapted to utilize these kinds of electronic tools to enable better governance and more inclusive voting. We must integrate today’s electronic tools with our constitutional voting process. Enabling e-voting for elections using technology to manage registration and election results is the first step.
If John Adams or Thomas Jefferson could revisit us today, they would praise all of the technological and efficiency-oriented advances (telephone, television, Internet, and other communications) used in commerce, education, and government operations. Suppose they could sit in the galleries in the House of Representatives today. The process of making laws is similar to what they experienced. They would feel at home and see that the Constitution operates as they intended.
There were about four million inhabitants of the United States in 1790. Now we have over 325 million citizens, or about eighty-five times greater population. And since women and African Americans could not vote then, the number of eligible voters is more than 160 times greater than in 1790. Additionally, since a much higher portion of the population were presumably children (under voting age), then the number of voters today could be closer to two hundred times larger. How can we continue to manually tally votes and set up an adequate number of polling locations to accommodate an ever-expanding modern democracy? We will fall short in our attempt to maintain our republic if we keep doing it this way when we know the technology is sorely out of date.
We need to re-examine how we vote, realizing that the introduction of e-voting touches on the core of the electoral process—casting and counting votes. If we want to utilize e-voting, we will need to modify the Constitution to allow e-voting. Currently states have the right to control elections. Does this still make sense? Our Constitution handled elections with the tools available in the eighteenth century. Therefore states were responsible for setting up and tallying elections mainly because the federal government had no mechanism for doing that. We are the tenants and caretakers of our republic, our democracy. Adams, Jefferson, and all the other founders never envisioned the availability of the tools we have now. Elections should be handled at the national level in a uniform, fair, and accessible manner.
I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance.
–Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1821
The Voting Patchwork
The Constitution bestows on states the right and responsibility for holding elections for senators and representatives. Article 1 Section 4 of the Constitution, called the “Elections Clause,” describes the primacy of states in the voting process. “The times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations, except as to the places of choosing Senators.” Over the years, this procedure produced a patchwork of voting methods. Historically, some localities tried to restrict voting to some groups even after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment that prohibits the denial of the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
As businesses mature, they standardize their processes in order to maintain efficiency. Businesses as they grow move from ad hoc processes and procedures to formally defined, repeatable steps in their operations. For example, when a president leaves office, the Secret Service has a set of protocols to follow to set up the security for the former president’s new residence and his family. Each transition gets handled in the same way every time. That’s what e-voting would do. Wherever a person lives in the nation, they would see the same procedures over and over again when voting. If an improvement is made, it will be reflected at every polling precinct or, if e-voting is implemented, across every device.
The protection and expansion of voting rights has been, and continues to be, a strong thread throughout our nation’s history. We have a duty to maintain the ability of citizens to be able to vote. Putting voting rights in the hands of a federal agency and providing consistent, accessible e-voting could close the chapter on this issue once and for all. Anyone who qualifies and wishes to vote could have that access consistently and without artificial barriers. The patchwork of state laws could be rescinded. When you move your residence, you must register in your new location by a certain date to be able to vote. E-voting administered at the national level would only require that you update your residence by logging into your account, the way you already do for your bank, your driver’s license, and so many other things. To move to e-voting would require changing the Constitution, passing other laws in Congress to regulate how states conduct elections, and making changes to state constitutions and laws.
Types of E-voting and Requirements for E-voting
Voting has a set of established and accepted requirements. First of all, a vote must be secret—no one should be able to see how anyone else voted. Second, if a recount or some other audit is required, the votes need to be in a form that makes that process work properly and with a degree of transparency. Third, the parts of the system must be secure and the security of the system needs to be auditable as well. The biggest hurdles to Internet voting involve security and cyber attack. Lastly, and not so obvious, the loser of an election must believe that they actually lost the election. There cannot be any doubt that all the votes got counted and counted correctly. There needs to be confidence in the system.
Where e-voting exists currently, there are four primary variations:
Punch-card voting systems: Many precincts utilize punch cards that are scanned into a vote-tabulating device. The voter knows immediately that their vote was secret and counted.
Optical scanning systems: A second system utilizes optical scanning. This consists of pencil-marked paper, electronic ballot markers, and digital pens.
Direct-recording electronic (DRE) systems: This system most often consists of a touch screen (a benefit to vision-impaired voters, enabling them to vote without assistance). The votes are stored on a removable memory card and/or printed summary.
