Quest for Electoral Innovation Leads to Online Voting for Emmys

8/25/14Follow @bvbigelow

Lori Steele-Contorer says she was attending a United Nations conference on technology with the likes of Bill Gates and Carly Fiorina in October 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was first elected as governor of California in a special recall election.

At that time, Steele-Contorer was at Solomon Smith Barney, managing a $200 million portfolio of technology companies. She says it was her job to evaluate transformative technologies, as well as the companies leading such change.

At the U.N. conference, “Everyone was talking about the election,” she wrote in April for the Strategic News Service technology newsletter. But all Steele-Contorer could think about was the backward state of U.S. election technology and the infamous presidential election of 2000. “Regardless of which side of that election one was on,” she wrote, “how was it possible that most of the world questioned the process that elected the president of the United States? Hanging chads? Butterfly ballots? Really? This was the ‘state-of-the-art’ technology relied upon to elect the leader of the free world?”

It was an “Aha!” moment for Steele-Contorer, the CEO of Everyone Counts, a San Diego software company she founded to bring innovation to the electoral process.

“It was also clear to me that some of the elements of voting were very similar to many other mission-critical business processes: banking, commerce, aerospace,” she wrote. They all require authentication, data integrity and protection, secure data transmission, data integration, transparency and auditability, and customer service.

As she set out to research the issue, Steele-Contorer says she found a $31 billion industry that was dominated by hidebound hardware manufacturers. Even after Congress provided $3.9 billion for states to invest in new voting technologies following the debacle of the Bush vs. Gore presidential election, she said the voting machines that most election officials ended up buying were based on decades-old technology “developed way prior to Windows XP.”

A key problem with conventional “black-box” voting machines that insist on keeping their vote-counting code secret was highlighted in mid-2003 by Walden W. O’Dell, a prominent Ohio Republican who also was the chairman and CEO of Diebold, an ATM maker that is also one of the biggest election machine manufacturers. Oblivious to any conflict-of-interest concerns, O’Dell declared in fundraising letters that he was committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes for President Bush in 2004. (Diebold sold its voting machine business in 2009 to Election Systems & Software (ES&S) of Omaha, NE.)

It was a big problem, and Steele-Contorer decided to fix it herself. She acquired a company in Melbourne, Australia, with the kind of technology she needed to bring a state-of-the-art approach (already proven in other industries) to the voting process. She established Everyone Counts in San Diego in 2004 to provide secure, software-as-a-service (SaaS) voting systems that eliminate the need for antiquated, purpose-built voting machines and error-prone paper-based ballots.

The SaaS model allows Everyone Counts to continually update its software and conduct security tests and audits, and enables the company to offer election services to government jurisdictions through a virtual private network or over the Internet. “We’re hardware agnostic,” Steele said recently by phone. “We can use off-the-shelf hardware, including the Dell tablet, Android devices, or the iPad.”

The company provides its voting services in a variety of ways: The eLect Platform is a secure ballot delivery and voting system; eLect Universal allows voters to independently cast secure ballots through an Internet connection; eLect Access enables by telephone; eLect Today provides email and fax-enabled voting that conforms to relevant laws. The company’s eLect Results collects, tabulates, and reports on various votes cast and its eLect Services provides consulting options.

She notes the SaaS business model also doesn’t require state and county election officials to make huge, upfront capital expenditures. Everyone Counts provides its services to customers through an annual license at a cost that depends on such variables as the number of registered voters, number of different ballot styles, and the complexities of relevant election laws.

The company’s go-to-market strategy was to provide electronic voting services for Americans living abroad and troops based overseas, whom Steele-Contorer describes as the most disenfranchised voters. “Before 2010, studies showed that 70 percent of the people overseas who tried to vote using absentee ballots did not get their votes counted,” she said.

Lori Steele-Contorer

Lori Steele-Contorer

In 2008, Steele-Contorer said Everyone Counts conducted the first online global presidential primary, and increased participation seven-fold. In 2009, the company provided its first all-digital government election in the U.S. for the City of Honolulu, reducing its election costs by 50 percent. Since then, Everyone Counts has successfully administered electronic elections in Colorado, Washington, Utah, and other states, as well as the U.K., Australia, Canada, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Steele-Contorer funded much of the company’s early operations herself. Over the past two years, Everyone Counts has raised at least $15.3 million, including $7.3 million last November, according to a regulatory filing.

In 2013, Everyone Counts provided Internet voting services for the first time for the Oscars, enabling some 6,500 members of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to cast their votes for “Argo,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” and other winners of the 85th Academy Awards. Before awarding the business to Everyone Counts, Steele-Contorer said four technology and security companies—and PricewaterhouseCoopers—audited the company’s voting technology.

This year, for the first time, members of the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences were able to vote online for the awards that will be announced Monday evening during NBC’s televised broadcast of the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards.

“They got their highest voter participation ever—about 18,000,” Steele-Contorer said. The three-hour broadcast, hosted by Seth Myers, begins on NBC at 5 pm (8 pm ET) from the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles. Results of the voting in the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards will be announced during the show.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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