How Treating Voting Like a Business Could Actually Improve It
What we can learn from Colorado's voting industry and ecosystem
It should come as no surprise that voter turnout and participation in the United States is dismal. On average, the number of eligible voters that cast a ballot in each election is barely reaching above 50% across the country. And while strides are being made to change this, we still have a long way to go, and Colorado is leading the charge.
In recent election cycles, Colorado (and Denver) have consistently boasted some of the highest voter turnouts in the country. In the 2018 midterm election, the state was ranked at No.2, second only to Minnesota, with 61.9% of eligible voters casting a ballot. This is according to the United States Election Project.
One of the main reasons for this uptick is Amber McReynolds, the former director of elections for the City and County of Denver who now serves as executive director of the National Vote at Home Institute. During her 13-year tenure as director of elections, McReynolds made a number of changes to improve voter experience.
This included adopting Ballot TRACE, a tracking system for mail-in voters; a new voting system using scanners, printers and touchscreen tablets; a risk-limiting audit to validate election results; and was key in requiring that ballots be mailed to all registered voters and that voters can register through election day. Not only did these measures increase participation, it decreased the cost-per voter at the state level.
The other reason for the uptick is also the voting ecosystem that exists in the state, which also could have something to do with McReynolds’ efforts. McReynolds brought this discussion, and part of the ecosystem this week to Denver Startup Week. She was joined in discussion by Vance Brown, the CEO of the Colorado Springs-based National CyberSecurity Center (NCC), which is looking into the security of new technologies to improve voting and election systems; and John Poulos, the CEO of Denver-headquartered Dominion Voting Systems, which is one of the largest providers of voting system technology in the world.
The discussion centered around the ways that voting could be improved if it was treated more like a business — with major improvements made to customer (voter) experience, technological innovation and the introduction of training and funding streams.
Improving Customer (Voter) Experience
For McReynolds, changing the dialogue around voting and election systems starts with treating the voter as a customer. “We have an engagement and turnout problem in the U.S., we need better policy and technology to engage with and make it easier for voters,” McReynolds says. “Election policy and administration must be about who votes not who wins.”
One of the main problems being that elections are currently run by officials that were just elected by the system that needs fixing, which isn’t exactly motivating. Plus, they’re generally underfunded, so even if they do recognize problems with elections, it is not made a priority.
“We have to think about who the customers are and the voters are our customers,” Brown says. So, NCC is meeting voters where they are — their phones. The organization has begun researching and looking into mobile elections as a way to make it easier (and more accessible) to vote.
The actual adoption of such programs, Brown says, will come down to security and transparency, which is what it is addressing through its research and pilots. Using email and blockchain applications, NCC has doubled the participation of overseas voters — the national average is 6-7% for overseas participation — in its mobile voting pilot program.
Another lesson from business that election officials can use to improve customer experience is collaboration. McReynolds made it a point during her terms to build an advisory board and commission with stakeholders from the Denver elections office, political parties, chambers of commerce, the business community as well as technology vendors.
“When you approach it in a collaborative way, you can better create and advocate for policy that improves the voter experience, but also bring new ideas and stakeholders to the table,” McReynolds says, adding that from there “[Colorado] improved our policies and our processes around elections, and then we built technology to support it.”
Increasing Election Professionalism
Another large problem facing election offices is the lack of professionalism, according to McReynolds. There are over 8,000 local election offices in the country, services a wide size range in terms of delivery and jurisdiction, so “professionalism and training on what elections look like, matters quite a bit,” she says.
Currently, there are only limited providers of election training and only two universities that offer election administration degrees — when there are tens of thousands of professionals working in the industry. On top of that, there is no real supply of data analytics for managing, consuming and analytics election data to make the process of voting better for the customer.
“We have to figure out a way to elevate the training, the resources, the implementation and support for local election officials,” McReynolds says.
Introducing a Funding Stream
One of the main reasons elections are not subject to the innovation, workforce training and customer service that elevates every other business industry and market sector is funding.
“When we think about [elections] as a business, you have to create a sustainable funding stream to make sure that technology stays up to date, make sure that all [these improvements] happen,” McReynolds says. “The other thing about it is, as it relates to a business, there's a lot of waste in how elections are run.”
McReynolds highlighted that while yes, having a dedicated funding stream would make all these improvements possible; the improvements themselves could actually save money in the long-run. “We created more of a sustainable way for elections to be conducted without adding costs,” she says.