Arkansas lawmakers decide against idea of biometric technology in elections

While several other states are pushing to remove technology from the electoral process, Arkansas lawmakers are examining how biometric information could be utilized at the ballot box.

A legislative study concluded that using biometrics in Arkansas elections faced technological shortcomings and public perception issues but wasn’t ruled out for the future. Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, who sponsored Act 421 requiring the study of election technology that includes fingerprints and facial recognition, reported the findings to the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Tuesday.

The study examined biometric technology as a way to secure elections, as well as ways to track absentee ballots. After numerous talks with the Secretary of State and experts in the field of biometrics, Meeks said the technology isn’t currently in a place where it can handle a database large enough for elections.

“While the field of biometrics is mature enough to be able to handle small groups of people, for example company sized or school sized – it’s actually being used in a lot of our schools for lunches and so forth – that the technology is actually not, and I was surprised to learn this, the technology for biometrics is not yet mature enough to be able to handle potentially a three million user database,” said Meeks.

However, technology wasn’t the only hurdle.

“There was also concern about public acceptance,” Meeks said. “Would the public be open to the government having their fingerprints or other type data, especially in this situation? So at this point, based upon our discussions and talks with experts, biometrics, while we think that is something that will come at some point in the future, we’ve just not got to that place yet.”

Though Meeks went on to say everyone in the meetings was of the mind that biometrics would be used down the road in future elections and that it was something to be “watched and studied further.”

Public perception was also highlighted in talks over the potential use of unique identifiers like QR codes on absentee ballots.

“During the last election with absentee ballots, one of the common questions that I got from people that sent those in: ‘How do I know that my ballot was received and when it was received, and if it was counted?’” said Meeks. “Right now, there’s not any system that does that and wouldn’t it be nice if there was this QR code or whatever on the ballot that when it comes into the office, it’s scanned, goes up on a website or somewhere that’s easily accessible where the voter can go and check and see yes my ballot was received and properly counted.”

Rep. Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home, raised concerns over election privacy.

“What keeps you from going back and finding out just exactly how I voted?” asked Speaks. “Truthfully, I don’t care if people know how I vote, but a lot of people do, and it should be kept that way.”

Meeks acknowledged that was one of the challenges with the technology and that the barcode would have to be done in such a way that “the two could never be matched.”

“I would not be in favor of doing this if there was not a way to make sure that the vote remained secret,” said Meeks.

However, he said using a unique identifier was deemed unnecessary at this time by the Secretary of State’s office, which informed him it would be duplicative of systems it already has in place.

A final written report of the study is due to the Legislative Council by Nov. 30.

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