Lori J. Steele sees opportunity in giving troops stationed overseas a chance to vote in major elections.
The opportunity extends to missionaries in far-flung countries — and to shut-ins in a city like San Diego.
Governments are trying to figure out how to reach these people. Steele, chief executive officer of Everyone Counts Inc., wants to sell those government officials a secure, computerized solution.
Based in the University Towne Center area of San Diego, Everyone Counts offers systems that let people vote on their personal computers, telephones or personal digital assistants, aka PDAs.
For example, three West Virginia counties used Everyone Counts’ solution to reach far-flung voters for that state’s recent primary election.
One year ago, Everyone Counts was part of a milestone election in Hawaii. It was an all-digital election for local board seats in Honolulu. The May 2009 election had “no paper at all,” Steele said.
Everyone Counts was part of a 2007 election in Swindon, England, that gave voters a variety of ways to cast their ballots — including a “vote anywhere” feature with computer-connected voting at the polling place of their choice. “I almost lived in England for a year,” said Steele, an Encinitas resident. Then it was on to a project helping Australia’s defense department provide 2,500 troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations with secure Internet voting.
Ready to MOVE
More work could arrive at the company soon, thanks to legislation called MOVE. The federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act calls for states to offer electronic ballots to expatriate and military voters this year. Everyone Counts is among six vendors chosen by the U.S. Department of Defense, which could submit purchase orders on behalf of individual states as early as this month. Deals could range from a few hundred thousand dollars to $5 million, depending on the state.
Everyone Counts’ niche could be the most severely disenfranchised voters, says Steele. Think of voters who have difficulty going to the polls, including disabled voters who have a hard time voting by mail.
“Our real specialty is voters without easy access,” Steele said.
One way the company might grow is to align itself with major election software providers, and go after hard-to-reach voters on their behalf. “We’re in discussions with some of the major election companies and major IT companies that have an interest in potentially reselling our systems to their customers,” said Steele.
Intuitive and Secure
At her desktop computer, Steele shows a reporter what a West Virginia voter saw in the recent election. Designers have attempted to make the online ballot “very intuitive,” Steele says, and there are help screens available for the users as well. If users neglect to vote on a particular issue, or “under-vote,” the software will alert them to the fact.
News reports had Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to cast a ballot for two Senate candidates in California’s June 8 election. “With our system, that wouldn’t have happened,” Steele said.
Once complete, the ballot is encrypted then sent to a secure server, Steele says. At the close of the election, administrators provide their passwords to the server, ballots are decrypted, then counted with other ballots, Steele says.
Bryan Mick, a Honolulu city official, reported that the software worked very well on the Internet, and “worked great” with digital and cellular phones. However, he said, the phone software did not work with older phone systems.
Despite the criticism, Mick seems to have had a good experience, calling the staff at Everyone Counts “awesome to work with and very committed.”
Asked for an opinion on whether the software would work for a state election, Mick said he saw the possibility, “as long as free computer and phone sites are provided.”
Transparency Is Crucial
Steele says Everyone Counts’ system beats voting by fax or e-mail — which are neither secure nor private.
It may be worth noting that Steele’s business cards are clear plastic. It’s less of a gimmick to set her card apart, and more of a visual metaphor for what she sells. “We think transparency’s critical,” Steele said. The software can be audited on request, and Everyone Counts structures its business around transparency, she adds.
Steele, 46, is an Ohio native who previously worked as a financial adviser with Citigroup Smith Barney. She left the firm in 2004 and got into the elections business in 2006.
“I left the investment business in 2004 very specifically to find a way to use technology to make democracy work better. It needed greater accuracy, transparency, security and accessibility,” she said.
She bought a nine-year-old Australian election software company, then called Everyone Counts, for the technology, and built on that foundation. No cash changed hands; the Australian company became a subsidiary of Steele’s company and its owners received shares in Steele’s business.
Everyone Counts has raised “several million” dollars in the last three years from angel investors. Steele is the company’s second-largest shareholder. The CEO notes that the company has attracted interest among Palo Alto’s venture capitalists, and may secure venture funding next year.
Everyone Counts has nine job openings. The company employs 40 people and is attracting talent such as Pedro Cortés, who last served as secretary of the commonwealth in Pennsylvania.
The firm has one patent pending and plans to submit a dozen other patents by the end of the year.
Everyone Counts has also conducted private elections for universities, political parties, labor unions and associations.
Going forward, Everyone Counts wants to get its share of domestic and foreign elections. Steele notes that there are 122 electoral democracies in the world.