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How software engineers can save the election

Hack Reactor

How software engineers can save the election

By Kevin Juhasz for Hack Reactor

On September 26, 1960, WBBM-TV in Chicago did something that had never been done before – they televised the first-ever presidential debate. Candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy faced off in a match that some believe was a turning point, where technology had an influence on an election.

Nixon was still pale and thin after a recent stay in the hospital for a knee that became infected after he injured it. He wore a suit that blended in with the background. He refused to wear makeup. The stubble on his face was noticeable to the 66 million people who watched that night, as was the sweat that eventually began to appear on his brow. Nixon’s own mother called him after the debate concerned because he looked so sick.

There’s debate over whether or not the televised debate made a difference, but it was soon after that Nixon lost his lead in the polls to Kennedy, who looked young, handsome, and refreshed for the event. Regardless, that technology forever changed the way elections are run.

Now with a pandemic causing chaos and uncertainty over the upcoming elections, there is more talk about how technology is playing a role in elections. The use of technology isn’t anything new to campaigning, but it’s starting to play a much bigger role in 2020. Stay-at-home orders and restrictions on crowd size have stripped the candidates of their ability to meet with people face-to-face.

Campaign rallies have been a staple of elections for almost as long as there have been elections, and President Donald Trump has made effective use of them. Hilary Clinton’s losses in key battleground states were partly attributed to her decision not to visit. Vice President Joe Biden, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, is using technology such as virtual rallies in an attempt to connect with voters he cannot meet. Trump continues to reach his base via Twitter, which he has effectively used since his 2016 campaign.

On the voting side, technology will have an even bigger impact than it has in the past, said Jeff Ellington, Chief Operating Officer of Runbeck Elections Services. The company provides mail-in ballot equipment and technology services for cities and states across the United States. 

“Since March, Runbeck has seen the coronavirus immediately impact primaries,” Ellington said. “Election officials wanted to mitigate any health dangers posed to poll workers and in-person voters who would be at higher risk for exposure to coronavirus.”

Ellington added that states are looking at mail-in balloting for the general election in November. Mail-in ballots have met with some questions about integrity, which is an area that Runbeck says the industry is working to mitigate.

“Technology is the key to ensure registered voters that their ballot, which would be returned by mail instead of personally completing and turning in at the polls, is being received and tabulated,” Ellington explained. “Educating voters so they understand the data-driven tracking of every ballot to each registered along with the audit process is invaluable.”

This is where software engineers come into the picture. Although technology is commonly related to online voting, Ellington said, it plays a huge part in bringing integrity to mail-in ballots with database syncs and signature verification.

“We have software engineers on staff at Runbeck who not only continually improve our current software, but also develop innovative programs based on the needs of jurisdictions,” Ellington said. “Our engineers are the core of our products—plain and simple. They develop advanced solutions which we use in our equipment and programs. Additionally, they work with any of our manufacturing and development partners to ensure seamless integration.”

Software engineers are also critical to providing cybersecurity and audit trails for transparency of the process, he added.

“Technology has impacted elections directly with the increased use of cybersecurity,” Ellington said. “Data management has always been an essential part of vote-by-mail, and it has become more complex and now requires a higher level of data management personnel. Technology ‘saves’ elections every year with audits, testing, and allowing for more transparency. 

As far as voting, it’s unlikely that the country will see online voting become the norm. West Virginia allowed overseas voters to use an app to vote in the 2018 mid-terms, and they’ll allow online voting for disabled people this fall. Delaware recently became the second state to allow it, also for voters who cannot risk a trip to the polls.

There is already evidence that Russia was able to access voting systems in the 2016 election, but no evidence of tampering. Still, this shows that there is the possibility for tampering, and that has a lot of states backing off to avoid accusations of a tainted election. Mail-in ballots, however, are seeing a huge rise in popularity. Ellington thinks this will only continue and have an impact on the way candidates campaign.

“As more states and counties move to expand or implement vote-by-mail programs, we will see millions of more voters continuing to vote-by-mail in future elections rather than going to the polls, “ he explained. “This may affect timelines for elections officials and candidates as voters are able to cast their ballots earlier than on election day. The impact has already been seen in 2020 by the increase in the number of registered voters due to the ease of signing up for vote-by-mail.”

To make all this work, however, time is of the essence.

“The longer that jurisdictions hesitate to implement or expand vote-by-mail, the more challenging it will be,” Ellington said. “Not planning carefully can result in unforeseen problems. If jurisdictions can schedule their election production calendars and implementation of new technology with election solution providers, then this greatly increases our industry’s capacity to meet the need.”