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Voter registration

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Voter Services Portal: Open Source Innovation

The Voter Services Portal component of the Open Source Election Technology Framework is a freely available highly extensible online voter registration platform that can cut the cost of States' and jurisdictions' custom development by as much as 75% and reduce the time to develop and deploy from months or more to merely a few weeks.  Why wouldn't any jurisdiction moving to online voter services strongly consider this freely available source code, open for innovation?  That's the whole point of our non-profit technology R&D effort: increase confidence in elections and their outcomes by offering technology innovations that can be easily adopted, adapted, and deployed.  Sure, there are costs associated with adaptation and deployment; after all, open source does not necessarily mean free source.  But the time and taxpayer dollars savings should make this an easy decision...

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Automatic Voter Registration: Oregon Governor Signs Bill to "Just Do it."

Oregon relying on its pioneering heritage and Nike spirit says, "Just Do It" for automatic voter registration. And this move seems to provide a worked example for our CTO's recent blog post about the technical simplicity to do so.  Oregon already being a vote-by-mail state with online voter registration to boot, was likely able to benefit from those prior innovations.  But regardless, as our Foundation's Secretary and General Counsel points out in this post, its a smart move...

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Rock the Registration Day!

On National Voter Registration Day, we note that The TrustTheVote Project is behind an open source effort to innovate online voter registration tools for States and public registration services.  Here's the back story.

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Poster and Slides from OSDV at NIST Workshop on Common Data Format Standards

Many thanks to the engaged audience for OSDVer Anne O'Flaherty's presentation yesterday at National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which hosted a workshop on Common Data Formats (CDFs) and standards for data interchange of election data. We had plenty to say, based on our 2012 work with Virginia State Board of Elections (SBE), because that collaboration depends critically on CDFs. Anne and colleagues did a rather surprising amount of data wrangling over many weeks to get things all hooked up right, and the lessons learned are important for continuing work in the standards body, both NIST and the IEEE group working on CDF standards.

As requested by the attendees, here are online versions of the poster and the slides for the presentation "Bringing Transparency to Voter Registration and Absentee Voting."

BringingTransparencyToVoterRegistrationAndAbsenteeVotingNISTfeb2012

OSDV_Poster_NIST_Feb_2013

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TrustTheVote's Next Steps in Online Voter Registration Technology

In this New Year, there are so many new opportunties for election tech work that our collective TrustTheVote head is spinning. But this week anyway, we're focused on next steps in our online voter registration (OVR) work -- planning sessions last week, meetings with state election officials this week, and I hope as a result, a specific plan of action on what we call will "Rocky 4". To refresh readers' memory, Rocky is the OVR system that spans several organizations:

  • At OSDV, we developed and maintain the Rocky core software;
  • RockTheVote adopted and continues to adopt extensions to it;
  • RockTheVote also adapts the Rocky technology to its operational environment (more on that below, with private-label and API);
  • Open Source Labs operates Rocky's production system, and a build and test environment for new software releases;
  • Several NGOs that are RockTheVote partners also use Rocky as their own OVR system, essentially working with RTV as a public service (no fees!) provider of OVR as an open-source application-as-a-service;
  • For a growing list of states that do OVR, Rocky integrates with the state OVR system, to deliver to it the users that RTV and these various other NGOs have connected to online a a result of outreach efforts.

With that recap in mind, I want to highlight some of the accomplishments that this collective of organizations achieved in 2012, and paved the way for more cool stuff in 2013.

  • All told, this group effort resulted in over a million -- 1,058,994 -- voter registration applications completed.
  • Dozens of partner organizations used Rocky to register their constituents, with the largest and most active being Long Distance Voter.
  • We launched a private-label capability in Rocky (more below) that was used for the first time this summer, and the top 3 out of 10 private-label partners registered about 84,000 voters in the first-time use of this new Rocky feature, in a period of about 12 weeks.
  • We launched an API in Rocky (more below), and the early adopter organizations registered about 20,000 voters.

That's what I call solid work, with innovative election technology delivering substantial public benefit.

