[Image via richmond.com]
Presidential election years always bring heightened scrutiny to the work of election administration, which can be challenging because of the tendency to conflate coverage of the horse race and attention to the election process. But the increased focus also creates opportunities for election officials to tell their stories to an audience that’s more inclined than usual to pay attention.
There was one such opportunity over the weekend as the Richmond Times-Dispatch sat down with the Virginia Department of Elections’ chief information officer Matthew Davis for a “Sunday Q&A” to talk about his work and what it means for voting in the Old Dominion this year and beyond:
As chief information officer for Virginia’s Department of Elections, Matthew Davis is at the forefront of the state’s efforts to make voting easy and secure.
From online registration to the management of the state’s voting equipment, Davis and his team work to make it easier for citizens to cast a ballot while at the same time ensuring the integrity of the election.
QUESTION: What are the major components of your job?
ANSWER: I am responsible for all application and infrastructure services for the Department of Elections. I manage a team of developers and analysts who maintain the statewide voter registration and election management system for the commonwealth. In addition, we manage the campaign finance disclosure application, the voter photo identification application and our various online citizen-facing systems like online voter registration.
My current team is also responsible for voting system certification and election administration services (certifying candidates and elections, proofing ballots, etc.).
QUESTION: You’ve been in your role for six years — what major changes in voting/election security have you seen in that time?
ANSWER: The election community balances between conducting open and fair elections and ensuring that the process is secure and reliable. We are constantly working on projects from ensuring the accuracy of the voter registration rolls to ensuring the physical security of the voting equipment when it is in storage between elections.
The biggest changes I have seen, however, are related to the amount of transactions voters can conduct online. In 2013, we launched our online voter registration system. Voters can now register to vote or update their registration completely online.
In 2015, we launched our online absentee application system. Voters can now apply to vote absentee through our website.
The interest in both of these systems has been increasing with each election cycle. The process on our website is much more secure than the conventional paper methods because we check a voter’s identity against their Department of Motor Vehicles record at the time of submission. It also significantly reduces the time it takes to process an application and improves the accuracy of the data in our systems.
QUESTION: What about changes in voting technology?
ANSWER: After the 2000 presidential election, the federal government provided money to the states to update voting equipment. In Virginia, both optical scan and touch-screen ballot systems were selected by the localities to replace the aging equipment.
In 2007, the General Assembly banned the purchase of any new touch-screen ballot systems due to concerns over the lack of a verifiable audit trail for votes cast on the systems. This year, the General Assembly has passed legislation requiring the complete replacement of the touch-screen systems over the next few years.
Voters may feel like we are moving backwards in technology, but given the frequency of close elections in Virginia, being able to physically recount ballots is an absolute must.
QUESTION: There’s a presidential election this year — how far ahead are you planning for the big day?
ANSWER: We started planning for 2016 as soon as the 2012 election was over. The current administration came in knowing that they had a significant presidential election that would occur during their term as well. Every system we stand up or issue we resolve has an end goal of making 2016 be a successful election for the commonwealth.
QUESTION: What does the future of voting technology in Virginia look like?
ANSWER: Virginia will continue to improve its online citizen service offerings in the coming months and years. We partner with companies like Google and Facebook through the Vot[ing] Information Project to help educate voters on registration deadlines, upcoming elections and polling place locations.
There is also an interest in providing online voting opportunities for our military service members. However, there are significant security risks that must addressed by the larger technology community first.
QUESTION: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
ANSWER: My wife of almost 18 years and I have six children who keep us very busy. We also are active members at Cornerstone Assembly of God in Chester, where we teach in the children’s ministry and volunteer with mission projects both locally and around the country. I also enjoy woodworking and have been investing my limited free time in projects around the house.
I’ve known Matthew for several years from his work with his colleagues nationwide on various elections tech projects in voter registration and voting information, and I am so pleased that his hometown paper gave him the chance to tell his (and his department’s) story! I look forward to seeing similar pieces throughout the election season; it’s always nice to see this kind of coverage in addition to the necessary work of highlighting problems and challenges in the voting process.
Stay tuned …