Internet voting system: This would allow voting from home, office, mobile device, a polling precinct, or other public location such as a library. This is the preferred method most voters would like to see but also the system where meeting voting requirements will be the greatest challenge. For purposes of our discussion, this is the system we advocate at the national level, but e-voting using the Internet presents the greatest challenge to achieving a secure, verifiable system.
2012 Presidential Election
From all over the nation on Election Day in 2012, reports of the inadequacy of the means to cast a simple ballot flooded the news. Voting locations in the Northeast affected by Hurricane Sandy were not open and no information was available designating alternate voting sites. Scanning devices in Ohio did not work. Places that could accept email votes were overwhelmed. Understaffed locations caused voters to have to wait in long lines and some voters cast ballots late into the night. In the Seventh District of Virginia, a well-prepared district where the authors live, voters experienced some delay but nothing extreme. Across the nation these anomalies were not necessarily widespread or uniform but, nonetheless, they represent problems that are systemic rather than random. In a sense, we stand in line wearing a powdered wig, stockings, three-cornered hat, and shoes with bright brass buckles because at the moment of putting pencil to paper to cast a vote it actually puts my hand into the hand of those who forged the method of voting in use today. The act of voting is a great privilege and a cherished heritage, but we need to update the methodology of voting.
What Lewis P. Lapham, editor of Harper’s Magazine for twenty-eight years and respected political writer, said of political campaigns applies to municipalities administering voting precincts. Local governments don’t “favor the voters with the gratitude and respect owed to their standing as valuable citizens participating in the making of such a thing as a common good.” Admittedly, it would be hard to individually acknowledge the 124 million who voted in the 2012 presidential election. But the process will continue to be flawed until our procedures are updated through a constitutional amendment enabling electronic voting. This would require that the nation’s election process be under the control of the federal government.
There were enough problems in 2012, however, for President Obama to appoint a commission on May 21, 2013 to review the voting problems that occurred on Election Day. President Obama said, as reported by Rachel Rose Hartman, on that day when he announced the commission:
As I said in my State of the Union Address, when any American, no matter where they live or what their party, is denied the right [to vote] simply because too many obstacles stand in their way, we are betraying our ideals. We have an obligation to ensure that all eligible voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots without unwarranted obstructions or unnecessary delay.
Regardless of the findings of that commission, it is time to change the Constitution so that all voting at the national level—and perhaps even for all levels of government, including local elections—be administered by the federal government. This is a state’s rights issue and will be a long, hard fight to get this changed, but it’s the change we need. Ashley Southall in an article in The New York Times said:
Voting rights advocates have welcomed the creation of the panel, spurred by long lines and voting problems in the 2012 elections that experts say disproportionately affected poor and minority voters, who are traditionally Democratic constituencies. But the groups are tempering their expectations until they see whether the panel is effective.
The executive order creating the commission pointed to problems faced by members of the military, overseas voters, voters with disabilities and voters with limited English proficiency and special needs. It listed the training of poll workers, issues with polling centers and voting machines, the management of voter rolls, ballot simplicity and overseas balloting among several suggested areas of study.
Reasons to Move to E-voting
- E-voting makes voting easier. Voters could vote from wherever they are.
- E-voting improves the ability of those with disabilities to cast votes.
- With a voting window of a few days, or a week, nearly everyone who wants to vote will be able to do so. Government employees in the military or diplomatic corps will be able to vote without absentee ballots. People on vacation or working out of town during the voting window will be able to cast their ballots.
- It will demonstrate that we, as a nation, think voting is so important that it should be made accessible to everyone who is eligible.
- E-voting makes voting more accurate when tallied since there will never be manual counting.
- It reduces interruptions to schools because they won’t close on election days.
- E-voting establishes more uniform processes on Election Day because states are responsible for running elections which has created a patchwork of processes across the country.
- An e-voting interface can provide a bilingual version and display pictures of the candidates for face recognition.
- E-voting demonstrates that we can keep our democracy in step with the times.
E-voting Difficult to Achieve
Across the country and around the world, municipalities are either utilizing a form of e-voting or investigating the possibility. From a user and usability viewpoint, Internet e-voting will be a significant improvement. But the challenges researchers have found make most Internet security experts believe voting over the Internet has significant challenges. Some of the commonly cited challenges are:
- E-voting is more difficult to implement than Internet banking. If you make a payment through your bank account, the bank knows who the payment is from and who the payment is going to. With e-voting you know who gets the payment (the candidate) but you can’t tell who sent it (for audit or verification).
