Below is the transcription of an interview conducted by David Cohen, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Techstars, the global platform for investment and innovation that connects entrepreneurs, investors, and corporations.
David interviewed Shannon O’Brien on voting, elections, and changes throughout time.
Shannon O’Brien was the first woman state treasurer of the state of Massachusetts, and former Democratic nominee for governor.
David Cohen: You were elected to office for the first time in 1986, 30 years later, what has changed in how we vote?
Shannon O’Brien: Well, back in 1986, it was incredibly labor intensive. Everything was done on paper, getting phone numbers so that you could reach out to voters was an incredibly labor intensive process, getting absentee ballots, again took time and had a lot of rules and regulations about how you actually got those absentee ballots into the town clerk’s office. And so back then it took a lot of human beings to make this happen.
So a lot has changed over the years. But now, as we’re seeing that as technology and different issues are coming to the forefront, we have a lot of people thinking that it’s an important time to go back to those days where it’s just all paper. I think it’s sort of fascinating that you see a lot of people now calling for harking back to paper ballots, and I sort of shudder when I think about what that was like back in 1986.
I think it’s sort of fascinating that you see a lot of people now calling for harking back to paper ballots, and I sort of shudder when I think about what that was like back in 1986.Shannon O’Brien, Former Massachusetts State Treasurer
David Cohen: In 2000 we were introduced to hanging chads. Today we’re back to talking about paper ballots. Kevin Roose from the New York Times says that he has decided that Americans should vote by etching our preferred candidates name into a stone tablet with a hammer and chisel. I think he’s kidding. What do you think about the evolution, and thought, and the perception? Why is it that people feel this way?
Shannon O’Brien: Well, obviously everyone is concerned about the possibility for compromise or hacking. I mean, I was working on the campaign back with the hanging chads. And we had something similar in the congressional district, where I live something similar in terms of how the paper ballots and the punch system did not work during a very heavily attended congressional race. So what we’ve seen over the course of the last number of years, we’ve seen the Equifax hack. We saw in 2016, that the Russians had attempted to, at least in 21 states, attempt to hack the voting machines in different jurisdictions there. So I think that there’s a heightened concern about technology whether or not it can be fully secure, and especially whether or not it can be fully secure for such an important right as placing your vote and expressing your opinion as to who should be leading the state or the country.
David Cohen: Most people like myself these days we do online banking, I just did my census online. As an investor, I transfer a lot of money around online, but today we’re hearing people say that mail-in ballots are really the only option. It seems crazy to me, but what do you think are their barriers to mail in ballots that people generally miss? Are states willing to bear the cost? When we need money in other places, are we justified in investing our resources here?
Most people like myself these days do online banking, I just did my census online. As an investor, I transfer a lot of money around online, but today we’re hearing people say that mail-in ballots are really the only option.David Cohen, Co-Founder and Managing Director, TechStars
Shannon O’Brien: Paper ballots are not hackable, but they are not infallible. We’ve seen I think in this country in the last election, the last presidential election. Over 400,000 absentee ballots, either didn’t make it to get counted, were rejected because the signature on the ballot did not match a signature within the clerk’s office. So paper ballots, while the putting pen or pencil to paper and getting that done is not hackable, the process between getting that vote from your home or your office, or wherever you’re going to be, actually filling out the ballot and getting it in, and actually having it counted, there are many potential pitfalls that can happen, and we saw this just this past week in Wisconsin, where there were so many people who needed to send in absentee ballots because workers concerned about the Coronavirus did not want to show up and man the polls. And so I think they had something like 1/10th the number of in-person balloting locations, so people had to wait hours and hours. Those ballots that, you know, did not get in on time, they will not be counted.
But those people in Wisconsin, those 400,000 people whose absentee ballots didn’t count in the last cycle, their vote doesn’t get diluted, their vote gets stolen. And so for me, accessibility, if I have to determine between security and voter fraud and accessibility, I’m going to tip the scales in terms of accessibility, but I still think there is a way that you can do both. I believe that there is a way that you can balance many of the concerns that different people have right now, and do it in a way that’s reasonable that protects both the ability to access and have an opportunity to vote, but also promotes security and reduces voter fraud.
