Washington HAVA Testimony[Testimony of Rob Richie before the Washington State Help America Vote Act (HAVA) Planning Commission]
Dear Members, Washington Help America Vote Act Planning Commission,
Thank you for considering my testimony about the importance of protecting and enhancing Washington’s prospective investment in new voting equipment.
I am executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a non-partisan, non-profit educational organization that studies the American electoral process. The Center is supported by individuals and foundations, including the Ford Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and the Open Society Institute. Former Congressman John B. Anderson is our president. I had the good fortune to live in Washington for three years when I was a child and then again for two years in the early 1990s and care deeply about the state.
Your committee will have an important role in improving Washington elections in many important respects. We have opinions about a range of issues, but I would like to focus on one particular concern: ensuring that new voting equipment has the flexibility to allow Washington jurisdictions to consider modern electoral systems such as choice voting and instant runoff voting which are gaining increased attention around the country. We believe this is both an important issue in itself and one that is valuable to consider in light of insights it may provide about other potential equipment standards: in general, the best time to require standards is before a competitive bidding process rather than after new voting equipment is purchased.
Instant runoff voting is a ranked-choice voting system for one-seat office elections. Interest in instant runoff voting is growing rapidly, with at least 20 states now considering legislation to implement it for some level of election. Recommended by Robert's Rules of Order, instant runoff voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of choice, rather than select just one. San Francisco last year adopted instant runoff voting to replace traditional runoff elections, which will save the city millions of dollars each year. Louisiana uses instant runoff voting for its overseas absentee ballots, while Utah Republicans nominate congressional candidates at their state convention with the system.
Choice voting is a similar ranked-choice electoral system used in at-large elections or in multi-seat districts. Choice voting for years was the preferred voting in the Model City Charter of the National Civic League, and just last year was reaffirmed as an option in the Model Charter. A number of cities around the nation -- including Cincinnati, Cleveland, New York, Sacramento and Toledo -- have used choice voting, while in recent years charter commissions and election task forces have recommended its adoption in places such as Pasadena (CA), San Francisco (CA) and Kalamazoo (MI).
There are both arguments for and against adoption of these ranked-choice systems, but I strongly believe they are credible enough approaches that Washington should preserve the option for jurisdictions to consider them. The main reason that these systems are not used more often in the United States is that until a few years ago, their use required counting ballots by hand. That has changed with new voting equipment. The Republic of Ireland and the Massachusetts city of Cambridge currently use choice voting on modern voting equipment (the former with touchscreens, the latter with optical scan), but it is very important to specify to election system vendors that any new equipment come with the capacity to use a ranked-choice system to avoid future costs.
The Federal Election Commissions new Voting System Standards, (which are available at www.fec.gov/pages/vssfinal/vss.html) already require vendors to specify whether and how its system can implement ranked order voting [Volume 1 of the standards, Section 126.96.36.199 (n)]. The clearest way to ensure equipment compatibility is the following language:
"All new voting systems purchased or leased shall be able to implement ranked order voting in the first election in which the equipment is used."
We believe this language would ensure the vendor would not demand additional time and money to modify software or hardware if a jurisdiction sought to use a ranked choice system. We also do not think it would add anything to the costs of new voting equipment and software. Among the reasons are:
First, all major vendors report that they are ready to implement instant runoff voting. Most have already bid for contracts in which it was required, such as in the Republic of Ireland and Santa Clara County (CA).
Second, the key requirement for rank-order voting compatibility is to store ballot images meaning storing each voters individual rankings, rather than aggregate totals. Touch screen equipment (DRE's) and most central optical scanners already store ballot images. Any needed software modifications to output a file of rankings would be minor.
Third, Cambridge (MA) was able to purchase optical scan equipment seven years ago in which the total cost of making those machines able to implement two coinciding ranked-choice elections was $40,000 – a one time cost that was not dependent on the size of the jurisdiction. (See attached letter from the City of Cambridge.)
Fourth, when competing for a contract, a vendor has every incentive to avoid passing onto one jurisdiction the costs for a feature that it can use elsewhere. With more and more jurisdictions exploring ranked-choice systems, vendors know that having its equipment and software be ready to implement these systems could help it compete for other contracts. An example of this free-market principle is provided by the February 2003 debate in Santa Clara County (CA), where the County decided late in the process to require a voter-verified paper receipt to its touch screen system. All three finalist vendors quickly stated that they could add the paper receipt at no additional cost to the county.
But if a jurisdiction waits to add provisions until after already investing heavily in new hardware, it becomes a captive customer, totally dependent on its vendor for any upgrades of software. In such a case, we believe vendors will charge the jurisdiction for all costs associated with adapting its equipment. Requiring flexibility for ranked-choice systems, and indeed other qualities such as a voter-verified paper trail, is a classic case of a stitch in time saving nine in this case a good deal more.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Rob Richie, Executive Director
The Center for Voting & Democracy
6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 610
Takoma Park, MD 20912
"Make Your Vote Count!"