- E-voting makes it hard to insure chain of custody of votes if a recount is required (who has the original data).
- If an election gets hacked, it may be months before it’s discovered. Awareness of a hacked system is not usually uncovered until after the fact.
- There is also a chance of an “insider attack” by someone who works for an election agency or for a company that provides the election equipment or software (although this is already a challenge with current methods).
- Voting over the Internet with well-known protocols invites interference.
- Setting up a help system is a problem of extreme complexity with all the variation of devices a voter may be using.
- Many personal devices already contain malware that may subvert voting on the user’s end.
- Systems developed by private companies who claim to have solved the problems of e-voting will have to be rigorously tested over years to determine if they are truly secure.
- No system yet can be completely secure. There are always vulnerabilities.
Even though Internet e-voting will present very difficult technological challenges, Internet e-voting is currently the most user-friendly way to conduct voting. Manual voting administered mostly in churches and schools on only one day of the year during limited hours puts a moat around fuller participation in our democratic republic. Voting is a drawbridge that is let down generally every other year when the townspeople are allowed inside the castle to be heard and then dismissed to go back to work. We’ve had enough of this.
A Barn Doesn’t Fall Down All at Once
Decay springs from natural causes—wind, weather, neglect, and time. A significant number of civilizations, empires, and cities that once thrived no longer exist or did not pass along the heritage they once had. Some we know from the structures or art they left behind. We don’t always know the cause of their decline. Few of them ended overnight. It took hundreds of years for the Roman Empire to finally succumb to roaming armies of Vandals, Goths, and Huns. Every civilization and system tends to decline. Read the British-American historian Niall Ferguson for insight into this process for modern civilization and commerce.
The barn metaphor is an idea that came from driving a beautiful stretch of US 259 going from Virginia into West Virginia. Because of the lack of flat land, many houses and farm structures dot the land along the road. Barns in various stages of decay pop up from time to time.
The decay scenario goes something like this. The purpose of the barn simply no longer exists. It may once have held animals or feed or hay—something used in the course of farm activities. But the process changed and the need for the barn no longer exists. The farmer doesn’t want to tear it down because there might be a future need for it. Some of the farms are not active any more. Most of the barns that catch the eye have little or no paint left on them—usually just bare clapboards. Tin roofs never painted turn to rust along with the nails holding them on before the sheets get twisted or blown off. Wind rips some panels off and the barn looks like a smile with a gap tooth. Many have vines growing up them, tugging the boards down. Finally they begin to cave in section by section.
Institutions made by man are the same way. We must maintain our democracy—keep the roof in repair and keep it in constant use; paint the siding. Voter participation declines in part because our lives and habits change, but our method of voting has stayed the same. The barn of our democracy needs repair. It needs a new roof. Let’s run some wiring to the barn so we can have light in there. Voting is a core structure in our democracy, and we need to revitalize it. Internet e-voting is the first step.
Partial Electronic Voting Already Taking Hold
To various degrees, municipalities already utilize some elements of electronic voting, e-voting. Every precinct tabulates ballots marked with pencil on paper, utilizing optical electronic scanning. Some localities have already begun to use a form of e-voting. Nevada County, California, has adopted eLect® software for its elections. The population of Nevada County is relatively small, so it will be a good test of this kind of system in a real election. Corporations rely on electronic voting to tabulate votes at annual meetings. Countless organizations rely on e-voting to avoid the cost of a paper election. Localities and private enterprises are already solving the technical problems of e-voting. From the website of everyonecounts.com:
Our eLect® Electronic Voting and eLect® Telephone Voting options give remote citizens more convenient, secure, and reliable ways to participate in an election from any location with telephone or Internet access. These voting methods increase accessibility for military and overseas voters and voters with disabilities, and are fully compliant with—and exceed the expectations of—United States federal laws such as the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens and Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), as well as similar laws established in countries outside of the U.S.
We must not be discouraged as we explore how best to implement Internet e-voting. Failures of invention haunted Thomas Edison, who famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Our nation believes in success through failure, when failing means that you are trying. Every failure masks the success waiting to be exposed. We must look beyond any systems that have failed, or fallen out of date, and find the ones that will succeed.
