I know it will come as a shock to you as a reader of the news, but there is an election this week. Well, tomorrow actually.
It’s the rare election where the logistics of the election itself seem to be increasingly dominating the discussion. Not since the Florida recount of 2000 have pollsters, analysts and party lawyers been so fixated on the mechanics of ballots. Which ballots will be counted? Will the Post Office deliver mail in time? How many drop-off boxes are authorized by county? Will the voting machines leave an auditable paper trail?
Voting in America is a complex affair — while presidential elections are national in scope, the actual logistics of ballots and votes are decided locally: not just state by state, but often also county by county. That can create huge variation in the systems at play — but it also means that a small county in rural Mississippi can be a test case for the rest of the nation in how to get voting done right.
That’s at least what VotingWorks is banking on.
VotingWorks is a non-partisan, nonprofit startup that graduated from YC in its winter batch last year with the twin goals of improving the technology that underpins elections through more affordable and secure voting systems as well as using modern statistical science to improve the quality and efficiency of voter audits. The nonprofit scoured the country looking for a testbed, and eventually found Choctaw County in Mississippi, a rural jurisdiction just shy of 10,000 residents who were willing to try VotingWorks’ system in their election.
Matt Pasternack, who along with Ben Adida co-founded the organization, said that the existing voting machines there were “ancient” and didn’t have a paper audit trail. “We found one county that was so eager to get rid of these ancient machines that they said, ‘Yes, we want to, we want to use this new thing you guys are building,’ ” Pasternack said.
What VotingWorks built is quite competitive. First, the company used existing hardware rather than designing custom-built hardware that can be extraordinarily costly given that the machines are rarely used in the U.S., which has quadrennial elections for many offices. Second, the organization’s software is posted as open source on GitHub. That made the machines more open and verifiable than competitors, and also available at a lower price point.
Pasternack and Adida met while working together at Clever, the API middleware platform that today could be dubbed the “Plaid of education,” designed to help app developers connect to the data stored in hundreds of student information systems. Pasternack noted that he was employee number one, and the two talked about politics and elections over the years and eventually saw an opportunity to enter the market with the 2018 midterms.
The team went through YC in early 2019. With Choctaw County’s push to replace their machines, VotingWorks managed to get its machines in their hands by August for the November 2019 election, when statewide offices, including the governor and attorney general, were up for election. The machines were used in 13 precincts.
Adida said that the company moved very fast, but the in-field experience was crucial for improving their machines. He noted that one thing the crew learned is that on election day, poll workers have to set up each machine in the morning before the first rush of voters. The speed of setup is crucial for getting poll places ready, and so VotingWorks optimized how many steps were involved in setting up each ballot machine. “With our machines, you put it on a table, you pop open the case, and you run the checklist. It takes about two-to-three minutes, compared to 30 [minutes] … and so the poll workers were raving about it,” he said.
Pasternack also added that in a rural county like Choctaw, power constraints added their own complexity. Precincts could be remarkably underpowered, and too many voting machines on one electrical circuit could blow out the entire precinct — preventing anyone from voting.
Since then, the organization’s technology has expanded to about 10% of Mississippi counties, partly driven by the need this year for color printing technology. The state is voting on changing its state flag to remove the imprint of the Confederate flag, and voters have to see the new flags in color on the ballot. Pasternack said that their on-demand printing technology is both efficient and much more affordable per ballot.
Mississippi's Existing Flag and proposed new flag that will be on the state's ballot tomorrow. Images via Wikipedia. New flag credited on Wikipedia to Rocky Vaughn, Sue Anna Joe and Kara Giles.
Outside of the machines, the organization is building up its audit software to make audits more statistically accurate and cheaper to conduct, and also developing systems for processing absentee ballots better. Each of these technologies work independently of one another — Adida stressed that “An important trait of a modern voting system is that it's modular. You can use our auditing system with any standard tabulator. You absolutely don’t need to be using VotingWorks.” Its tech is now used in several additional states in addition to Mississippi, including crucial swing states Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The nonprofit has a critical day tomorrow, but then the future beckons. With so much focus on election logistics this year, the hope is that more counties and states will begin to think through better, more robust systems to operate their elections. “We want a world where the foundation of democracy is publicly owned, so having open-source software shepherded by a nonprofit organization — it feels like a better democracy to me,” Adida said.