Lori Steele Contorer
Using Modern Technology to Legitimize Elections
TEDxSanDiego 2015

We live in extraordinarily innovative times. Think about DNA sequencing. You can today determine if years from now you’re going to get an illness. Think about self-driving cars. Today, individuals have drones, not just governments and military.

Ten years ago, we sent a robot 150 million miles away and it landed within a football field of where we wanted it to. You’d imagine that in days like today, every mission critical industry in the world is using modern technology to make sure what they’re doing is as good as it could be.

In fact, that’s not the case. You remember hanging chads? Butterfly ballots? Sadly, the most important business processes in the world are not using technology. That matters. It matters for a lot of reasons.
You’ll remember 2000. Our president was elected, not by the people, but by the Supreme Court of the United States. Regardless of which side of that argument you are on, in fact, it’s not okay to not have ballots elect the president. In other countries, it’s worse.

In other countries, Afghanistan for example, in some jurisdictions, there are more people who said that they voted than there are ballots that were counted. In other parts of Afghanistan, there are more ballots in the ballot box than there were registered voters. That’s the problem with paper ballots.

In Haiti, you wait in line for hours to make sure that you have a say in who’s going to be elected. You want a legitimate regime. On your way home from work, you see ballots floating through the streets. Poll stations were ransacked. Ballots were dumped on the streets and never counted. Paper ballots are not a good idea.

In Mexico, ballots are set on fire, full ballot boxes. People have no way to know, with paper ballots, whether or not their election was legitimate.

In Kenya, it’s worse. People wait in line, in spite of the violent politics all around them, because they want to be counted. People are massacred at polling places. Voting in person, by paper manually, is not a good idea.

You’ve heard this before in life. It’s called the Big Lie. Remember when cigarettes were good for your health? You’ll be sexy. You’ll be skinny. You’ll have a clearer throat.

Remember how absolutely certain we were that sub-prime mortgages were riskless? That your house was an endless cash machine? “Trust me, we know how this works. You’ll be fine, and paper ballots are secure, accurate and reliable.”

Remember we sent a robot 150 million miles to Mars, and yet this is how you’re told to securely vote. Vote by mail was invented by Abraham Lincoln. Yes, that Abraham Lincoln.

He did it because he wanted the Civil War soldiers to be able to vote. That was innovation, 150 years ago. Do any of you know how soldiers today vote from Afghanistan? By mail. It’s required by law. How many of those ballots do you think got back in time to be counted on Election Day?

I know a lot of election officials throughout the world. There is no one who cares more about the integrity of elections and the validity of your vote, but they’re given processes and tools from 150 years ago, to process, arguably, the most important business process in our world.

It matters not just in the United States. It matters globally. There are people who are risking their lives every day to ensure that their vote counts.

Women who never had the right to vote, youth who didn’t care because they knew nothing could change, are risking their lives daily to say not only, “I want to vote that counts,” but to say, “I want to be sure it was accurately counted. I want to know that my leadership was actually elected.”

Remember the first Iraq election and all of the women and people, in general, with the purple fingers. That was a really game-changing period. Those people risked their lives to ensure that they could elect their leaders.

At the time, I wasn’t thinking much about voting, but I looked into these women’s eyes and I saw that, in that moment, they believed they mattered. They did something that affected their future, their community’s future and their country’s future.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen a lot of cases where, when someone knows they matter, they think bigger, they imagine what they could do and then they do something big.

I’m fortunate. When I was a little girl, my mom told me that I could do anything I wanted in life. I’m pretty sure she meant I could manage the grocery store down the street, but that’s not what I heard. I’m from a small town in Ohio.

That’s not what I heard. What I heard is, “You can do anything.” I became an investment manager. During that period of the purple fingers, I was speaking at a United Nations conference on technology.
It happens to be a huge UN conference where all of the great minds in technology are there talking about how they’re changing the world. It’s a really cool thing.

Strangely this year, or coincidentally, it happened to be the week that Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected in California, in a statewide recall election, as the governor. At the time, that was shocking to most people. At the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger was thought of as a bodybuilder and an actor. He was The Terminator.

Everyone in this conference- imagine, it’s in Switzerland, next to Austria where he grew up as a bodybuilder- was talking about elections. They were talking about voting.

I kept thinking, because it was the same period of the women with the purple fingers and hanging chad and butterfly ballots and recall elections and saying, “People care. If people care, important things can happen, but we have to do something to make sure that they know that, in fact, their vote counts.”

I started talking to the people at the conference, “Mr. Online Banking, Mr. Defense, Miss Online Commerce, what you do is a lot like voting. It’s authentication. It’s data. It’s security. You should think about doing something with elections. It’s important.”

“Aren’t you cute? No.” I thought, “Wow.” The other thing I was told as a little girl is, if there’s a problem and you aren’t part of the solution, you’re in fact part of the problem.

I started thinking about how I could try to make this democracy thing work better. I brought together a team of internationally recognized election administration experts and technology experts, because you can’t just throw technology at a problem and expect that it’s going to solve it. You have to deeply understand the problem.

We came together and we began to change the way the world votes. The people who tell you that paper ballots are secure and accurate and reliable will also tell you that technology can’t happen in elections. It’s too important, unlike DNA sequencing and sending robots to the moon.

We started to do something about it. There is proven success using technology in elections. In 2007, we did a Vote Anywhere election, where people could vote from home on their phones, in polling places on PCs, anywhere in the world on a PC, and every polling place was opened to everyone.

It was the first election in history where public key infrastructure was used to encrypt ballots. In fact, it’s proven that you can increase accuracy and security in elections while increasing participation.
We did the same thing in Australia for the military in 2007. Military were able to vote privately and independently and know that their ballots got back electronically, in time to be counted.

We continued that throughout the United States, and then in 2009, we had the first ever all-digital election. People could vote by phone. They could vote by PC.

A woman called and told us that, her entire life, she has had to have her sister fill out her ballot for her because she’s blind. Paper, by the way, is not accessible. That day, she voted for the first time knowing that her ballot was submitted the way she had intended. Her fear forever had been that her sister was a different political party.

We continued this throughout the country and then, in 2011, magically appeared the iPad. Suddenly it’s not voting online, it’s not voting by software, it’s iPad voting.

That’s okay. Apple can take the credit because what that does is make people realize something big is happening. The mobile revolution has allowed people to say, “I want to vote conveniently, when I can.”
In that iPad election in 2011, people with disabilities’ participation increased by 1500%. We moved on to doing private sector elections for very high profile and very high integrity organizations, like the Oscars and the Emmys.

After 85 years of vote by mail, they decided it’s important to have secure and accurate transmission of ballots, because the technology is here.

South Dakota is now using military IDs to authenticate voters when they’re serving from abroad. You can increase security while increasing access and while increasing participation.

It continues. When you hear that technology is not ready for elections, think about the facts; think about the data. Know that the reality is, technology enables.

You’re going to hear the big lie again and again and again, between now and the 2016 election. You have a choice.

You can remember what happens with paper ballots in elections and you can say, “No. I’m not going to believe the big lie anymore,” because when technology enables, it allows people to know that they matter, to trust in the results, and to do something very important with their lives. Thank you.