Lastly, to set the stage for upcoming news about what 2013 holds, let me briefly explain 2 of the new technologies in 2012, because they're the basis for work in 2013. Now, from the very beginning of Rocky over 3 years ago, there was a feature called "partner support" where a a 3rd party organization could do a little co-branding in the Rocky application, get a URL that they could use to direct their users to Rocky (where the users would see the 3rd party org's logo), and all the resulting registration activity's stats would be available to the 3rd party org.

The Rocky API -   But suppose that you're in an organization that has not just its own web site, but  a substantial in-house web application? Suppose that you want your web application to do the user interaction (UI)? Well, the Rocky Application Programming Interface (API) is for just that. Your application do all the UI stuff, and when it's time to create a PDF for the voter to download, print, sign, and mail, your web app calls the Rocky API to request that, and get the results back. (There's an analogous workflow for integrating the state OVR systems for paperless online registration.) The Rocky backend does all the database work, PDF generation, state integration, stats, reporting, and the API also allows you to pull back stats if you don't want to manually use the Partners' web interface of Rocky.

Rocky Private Label -  But suppose instead that you want something like that, but you don't actually want to run your own web application. Instead, you want a version of Rocky that's customized to look like a web property of your organization, even though it is operated by RockTheVote. That's what the private-label feature set is for. To get an idea of what it looks like, check out University of CA Student Association's private-label UI on Rocky, here.

That's the quick run-down on what we accomplished with Rocky in 2012, and some of the enabling technology for that. I didn't talk much about integration with state OVR systems, because enhancements to the 2012 "training wheels" is part of what we're up to now -- so more on that to come RSN.

And on behalf of all my colleagues in the TrustTheVote Project and at the OSDV Foundation, I want to thank RockTheVote, Open Source Labs, all the RTV partners, and last but not least several staff at state election offices, for making 2012 a very productive year in the OVR part of OSDV's work.

-- EJS

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Sequel to A.G. Holder "Fix That" -- Can Do!

In my last post, I said that we might be onto something, an idea for many of the benefits of universal automatic permanent voter registration, without the need for Federal-plus-50-states overhaul of policy, election law, and election technology that would be required for actual UAP VR. Here is a sketch of what that might be. I think it's interesting not because of being complex or clever -- which it is not -- but because it is sufficiently simple and simple-minded that it might feasibly be used by real election officials who don't have the luxury to spend money to make significant changes to their election administration systems. (By the way, if you're not into tales of information processing systems, feel free to skip to the punchline in the last paragraph.) Furthermore -- and this is critical -- this idea is simple enough that a proof of concept system could be put into place quite quickly and cheaply. And in election tech today, that's critical. To paraphrase the "show me" that we hear often: don't just tell me ideas for election tech improvements; show me something I can see, touch, and try, that shows that it would work in my current circumstances. With input from some election officials about what they'd need, and what that "show me" would be, here is the basic idea ...

The co-ordination of existing databases that A.G. Holder called for would actually be a new system, a "federated database" that does not try to coordinate every VR status change of every person, but instead enables a best-efforts distribution of advisory information from various government organizations, to participating election officials who work on those two important principles that I explained in my last post. This is not a clearing-house, not a records matching system, but just something that distributes info about events.

Before I explain what the events could be and how the sharing happens, let me bracket the issue of privacy. Of course all of this should be done in a privacy-protecting way with anonymized data, and of course that's possible. But whenever I say "a person with a DOB of X" or something like that, remember that I am really talking about some DOB that is one-way-hashed for privacy. Secondly, for the sake of simple explanation, I'm assuming that SSN and DOB can be used as a good-enough nearly-unique identifier for these purposes, but the scheme works pretty much the same with other choices of identifying information. (By the way, I say nearly-unique because it is not uncommon for a VR database to have two people with the same SSN because of data-entry typos, hand-writing issues, and so forth.)

To explain this system, I'll call it "Holder" both because of the A.G. and because I like the idea that everything in this system is a placeholder for possible VR changes, rather than anything authoratative. And because this is a Federal policy goal, I'll tell a story that involves Federal activity to share information with states -- and also because right now that's one of the sources of info that states don't actually have today!