I believe that there is a way that you can balance many of the concerns that different people have right now, and do it in a way that’s reasonable that protects both the ability to access the opportunity to vote, but also promotes security and reduces voter fraud.Shannon O’Brien, Former Massachusetts State Treasurer
David Cohen: I’m certain that with Coronavirus changing how we do business, you know some government services maybe licenses and IDs will move online, but what are the practical barriers to elections moving online?
Shannon O’Brien: The real issue is, I think right now, going to be cost. We saw that in the stimulus package approximately 400 million was put into that bill to help make sure that people can get to the polls during this Coronavirus crisis. So it’s going to cost money, but it’s also going to require a meeting of the minds between the left and the right, the Republicans and the Democrats, that they agree that making sure that voter access, especially during this just unusual pandemic crisis we’re having right now, is important, and I think that the most important thing toward making voting more accessible is to understand that making voting more accessible is an important civil and constitutional right, that we all have.
David Cohen: Sounds reasonable to me. You’ve sort of answered this one but I’m going to ask it again in case you have anything else to add, what are the political challenges associated with modernizing the voting process?
Shannon O’Brien: The political challenges are that right now you don’t have everyone in agreement about what the best process is for both securing the vote and making voting accessible, and I think that the most important thing that can happen is to take some very measured and rational steps towards testing some new technologies. But the fact is, you had people who weren’t trained, you had new rules that were brought to bear during those Iowa caucuses. So there were many things beyond the technology that made the Iowa caucuses a failure. And so understanding that any new technology, even going to mail-in ballots, there will be issues and problems that have to be dealt with. And so it’s making sure that we understand that whatever we do, this is not going to be a quick fix, and has to be part of a longer process, moving us forward where we can both use technology and maybe old fashioned technology to increase both accessibility and security, but do it in a rational well thought out, and hopefully, bipartisan way.
I think that the most important thing that can happen is to take some very measured and rational steps towards testing some new technologies.Shannon O’Brien, Former Massachusetts State Treasurer
David Cohen: What needs to be done to make the changes necessary to improve access? What would you do if you could wave your magic wand?
Shannon O’Brien: I am a believer in taking a look at mobile voting platforms, looking at ways that we can enhance both the accessibility, but also the auditability. Because there are many voting machines out there that count the paper ballots that we cannot subject them to simple audit. So making sure that we understand that we can use technology to make these improvements. And so I think it’s just understanding that we’re going to be able to use technology, that we need to do it in a number of different facets that can help us as a state, as a nation, and so moving in that direction I think is going to be very, very important for all of us as citizens.
I am a believer in taking a look at mobile voting platforms, looking at ways that we can enhance both the accessibility, but also the auditability.Shannon O’Brien, Former Massachusetts State Treasurer
David Cohen: Shannon, I hear you have a personal story about voting that is relevant to all this.
Shannon O’Brien: In 1976, my dad ran for the United States Congress in the post-Watergate era. And it was a year that many people thought that a democrat might win the seat. And my father ran against a very well qualified candidate Ed McColgan, and the primary, he won by something like 12 votes. And then during the recount process, there were votes that went back and forth, and he ended up losing by four votes. I think it was the closest congressional vote in the history of the state. I think it still remains.
But the real issue was, and this is the problem with paper ballots is that you can’t change paper ballots because they need to be printed, they need to be sent out. And so the problem that my father faced is that he actually thought he might be able to go to court and successfully challenge the outcome of that recount, but he couldn’t go to court because even if he won the court case, there would not have been enough time to print his name on the ballot. So he gracefully stepped back, and you know a lot of people thought that my dad actually won that primary. So it was one of those things that you understand the inflexibility of a paper ballot. Someone goes and they vote for Pete Buttigieg, he drops out or Bernie Sanders, he drops out. They’re not on the ballot anymore. And if you’ve already voted, you don’t get an opportunity to quickly or easily change your vote.