Who in 1900 believed man would one day fly over the ocean? Whenever a number of groups begin to work to solve a problem, a solution cannot be far behind. Every morning millions of citizens go to their job or avocation to discover new ideas, create new products, or find ways to make a process more efficient. Our nation resembles a reactor where we collide with each other through commerce and ideas. We give off an amazing energy that creates new kinds of communications, remedies for diseases, and new inventions. E-voting stands as just another challenge to be solved through our natural ingenuity and drive.
Internet E-voting Manhattan Project
To achieve Internet e-voting so that it meets all of the requirements of voting will take a huge concerted effort from a lot of directions. Just as the nation created the Manhattan Project during World War II for the development of the atomic bomb, we could pull together top talent from across the nation and even the world to create a working Internet e-voting system. Nothing is impossible in America, yet. We can never lose our nerve or courage or desire to travel to new frontiers.
Perhaps a prize for the solution to the Internet e-voting dilemma could be created. A successful example of a difficult problem resolved is called Brunelleschi’s Dome. Construction began in 1296 on the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy. In August 1418 the Arte della Lana (the Wool Guild of Florence) announced a competition for the design of the dome that would complete the church. Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi, two goldsmiths, were the primary competitors and named co-architects and builders. During the project, Brunelleschi feigned illness and Ghiberti took over direction but admitted he could not complete the work. It was Brunelleschi’s way of making sure that he actually got a chance to solve the problem by himself. But what does this have to do with e-voting? If a genius could be found to build a dome that even today remains mysterious—no one is certain how Brunelleschi actually did it—then we can find a group of people or one individual who can design an Internet e-voting solution that meets all of the requirements. Brunelleschi relied on his natural intelligence and insight, but he also needed an opportunity. We have a moment in time where that opportunity is opening. Mathematical tools for calculating stresses were centuries in the future. Masons completed the dome without the use of interior scaffolding. Sometimes the insight arrives first and the science catches up later, even because it has to.
As we will argue throughout this book, our nation contains a large number of very, very smart people. Another way of thinking about this is that the larger our country grows, the more people with innovative ideas we should have. In the past some of them might have been called geniuses. All of the answers can’t come from Congress alone. Professors from Rice University advised Travis County, Texas, (Austin) on requirements for a new voting system they were planning. We have pockets of academics who, if put together, could create requirements and designs for e-voting that would meet the requirements of secrecy, accuracy, and auditability. Perhaps engineers from private companies could also provide input by designing semiconductors or other equipment that only works for elections to keep them secure. The world will be newer tomorrow than it is today. We just need to make it so. Once Bruneschelli was awarded the opportunity, he made his contractors and artists innovate to meet the need. Perhaps government and private enterprise can create a Bell Laboratories of the twenty-first century for e-voting. We can make the sky come down closer than it is.
Additionally, if we want the convenience of e-voting and the infrastructure to support it, we will have to make other changes to the Constitution and to laws. Suppose that we reduce the demands on our voting systems in the future? Not all officials would be required to be elected on Tuesday after the first Monday in November. A lot of local elections could be handled on other months of the year. This would enable us to better utilize staff we will need to administer elections. Elections could be held during election “windows” so that voters could vote on weekends and at times when they are not so rushed. By the official election day, all voting would have to be concluded. Spreading out elections would save money and better utilize election resources. It is a given that more people would participate. The results would be kept secret and all results announced at the same time.
Perhaps not as exciting as staying up all night to see the results announced. But maybe more fair, and democratic.
We Cannot Live in Fear of Fraud
We live in a world of “e-danger.” We hear about it every day. A system or individual’s computer is hacked every hour. We also put ourselves at risk every time we get behind the wheel on the road. But the benefits of driving outweigh whatever dangers are inherent from driving. Internet e-voting is the same. One of the biggest fears is that someone evil wants to run the nation or the Congress so they develop a way to forge ballots electronically that leaves no audit trail. We could then lose our hard-won democracy. Such an argument believes that electronic voting cannot be kept secret, secure, and accountable. Some point out that to make e-voting auditable, then secrecy must be compromised. The problem of e-voting seems to some, at this moment, an intractable, unsolvable problem.
