Idaho Secretary of State enlists IBM Watson to restore trust in the electoral process

By | 4 minute read | September 17, 2020

Citizens need access to the right information as they want to understand the voting process during these times.

To help address the deluge of questions from citizens across the nation online or by phone about voting procedures and processes, including finding a voting location, how to request a mail-in ballot, upcoming deadlines, polling hours and more, IBM is offering its Watson Assistant virtual agent solution to any U.S. state at no charge for 60+ days.

Trust plays a critical role in civic life, especially in the electoral process. But nearly 60% of Americans express doubt about election integrity, a trend that aligns with a decades-long decline in public confidence in government. That’s why in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, this erosion of trust doubly concerns election officials.

In AI we trust

To reduce the health risk to voters and poll workers posed by COVID-19, Idaho Governor Brad Little decided – less than two months before the primary elections – to move all voting to absentee ballot. Election officials worried they could not handle the expected surge of information requests from voters unfamiliar with the process. To empower their call center employees to deliver trusted information quickly, the Secretary of State’s office turned to IBM® to help the organization scale its call center operations to meet the anticipated demand.

Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck oversees the elections, IT, and corporate divisions of his department, and brings deep experience as a consultant in operational and process improvements in IT and commerce to the role. In a recent IBM Data and AI Virtual Forum, Houck and Nicholas Holmes, Global Government CTO, IBM Data and AI, recounted the organization’s journey to AI. They explained how, in partnership with the IBM Data and AI Expert Labs, Idaho’s Secretary of State used IBM Watson® Assistant to inspire voter confidence by ensuring they received the important elections information they needed.

Watch the session replay or keep reading for highlights from their conversation.

Turning the page on legacy technology

Information technology can be a bit like politics; change is often slow, less often lightning fast. But Chad Houck and his team were committed to pushing the Idaho government to take the technological leap into modernity with data and AI.

“When the secretary took office six years ago, the state’s information technology infrastructure was forty years old,” says Houck. “That was one of the longest windows of time in the Secretary of State’s office under any kind of management and was also during the same time that technology had evolved more than at any time in history.” The technology landscape was “fairly dilapidated,” he recalls, “with extremely outdated servers.” Undaunted, Houck recognized an opportunity to build for the future.

“We took off on an adventure that has rewritten how we do every one of our business processes” Houck explained. “We set our targets on creating state-of-the-art tools – to make all of our systems flow smoothly and present a customer centric focus – by innovating forward, leveraging technology and doing things that others weren’t doing.” Using data and AI solutions to adapt quickly to the dramatic shift in operational processes, by the primary date in May, the Idaho elections team was ready.

Trusted answers help communities emerge stronger

Within two weeks a joint team comprising IBM experts and state technologists launched a virtual voter assistant powered by Watson. With roughly 30 days to go before the election, rapid deployment carved out crucial lead time the voter assistant needed to gain valuable learning cycles to ensure it could answer Idahoans’ frequently asked questions about the voting process. In that brief window, the Watson voter assistant answered over 3,300 different questions, missing only 170, which were passed to Idaho Secretary of State staff to resolve.

“That was a huge weight off our staff’s shoulders,” says Houck. “It freed us up. I think it served the Idaho voter even better than what we were already doing.” At the close of the election, 430,000 absentee ballots were requested, a 1400% increase over absentee ballot use from previous elections.

Chad Houck and his team are optimistic they can continue building innovative, trusted services for their counties and constituents by empowering their departments with data and AI.

“We’re going to continue to move forward and not fall into the rut created by that 42-year legacy,” says Houck. “Navigating our corporate filing website – and not just for elections – you’re going to start to see more of Watson. We look forward to seeing what other ideas IBM has that we can continue to integrate.”

To learn more about IBM Watson Assistant and how IBM and the Idaho Secretary of State’s office are restoring trust in government, watch the session replay now on-demand. Watson Assistant virtual agent solution to any U.S. state at no charge for 60+ days.