Now, suppose that every time a Federal agency -- say the IRS or HHS -- did a transaction with a person, and that involved the person's address, that agency posts a notification into "Holder" that says that on date D, a person with SSN and DOB of X and Y claimed a current address of Z. This is just a statement of what the agency said the person said, and isn't trying to be a change-of-address. And it might, but needn't always, include an indication of what type of transaction occurred. The non-authoratative part is important. Suppose there's a record where the X and Y match a registered voter Claire Cornucopia of 1000 Chapel St., New Haven CT, but the address in not in CT. The notification might indicate a change of address, but it might be a mistake too. Just today I got mail from of government organization that had initially sent it to a friend of mine in another state. Stuff happens.

State VR operators could access "Holder" to examine this stream of notifications to find cases where it seems to be about a voter that is currently registered in that state, or isn't but possibly should be. If there is a notification that looks like a new address for an existing voter, then they can reach out to the voter -- for example, email, postal mail to the current address on file, postal mail to the possibly new address. In keeping with current U.S. practice:

  • it is up the voter to maintain their voter record;
  • election officials must update a record when a voter sends a change;
  • without info from a voter, election officials can change a record only in specific ways authorized by state election law.

The point here is to make it easier for election officials to find out that a person might ought take some action, and to help that person do so. The helping part is a separate matter, including online voter services, but conceivably, this type of system would work (albeit with a lower participation rate) in system limited to postal mail to voters asking them to fill out a paper form and mail it back.

Next, let's imagine the scenarios that this system might enable, in terms of the kinds of outreach that a voter could receive, not limited to change of address as I described above.

  1. "Hey, it looks like you changed your mailing address - does that mean that you changed your residence too? If so, here is how you should update your voter record …"
  2. "Hey, it looks like you now live in the state of XX but aren't registered to vote - if so, here is what you should do to find out if you're eligible to vote … …"
  3. "Hey, it looks like you just signed up for selective service - so you are probably eligible to vote too, and here is what you should do …"

Number 3 -- and other variations I am sure you can think of -- is especially important as a way to approximate the "automatic" part of A.G. Holder's policy recommendation, while number 1 is the "permanent" part, and number 2 is part of both.

With just a little trial-ballooning to date, I fairly confident that this "Holder" idea would complement existing VR database maintenace work, and has the potential to connect election officials with a larger number of people than they currently connect with. And I know for sure that this does not require election officials to change the existing way that they manage voter records. But how about technical feasibility, cost, and so on. Could it pass the "show me" test?

Absolutely, yes. We've done some preliminary work on this is, and it is the work of a few weeks to set up the federated database, and the demo systems that show how Federal and state organizations would interact with it. But I don't mean that it would be a sketchy demo. In fact, because the basic concept is so simple, it would be a nearly complete software implementation of the federated database and all the interactions with it. Hypothetically, if there were a Federal organization that would operate "Holder", and enough states that agreed that its interface met their needs for getting started, a real "Holder" system could be set up as quickly as that organization could amend a services agreement with one of its existing I.T. service provider organizations, and set up MOUs with other Federal agencies.

Which is of course, not exactly "quick" but the point is that the show-me demonstrates this the enabling technology exists in an immediately usable (and budgetable) form, to justify embarking on the other 99% of the work that is not technology work. Indeed, you almost have to have the tech part finished, before you can even consider the rest of it; an idea by itself will not do.

Lastly, is this reasonable or are we dreaming again? Well, let's charitably say that we are dreaming the same voting rights dream that A.G. Holder has, and we're here to say from the standpoint of election technology, that we could do the tech part nearly overnight, in a way that enables adoption that requires much administrative activity, but not legal or legislative activity. For techies, that's not much of a punchline, but for policy folks who want to "fix that" quickly, it may be a very pleasant surprise.