We’ve already mentioned a number of examples of intractable problems. Yet a man did walk on the moon. We cannot avoid or shy away from creating a solution because we think it’s too difficult. That sounds like an excuse. The vitality of the democratic process depends on keeping voting up-to-date. Difficult problems are put in our path to keep us on our toes. This could be our generation’s challenge, similar to cracking the Enigma code of Nazi Germany. Maybe some corporations or philanthropists could combine resources to create a twenty-first century Bletchley Park where the problem could be solved. There may be teams in separate locations around the nation working on the problem in competition with each other, a series of Bletchley Parks. There could be confidential Internet e-voting conventions where different teams show off their progress to other teams. Ideas could be exchanged and out of that potent mix could come the solutions we will need to ensure the continual progress of our republic, not just in e-voting, but in many areas. Several private corporations market solutions already around the world for similar processes. The solution may already exist; we just need to test it, adapt it, and embrace it.
E-voting Will Revitalize the Nation
We are in favor of e-voting. We are in favor of making it easier to vote. We are in favor of not waiting in line to vote. We are in favor of allowing more people to vote. We are in favor of more registered voters. Before we can begin to tackle some of the large problems facing us, we must enable Internet e-voting in its widest application.
Beyond the operation of Internet e-voting, to be discussed in the next chapter, e-voting will need to be accepted by the electorate. Some voters will need to be trained how to use a computer to enter their vote. Media and the commentators who focus almost exclusively on the problems and challenges we face will now have an opportunity to promote e-voting and offer their talents to the transition to e-voting. We will need a national civics lesson and training to show how to vote electronically. We must expect a transition phase over several years. E-voting may sound like an idea we just say yes to, but there will be hurdles getting millions of people to vote this way for the first time. But if we can build the Hoover Dam, the San Francisco Bay Bridge, and the Panama Canal, then this should be easily within our reach and not something to be avoided. E-voting offers the same kind of benefit as a bridge or canal by providing a more efficient way to get to a destination.
E-voting is so clear and so basic that it demands a permanent, far-reaching solution. The way we cast our votes can be improved upon and changed by creating a plan and implementing that plan through legal means already established. But it requires a Constitutional amendment, which means this change will require a lot of effort, since amendments are few and far between. But if a significant majority of the population wants a specific, identifiable change, the change can be implemented through focused efforts. E-voting has the potential to allow us to change the governance of our world from the comfort of a swanky coffee shop or from the Spartan surrounding of a homeless shelter in a church basement.
About The Fourth Branch of Government: We the People
After my campaign last season to fill Eric Cantor’s seat in Congress in Virginia’s 7th District, I realized that I was suddenly in a unique position. I had been thrust into the national spotlight momentarily, and it exposed me to thousands of people and ideas that I would normally have not been in contact with. It gave me a new perspective on our democracy, and unfortunately, the many problems that it faces.
In my “time off” back at the college, I began working on a book entitled “The 4th Branch of Government: We the People” with a writer colleague, Guy Terrell. The book will actually be published this June by Brandylane Publishers, and we are very excited about that. The book outlines a framework for dealing with our many problems, but within the Constitution, and using structures that we already have. This framework could help us do many things, from eliminating the Electoral College, to implementing e-voting.
There are many tools provided for us to use in updating our democracy that our Founders wisely provided to us. Supreme Court Justice Alito said very clearly that “Our job is to interpret the Constitution.” To put it another way, we have an obligation to make our constitution function in relationship to the complexities of the 21st century and beyond. The Fourth Branch of Government is about the freedom to amend, or call a constitutional convention, and to do the things that will benefit our democracy and invigorate the power of individual voters. This could mean many things, from expanding Congress, to mechanisms for citizen-driven legislation.
Each of the three branches currently have dysfunction, and are disconnected in important ways from the people. The Fourth Branch is a book, and a call, to bring democracy back to the people.
Jack Trammell is an award-winning author and poet whose credits include hundreds of articles and stories, and more than twenty books. A recent candidate for Congress in Eric Cantor’s seat, he has enjoyed a enjoying a 25-year career as an educator in the public schools and as a professor and researcher in higher education. His areas of expertise include social history, disability, education, government, American history, and creative writing. He was a long-time columnist for the Washington Times. His most recent books include a history of disability in America, and a historical Civil War Novella.
Guy Terrell earned an M.B.A. from George Mason University. Next, he attended Virginia Commonwealth University to update his technology skills and in the process earned an M.S. in Information Systems earning Dean’s Scholar Award. Learning is his passion. He has published some poetry and is a past President and Treasurer of the Poetry Society of Virginia. More recently he earned the Professional Project Management certification, PMP, to continue to work in technology areas. He is also a forward thinker about our nation and its future. He and Jack Trammell have written “The Fourth Branch of Government: We the People that will appear June, 2016 from Brandylane Publishers in Richmond, VA.”
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