‘The difference is staggering’: King County district forges ahead on smartphone voting

Mar 8, 2021, 8:31 AM | Updated: 11:08 am
King Conservation District, electronic voting, smartphone voting...
A King Conservation District mailer sent out to eligible voters. (MyNorthwest photo)
(MyNorthwest photo)

In 2020, the King Conservation District (KCD) pioneered an electronic, smartphone-enabled voting system for its Board Supervisor election. It’s giving that system another shot this year, while King County Elections mulls over possibilities for further expansion.

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The KCD operates as an environmental agency run by the state, spread across Seattle and 30 other cities. Its Board Supervisor election in 2021 features eight candidates, with voting open in King County between March 1 and March 23.

Eligible voters began receiving mailers last week, each with a QR code that directs people to the voting portal. Voters simply need to input their name and birthdate, select their preferred candidate, and then sign their ballot.

While the voting portal was first rolled out during last year’s KCD election, the mailers this year represent a first both in King County and the rest of the country.

“KCD is the first in the country out of 2,500 jurisdictions, the first in the entire country to have done that,” Democracy Live President Bryan Finney told MyNorthwest.

Democracy Live works with thousands of jurisdictions across the country, supporting 21 states, but focuses mainly on providing support for secure electronic balloting portals for men and women fighting overseas, as well as the blind and disabled community. For KCD, its own needs for electronic voting were due largely to what it describes as an “archaic” state law.

“We are really limited in this election because of an old state regulation that says the election has to take place in the first quarter of the year, that prevents it from showing up on the regular ballot [in November],” KCD Executive Director Cynthia Setel said. “We’re doing the best we can given our constraints, but we are limited.”

That’s where the idea for electronic voting came in, providing an affordable, accessible means to encourage voter engagement for what’s traditionally been an extremely low-turnout affair.

In 2019 — the last year KCD primarily used paper ballots — website malfunctions and a typo on ballots that listed an incorrect end-date for the election saw just 3,448 out of over 1.2 million eligible voters request and then send in a ballot. The first year it used electronic voting in 2020, that number nearly doubled, ballooning to 6,244 total voters.

“We learned last time, people love submitting electronically,” King County Elections Chief of Staff Kendall Hodson said. “For a lot of folks, they really like this.”

“The difference is quite staggering,” Setel agreed.

How it works

This particular electronic system is actually nearly identical to the state’s standard paper ballot system.

“For us, this process looks just like our process does for a regular election,” Hodson described. “The voter accesses their ballot online, and they send it back to us electronically, but we’re still printing that ballot, we’re still verifying that signature, and then running it through the same tabulation system we would use for any other election.”

“The tabulation also happens in about 400 square feet of our second floor at our secure headquarters in Renton,” Hodson added. “Nothing’s counted offsite like it would be in a voting booth.”

Essentially, the only thing that’s different is the initial electronic vote. But once that vote is cast, King County Elections physically prints it out, verifies the signature against Department of Licensing records, transfers the tabulation to an air-gapped machine not connected to the internet, and then finally, uploads that to a flash drive used to transmit the final results.

“This is really a paper-based document transmission system,” Finney said. “At the end of the day, there’s going to be a paper ballot involved. It’s simply storing a document — in this case that document happens to be a ballot — in a federally approved cloud environment.”

That cloud environment has been approved “by literally every federal agency,” Finney notes, including the FBI, Homeland Security, and the CIA.

Is there a future for electronic voting in King County?

For KCD, electronic voting was largely implemented out of necessity, given that the state doesn’t allow it to hold its election as part of the standard November ballot. But for King County and Democracy Live, it’s a useful test run for a system that could help safely expand voting in a number of ways.

Where it could be especially useful is for Washington’s military and overseas voters, two-thirds of whom already access their ballot online and send it in via email. A system like the one KCD is trying out could help streamline that process without sacrificing security.

Already, King County has had preliminary discussions about a potential expansion “to pilot something and see what that looks like.”

However, after an election cycle where concerns over voter fraud and election security — however unfounded — took center stage, the road toward building public trust will likely be a long one. That’s what makes smaller-scale implementations like what KCD is doing that much more important.

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“I think we’re still a ways away from the public being comfortable with any sort of true online voting mechanism, but this is how we start — we try things out, see how they work, and then decide whether or not we’re ready to expand it,” Hodson said.

“We try to go off-Broadway before you go on-Broadway,” Finney added.

You can check out more information on KCD’s Board Supervisor election here.

Questions, comments, or feedback? Follow Nick Bowman on Twitter at @NickNorthwest to weigh in, or reach him by email at [email protected]

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‘The difference is staggering’: King County district forges ahead on smartphone voting