-- EJS

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A.G. Holder Wants to "Fix That" for Voter Registration

In a public speech yesterday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for universal, automatic voter registration, and stated that current technology can accomplish that, despite the fact that the current system is complex and error-prone. As Reuters reported on Holder's remarks:

By coordinating existing databases, the government could register "every eligible voter in America" and ensure that registration did not lapse during a move.

That's easy to say, but it requires some careful thought to make it easy to do. After some discussion with election officials recently, I've concluded that it is in fact easy to do in tech terms, but not in a way that you might think. To explain, let me first say that one thing that's not going to happen anytime soon is a "federal government takeover" of voter registration. VR will remain a state responsibility for the medium term, I predict.

Second, something that might happen, but would be a bad idea, is the combination of inter-state record matching and automatic registration. Why? Because we've already seen that in some states, recent practice includes automatic de-registration: if a computer's matching algorithm says that you moved from one state to another, you get un-registered in the first state. (Though not registered in the second!) Of course that's a problem if the match is incorrect -- and we've seen plenty examples of dodgey databases yielding false positive matches -- but it also can be a problem even if it is correct.

Ironically, the most recent instance of that story I've heard personally was from a Yale political science professor who specializes in election observation in other countries, and is keenly aware of voter registration issues as a bar to voting. While retaining her residence in CT, the prof did something that looked to some computer like taking up residence at another address -- result: CT's VR system de-registered her. Not the right way of doing universal, automatic, permanent.

One state election official explained the higher-level issue to me recently with two main points.

1. The current system places responsibility on the citizen to apprise the appropriate government. So when it appears that there has been a change of address, the state VR operators should reach to the voter in question to get the real story from them. That includes making it easier for voters to quickly find out their VR status and get help on what they can do next. (Which is what we're doing with online VR technology this year.)

2. When deciding what to do about a reported VR change, the responsibility is the election official's not some computer's. Technology can help suggest to an election official that a voter's record may be out of date, but that should not mean that the voter record should invalidated, either automatically or with a pro-forma confirmation by a person who has no more information than the computer did. What should the election official do instead? See point #1 above!

In other words, a simple interpretation of Holder's words about database co-ordination can lead to data-mining and matching that is error prone not just because the databases have imperfect information, but also because some of the most important information -- voter's intent -- is not in the database, for example "I did a postal address forwarding from my CT home to a DC address not because I moved but because I'm visiting for several weeks and don't want to miss my mail."

So that got me thinking about functional requirements - surprise, techie thinks about requirements not policies! - and we came up with a way to use those two principles to deliver many of the benefits of universal automatic permanent registration, without actually changing election laws and overhauling existing voter database systems. What's required is an inter-government information sharing system:

  • that can notify state VR system operators about events that are possibly relevant to VR, without having to be authoritative about the event or even the person involved;
  • that can enable state VR system operators to take further steps to determine whether there's been an change in voter eligibility;
  • is sufficiently flexible for a wide variety and number of government organizations to participate with ease.

In addition, not required, but darned useful to residents of the 21st century, this system would be complemented by online assistance to members of the public to help them quickly and accurately respond inquiries from election officials.

The latter we are, as I have said, already working on, and well into it. But that inter-government information sharing system, what is that? It would clearly have to be not complicated, not expensive, and not requiring changes in election law or policy. Is that possible?

I think so. Stay tuned, we may be on to something.

- EJS

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The Root Cause -- Long Lines, Late Ballot Counts, and Election Dysfunction in General

I've spent a fair bit of time over the last few days digesting a broad range of media responses to last week's election's operation, much it reaction to President Obama's "we've got to fix that" comment in his acceptance speech. There's a lot of complaining about the long lines, for example, demands for explanation of them, or ideas for preventing them in te future -- and similar for the difficulty that some states and counties face for finishing the process of counting the ballots. It's a healthy discussion for the most part, but one that makes me sad because it mostly misses the main point: the root cause of most election dysfunction. I can explain that briefly from my viewpoint, and back that up with several recent events. The plain unvarnished truth is that U.S. local election officials, taken all together as the collective group that operates U.S. federal and state elections, simply do not have the resources and infrastructure to conduct elections that

  • have large turnout and close margins, preceded by much voter registration activity;
  • are performed with transparency that supports public trust in the integrity of the election being accessible, fair, and accurate.

