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In a fluorescent-lit office space in Nevada’s Washoe County, election workers are performing a ballot ballet. Wearing face masks and gloves, they are carefully counting the mail-in and early voting ballots that are pouring in from across the county by the thousands.
The process is as analog and ordinary as in any election. Yet this year, the potential for a disputed result for the presidency places extraordinary value on transparency. So, like a small but growing number of county election offices around the U.S., the second most-populous Nevada county is livestreaming its ballot count for anyone to watch.
Viewers tuning into the feed onYouTube will find a soothing antidote to the frenetic pace of polls and cable news in the lead-up to Nov. 3. In an election year plagued by misinformation about voter fraud and predictions of an amped-up replay of the 2000 recount, the feed has been running every day since Oct. 26 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. West Coast time. On Election Day, it will run from 7 p.m. until all the poll centers have finished in-person voting. Its implicit message: Here, the local infrastructure of democracy remains intact.
Washoe County is not alone in livestreaming this bulwark of civic process. Denver, Colorado; King County, Washington (where Seattle is located); Kitsap County, Washington; and several counties in New Jersey and Arizona are among those with similar set-ups. Most offer one view only, as in Union County, New Jersey, where on Thursday afternoon the cameras showed tabulation machines shrouded, Torah-style, awaiting their star moment. (As of Friday,they were in use.) Others show multiple components of the process, which in King County includes separate feeds for drop-box sorting, signature verification, envelope review, and scanning and tabulation. In Maricopa County, Arizona — projected to be one of themost hotly contested places in the U.S. this election — the stream provides 13 different angles.
In all instances, cameras are placed far from ballots and envelopes, so that all voter information is obscured. The goal is to increase visibility and trust in the process, said Megan Gilbertson, the communications director of the Maricopa County Elections Department, in an email. Since 2008, “Arizona law requires that all tabulation is available to the public through a livestream video,” she said. “In Maricopa County, the public can view our signature verification, ballot processing and tabulation rooms. These cameras are available 24 hours a day.”
Not everyone is completely sold. “I appreciate every attempt of being transparent with the process … but I’m concerned in the sense of privacy,” said Emily Zamora, the executive director of Silver State Voices, a nonpartisan Nevada civic participation group, referring to the livestream in Washoe County. “I’m not sure that’s the best way to show that kind of transparency.” What might have been a fun demonstration of the civic process in years past could be taken advantage of in this era of deepfakes and online harassment.
But other observers didn’t see a privacy risk. In most states, voter information that is visible on the outside of return envelopes is already public information, Ricky Hatch, the clerk and auditor in Weber County, Utah, and the chair of the elections subcommittee at the National Association of Counties, wrote in an email. Once envelopes are removed, how an individual votes is kept secret, so long as election workers take care to keep any personally identifiable information from view.
“Everything we do in elections administration is already open to public view, so livestreaming really just makes it available to more people,” he said. “It probably helps increase trust, especially for people who didn’t know beforehand that all of our processes are open to the public.”
Kathleen Hale, a political science professor at Auburn University, is an expert in election administration and advises the National Association of Election Officials. She said that real-time footage is one of many ways that local election offices are responding to pressures to create better voting experiences, particularly after the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which distributed federal funds to modernize local elections processes in response to the 2000 recount.
Mobile apps that show voting wait times and polling hours are other examples of the types of fixes that are becoming more popular, Hale said, but there are older, lower-tech examples at election offices as well: “It is very common to have a glass window for people to look in and watch,” she said. Livestreaming is “an extension or evolution of the focus on transparency that offices have had since 2000.”
Washoe County started the livestream in the 2018 midterm election. When the county renovated its election office that year, it was a “lightbulb” moment, said Bethany Drysdale, a communications manager for Washoe County. A communications studio (where the registrar of voters, Deanna Spikula, will broadcast regular updates throughout the day on Tuesday) made it easy enough to train county cameras on the nearby ballot counting room. In 2018, the office ran the livestream on Election Day only. This year, with Nevada’s early voting process starting on Oct. 17, the county has already received votes from half of its registered voters, and the feed is capturing it all.
With so much anxiety about election integrity, Hale expects to see more counties adopt similar strategies — and that’s a good sign for democracy, not a bad one, she says.
“Everyone is interested in the horse races and equipment failures and how thing go wrong,” she said. “But this is a process that works very well 99.9% of the time, and showing these details under the hood — that’s our public investment in our public infrastructure of elections. People should be interested in whether things are legitimate.”
They are interested. On its first day, Washoe County’s stream had 3,000 views. For “a video with no sound, just people opening envelopes,” says Drysdale, “that feels pretty good.”
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