Jefferson says online voting just isn’t safe, and that he’s more convinced of that today than he was 15 years ago. If hackers can steal data from Home Depot, there’s no reason they couldn’t pilfer it from election officials. And voting online is far more complicated than buying a pair of shoes, requiring security and privacy that aren’t necessary in an e-commerce transaction.
That's where an approximately 2,000-year-old technology comes in: paper.
"Paper based balloting may feel old fashioned, but in many ways it’s the most modern and reliable system that we have," said Doug Chapin, director of Future of California Elections.
David Jefferson echoes the sentiment, calling paper “the bedrock for security in any election."
Chapin said paper ballots made a comeback in the last decade. He said after the 2000 presidential election, it looked like the state would go the other way, investing hundreds of millions of dollars to identify and purchase new voting equipment.
"Many jurisdictions used those funds to buy direct recording electronic or touchscreen machines," Chapin said.
Those machines were paid for, in large part, with money from 2002’s Help America Vote Act. But their design made it hard, if not impossible, to audit their accuracy. In other words, critics said that no one knew if votes were being counted the way they were really cast.
After Debra Bowen was elected Secretary of State in 2006, she ordered a “top-to-bottom-review” of electronic voting systems.
“In response to concerns about the security and auditability of those touchscreen machines, Secretary Bowen actually made them essentially illegal to use,” Chapin said.
Little has changed since. All but two of California’s 58 counties relied primarily on paper ballots for 2014’s primary, according to the Secretary of State. In the Bay Area, only San Mateo County still uses an electronic system for all voters at polling places, and that system leaves a paper record. (All polling places in the state have at least one electronic voting machine for voters with disabilities and anyone who prefers to use one.)
State lawmakers haven’t approved money for system-wide changes.
“There’s a very natural tendency of incumbents to view any potential change to elections -- whether it’s law or procedure or technology -- through the lens of ‘How does it change my prospects for reelection based on my experience last time?’” Chapin said.
Palo Alto’s Open Source Elections Technology Foundation looks at elections through a different lens.
“Innovation is a very nice way of saying change,” says OSET’s Greg Miller, a veteran of Apple and Netscape. The group seeks to bring Silicon Valley thinking to elections; its online registration tool is already in use in Virginia.
“Why is it that it’s easier for me to get on board an airplane than it is to cast a ballot?” Miller asked.
“Why couldn’t I have essentially a boarding pass-like experience that could allow me -- from home -- to check in with my polling place? And then I only need to show up with that piece of paper that I printed out, that they could scan and say ‘Boom, you’re ready to go.’” Miller said.
Miller and Co-Executive Director John Sebes also raised the possibility of "vote centers," where voters won’t be tied to a single polling place. The concept of a polling place may have less currency in an era when astronauts can vote from space.
For now, OSET is working on technology that counties can adapt into existing systems. The group’s electronic voting systems that will leave a paper record of each voter’s ballot -- similar to a model under development in L.A County. OSET’s software is open source, so anyone can peek under the hood and make sure it’s reliable.
Developers could build apps from the system, Miller added, like one that can tell you the length of the wait at your polling place.
“Once you get a piece of technology out there, you’ll be amazed at what people come up with,” he said.
And there’s room for improvement in California. A Pew Charitable Trusts report ranked California’s election process 48th out of 50 states. That report says the state could integrate data about voters who have moved or died into its systems. That could cut down on the number of provisional ballots cast on Election Day by voters who can’t be identified.
And identifying voters could become simpler with technology. That could include biometrics, such as fingerprints, to verify ballots. Mexico and the Philippines have already incorporated biometrics into their voting process.
But San Jose State researcher James Wayman said biometrics are unlikely to be used in U.S. elections any time soon. They may violate current election law, and they’re imperfect: fingerprints can smudge, for example.
“Sounds to me like were asking for an additional set of problems," he said, "and it's not clear that we would solve any current issue in the California voting system.”
Absent a crisis, change will come slow, said Doug Chapin, especially since many politicians don’t appreciate all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into an election.
“I think elected officials seem to think that elections, because they’re on the calendar, are going to continue to happen,” he said.