Paul Holmes 19 Jun 2001 // 11:00PM GMT
Like many local jurisdictions across the nation, Riverside County, Calif., has historically used paper ballots for voting. Paper ballots, however, are susceptible to irregularities. Votes can be disqualified due to the selection of more than one candidate per race and other errors. To rectify this situation, and to save paper costs, estimated at $600,000 per election, Riverside County opted to replace its paper ballot system with touch-screen voting machines for the November 2000 presidential election. The county hired Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment, Inc. to provide 4,200 machines for 714 polling places in what would be the largest use of touch-screen voting technology in U.S. history.
STOORZA’S ASSIGNMENT :
Sequoia hired Stoorza Communications in July 2000 to build a community outreach program to alert voters to the fact that paper ballots would not be used in the presidential election. Since this was the first time the relatively unknown touch-screen technology would be used countywide, Sequoia had a key Interest in making sure that voters were comfortable with the new technology before they showed up at the polls. Failure to create public confidence in this new technology could quickly turn into a public policy and public relations disaster, not only for Sequoia, which hoped to expand its marketing and sales efforts after the November election, but for Riverside County, which boldly opted to use this technology countywide in the first presidential election of the new millennium.
Stoorza faced a number of public relations challenges for this project, including:
- Skepticism from key Republican and Democratic Party officials about Riverside County’s ability to use this new technology: This stemmed from unrelated problems the county had experienced with its website, which crashed during previous elections.
- Older voters’ fear of computers: Riverside County is home to some of Southern California’s largest retirement communities, including Palm Springs, Hemet and Sun City.
- The public’s tendency to confuse touch-screen voting with Internet voting: This assumption raised questions about the security and accuracy of touch-screen voting machines as well as the tabulation process.
Message Points: Key message points were designed to counter the naysayers, build support for touch screen voting and proactively address concerns of voters unfamiliar with touch-screen technology. These concerns were identified through political sources and through an analysis of news coverage of voter concerns about new voting technology in other parts of the country.
The message points that formed the basis of the campaign were that touch-screen voting:
Is secure – The freestanding units are not networked or connected to any data lines, so they are safe from hackers and interception.
It’s faster and easier – The 15-inch screens put the ballots in larger font sizes that were easier to read and faster to vote.
It’s more accurate – They’re more accurate than traditional voting methods because the machines do not allow you to make the kinds of mistakes that could render your ballot invalid.
It saves taxpayers money – Nearly $600,000 in paper costs in every major election.
Government Relations: In an effort to nip the naysayers in the bud, Stoorza identified and arranged briefings for top local representatives from both major political parties with Registrar Mischelle Townsend. Stoorza also equipped Townsend with a detailed PowerPoint presentation that explained the safety, accuracy and ease of use of touch-screen voting machines. An easy-to-use Voter Guide was also developed as a leave-behind piece for Townsend to use in her presentations. To save costs, both the PowerPoint and Voter Guide were developed so that they could be used in community and media presentations.
Community Relations: In an effort to assuage voter fears about new technology and provide comfort to the county’s older voters, Stoorza recruited Riverside County’s most prominent older voter, former President Gerald R. Ford, to do a 30-second public service announcement aimed at instilling confidence in touch-screen voting technology. The Ford PSA was sent to key media outlets from Los Angeles to the Colorado River. A PSA script was also developed for use by radio stations.
Media Relations: Stoorza identified key political and technology reporters across Riverside County and the nation and pitched them on the historical significance and ease of use of touch-screen voting machines. Reporters were provided with personalized letters, which Stoorza wrote on behalf of the Registrar, as well as news releases and other materials, including the Voter Guide and PowerPoint referenced earlier. Stoorza pitched the national media to intensify local awareness about touch-screen voting and to pressure local media to intensify their own coverage of Riverside County’s transition from a paper to paperless voting system.
Unprecedented public awareness and support from Riverside County voters and from opinion leaders in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 7 election. Media coverage was overwhelmingly positive and included reports by every television station in Los Angeles and Riverside counties. Highlights of coverage included:
Los Angeles Times: Two lengthy articles, plus an editorial endorsement on Sept. 29, just five weeks before the election.
CNN: Three visits by CNN news crews, including multiple live reports on Election Day.
Two editorial endorsements by the Riverside Press-Enterprise, before and after the election.
Multiple wire service reports by The Associated Press.
A reference in the “Winners” column in the Oct. 4 Wall Street Journal.
Online reports by Forbes.com, ABCNews.com, CNNfn.com and other online media.
Stoorza’s campaign was so successful, in fact, that it laid a formidable foundation for post election pitching and coverage that included an article in Business Week, a live interview for Sequoia’s project manager with Bryant Gumbel on CBS Early Morning, and positive reports from Florida newspapers, including an editorial in the Tampa Tribune-Times that said Riverside County had the solution to Florida’s ballot problems. Sequoia has since hired Stoorza to be its national public relations of record.