What a week! There has been an enormous amount of press coverage, both domestically and internationally, about the implications of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States. I do not think they can be overstated. This election is a testament to the ideals of this country and the power of empassioned masses. While I am a registered Independent, and prefer to keep my politics out of my regular dialogues, the avid traveler in me cannot help but feel great about the universal refrain of support and acknowledgement from every corner of the globe. I am quite hopeful in a period that only offers bleak challenges.
Amongst many of President Obama’s policies, one that particularly resonated was the call to upgrade and improve our infrastructure. Obama’s use of technology has been well documented, from his campaigns online to his engagement with Facebook audiences to his mass SMS message to campaign volunteers acknowledging their work before delivering his acceptance speech. I believe this country has not come close to generating the efficiencies possible by leveraging the latest information technology. Nowhere was this more evident than at the voting booth where I cast my vote.
On an electrifying Tuesday morning, rather than casting my absentee vote, I walked over to the Prince Georges Hotel on 28th Street in Manhattan to cast my vote in person. The line rounded the corner, but this was my day to participate in all this country offers. I waited patiently for an hour before getting inside. When I entered the hotel, I felt like I had been thrown back centuries. I was greeted by a woman who had a crumpled up piece of paper with handwritten numbers, which would identify which machine I would stand in line to vote from. These numbers were misaligned and looked like chicken scratch. She directed me to the line for “12”.
The line for “12” overlapped with the lines for “28”, “51”, “13”, and others. They wound and zigzagged around each other in a swirling mess. Once I got to the front, I was greeted by a woman who checked my ID and pointed me towards a booth. The booth itself was enormous. Twice the size of those usual “Polaroid” photo booths that you would take pictures in as a kid at an amusement park. Inside this big, old grey piece of metal were columns for the candidates. Next to the names were manual black knobs. At the bottom of this machine was a massive (3 foot long) rusted red lever. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, and still uncertain after reading the three point instruction at the top. Turns out you have to take this massive lever and push it all the way to the right. Then you had to turn each manual knob counter clockwise for the candidates you wanted. And when you were done, you pulled the lever all the way to the left again. After that, you stood there and hoped something happened. There was no feedback, no click, no guidance. I walked out scratching my head, until another woman came over, pulled some other lever in the back to reset the machine for the next person. It somehow implicitly validated I did something. Nothing about the registration of my vote was tied in the machine to who I was (ie, did I vote?). Maybe some manual reconciliation happens afterwards. And I couldn’t tell how this machine could possibly do anything but offer very high level total calculations via an internal abacus. All in all, this machine could have easily been built in the era of the Guttenberg press back in the 1400s.
My tiny experience at the voting booth could have gone radically different, and generated massive savings all around. The first issue that struck me was the opportunity for human error. From the first woman and her hand written notes, to the swirling chaotic lines, to the archaic machine, each of these had material >5% chance of errors, especially in light of the volumes of people. Compounded, it could lead to material errors in votes – the fundamental priviledge of our citizenhood! Second, there is a huge manual effort that could be entirely eliminated by using a modern booth as available in select other states. No counting votes, or manually inputting data into computers, it would happen instantaneously. This could lead to substantive savings if implemented in a standardized manner on a national basis. Third, while safeguarding the privacy and sanctity of the actual vote, is the opportunity to take the information from these machines to understand and improve our democratic process.
Technology cannot cure all ails. It is not magic. But if used effectively it can transform how we leverage and process information. This little example is one of an infinite number of inefficiencies that exist within our government. Even the smallest of focus on these can lead to substantive productivity and cost improvements that can go towards any number of the major issues facing the country. I am hopeful our new President elect will push the drive to modernizing our state.