There are longstanding gaps in the resources needed, ranging from ongoing budget for sufficient staff, to inadequate technology for election administration, voting, counting, and reporting.

Of course in any given election, there are local elections operations that proceed smoothly, with adequate resources and physical and technical infrastructure. But we've seen again and again, that in every "big" election, there is a shifting cast of distressed states or localities (and a few regulars), where adminstrative snafus, technology glitches, resource limits, and other factors get magnified as a result of high participation and close margins. Recent remarks by Broward County, FL, election officials -- among those with the most experience in these matters -- really crystalized it for me. When asked about the cause of the long lines, their response (my paraphrase) is that when the election is important, people are very interested in the election, and show up in large numbers to vote.

That may sound like a trivial or obvious response, but consider it just a moment more. Another way of saying it is that their resources, infrastructure, and practices have been designed to be sufficient only for the majority of elections that have less than 50% turnout and few if any state or federal contests that are close. When those "normal parameters" are exceeded, the whole machinery of elections starts grinding down to a snail's pace. The result: an election that is, or appears to be, not what we expect in terms of being visibily fair, accessible, accurate, and therefore trustworthy.

In other words, we just haven't given our thousands of localities of election officials what they really need to collectively conduct a larger-than-usual, hotly contested election, with the excellence that they are required to deliver, but are not able to. Election excellence is, as much as any of several other important factors, a matter of resources and infrastructure. If we could somehow fill this gap in infrastructure, and provide sufficient funding and staff to use it, then there would be enormous public benefits: elections that are high-integrity and demonstrably trustworthy, despite being large-scale and close.

That's my opinion anyway, but let me try to back it up with some specific and recent observations about specific parts of the infrastructure gap, and then how each might be bridged.

  • One type of infrastructure is voter record systems. This year in Ohio, the state voter record system poorly served many LEOs who searched for but didn't find many many registered absentee voters to whom they should have mailed absentee ballots. The result was a quarter million voters forced into provisional voting -- where unlike casting a ballot in a polling place, there is no guarantee that the ballot will be counted -- and many long days of effort for LEOs to sort through them all. If the early, absentee, and election night presidential voting in Ohio had been closer, we would still be waiting to hear from Ohio.
  • Another type of infrastucture is pollbooks -- both paper, and electronic -- and the systems that prepare them for an election. As usual in any big election, we have lots of media anecdotes about people who had been on these voter rolls, but weren't on election day (that includes me by the way). Every one of these instances slows down the line, causes provisional voting (which also takes extra time compared to regular voting), and contributes to long lines.
  • Then there are the voting machines. For the set of places where voting depends on electronic voting machines, there are always some places where the machines don't start, take too long get started, break, or don't work right. By now you've probably seen the viral youtube video of the touch screen that just wouldn't record the right vote. That's just emblematic of the larger situation of unreliable, aging voting systems, used by LEOs who are stuck with what they've got, and no funding to try to get anything better. The result: late poll opening, insufficient machines, long lines.
  • And for some types of voting machines -- those that are completely paperless -- there is simply no way to do a recount, if one is required.
  • In other places, paper ballots and optical scanners are the norm, but they have problems too. This year in Florida, some ballots were huge! six pages in many cases. The older scanning machines physically couldn't handle the increased volume. That's bad but not terrible; at least people can vote. However, there are still integrity requirements -- for example, the voters needs to put their unscanned ballots in an emergency ballot box, rather than entrust a marked ballot to a poll worker. But those crazy huge ballots, combined with the frequent scanner malfunction, created overstuffed full emergency ballot boxes, and poll workers trying to improvise a way store them. Result: more delays in the time each voter required, and a real threat to the secret ballot and to every ballot being counted.

Really, I could go on for more and more of the infrastructure elements that in this election had many examples of dysfunction. But I expect that you've seen plenty already. But why, you ask, why is the infrastructure so inadequate to the task of a big, complicated, close election conducted with accessibility, accuracy, security, transparency, and earning public trust? Isn't there something better?

