Commentary: Make Your Vote Count Even More

By Debra D'Agostino  |  Posted 08-11-2006

As I conducted interviews for this month's story on e-voting, I asked all my sources a straightforward question: "Is there anything technologists can do to help shore up the vulnerabilities (technological, procedural or otherwise) of e-voting?" I expected the answers to be pretty obvious: Write Congress, join online debates and so on. The nearly unanimous response, however, was one I didn't anticipate: Volunteer as a poll worker.

Poll workers are in scant supply. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Committee, election districts need about 2 million total volunteers to successfully conduct elections—but they're lucky to get half that. And considering the rollout of so many new electronic systems across the nation, technologists are particularly well suited to take on the job: The current average age of all poll workers is 72, according to the EAC, and that means most of them probably wouldn't have a clue what to do in the event of a computer malfunction.

As part of his research into the security issues surrounding e-voting, Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of the forthcoming book, Brave New Ballot, volunteered as a poll worker in his home state of Maryland. "It's a terrific idea, and pretty easy for technologists to learn how elections work," he says. For those who want to engage in the discussion but are unable to volunteer, consider getting involved in one of the many task forces committed to this issue, such as Verified Voting.org, VoteTrust USA.org and the National Committee for Voting Integrity, a special project organized by the Electronic ­Privacy Information Center.

To put my money where my mouth is, I recently filed an application to become a poll worker in New York City. The requirements are generally the same no matter where you live. You must be a registered voter in the district to which you apply (call your state board of elections for information). Volunteers also undergo a training program before they can assist people at the polls (in New York City, it's a three-hour class, complete with exam). And volunteers are often paid for their efforts; in New York City, workers receive $200. Hardly impressive considering that volunteers work more than 15 hours on election day. But hey, this is for democracy, not capitalism.

As new forms of e-voting machines are adopted, technologists have a unique opportunity to offer their expertise in a very worthy cause. It's a small effort, but one that can have a great impact on the success of future elections—and the health of our democracy.