The sad answer, for the most part, is not at present. Thought leaders among local election officials -- in Los Angeles and Austin just to name a couple -- are on record that current voting system offerings just don't meet their needs. And the vendors of these systems don't have the ability to innovate and meet those needs. The vendors are struggling to keep up a decent business, and don't see the type of large market with ample budgets that would be a business justification for new systems and the burdensome regulatory process to get them to market.

In other cases, most notably with voter records systems, there simply aren't products anymore, and many localities and states are stuck with expensive-to-maintain legacy systems that were built years ago by big system integrators, that have no flexibility to adapt to changes in election administration, law, or regulation, and that are too expensive to replace.

So much complaining! Can't we do anything about it? Yes. Every one of those and other parts of election infrastructure breakdowns or gaps can be improved, and could, if taken together, provide immense public benefit if state and local election officials could use those improvements. But where can they come from? Especially if the current market hasn't provided, despite a decade of efforts and much federal funding? Longtime readers know the answer: by election technology development that is outside of the current market, breaks the mold, and leverages recent changes in information technology, and the business of information technology. Our blog in the coming weeks will have several examples of what we've done to help, and what we're planning next.

But for today, let me be brief with one example, and details on it later. We've worked with state of Virginia to build one part of new infrastructure for voter registration, and voter record lookup, and reporting, that meets existing needs and offers needed additions that the older systems don't have. The VA state board of elections (SBE) doesn't pay any licensing fees to use this technology -- that's part of what open source is about. The don't have to acquire the software and deploy it in their datacenter, and pay additional (and expensive) fees to their legacy datacenter operator, a government systems integrator. They don't have to go back to the vendor of the old system to pay for expensive but small and important upgrades in functionality to meet new election laws or regulations.

Instead, the SBE contracts with a cloud services provider, who can -- for a fraction of the costs in a legacy in-house government datacenter operated by a GSI -- obtain the open-source software, integrate it with the hosting provider's standard hosting systems, test, deploy, operate, and monitor the system. And the SBE can also contract with anyone they choose, to create new extensions to the system, with competition for who can provide the best service to create them. The public benefits because people anywhere and anytime can check if they are registered to vote, or should get an absentee ballot, and not wait like in Ohio until election day to find out that they are one in a quarter million people with a problem.

And then the finale, of course, is that other states can also adopt this new voter records public portal, by doing a similar engagement with that same cloud hosting provider, or any other provider of their choice that supports similar cloud technology. Virginia's investment in this new election technology is fine for Virginia, but can also be leveraged by other states and localities.

After many months of work on this and other new election technologies put into practical use, we have many more stories to tell, and more detail to provide. But I think that if you follow along and see the steps so far, you may just see a path towards these election infrastructure gaps getting bridged, and flexibly enough to stay bridged. It's not a short path, but the benefits could be great: elections where LEOs have the infrastructure to work with excellence in demanding situations, and can tangibly show the public that they can trust the election as having been accessible to all who are eligible to vote, performed with integrity, and yielding an accurate result.

-- EJS

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Possible Ohio Election Meltdown -- from a Clunky Database?

Tomorrow is Election Day 2012, and with many people experiencing pre-election angst, perhaps now is not the time to start telling our patient readers what the heck we've been doing in technology land for the last several months. Right now, we're in a bit of a breather, as election officials and other partners have been focusing solely on the final slog to election day, and readying for a couple intense weeks of work post-election. So instead, I'll be focusing on sharing with you a technology spin on current election news, and get around to our own accomplishments a little later. The news of the moment I want to share is this:  there is a good chance that Ohio's state and federal election results won't be available on Election Night or even the next day, and root of the problem is technology. To continue the tree analogy, the trunk is process, the branches are people, the leaves are provisional ballots, and the possible storm blowing through the tree is litigation about the ballots. The technology root is balky; the trunk process of finding absentee voters is tricky; election officials didn't do the process correctly; thousands of absentee voters will instead vote provisionally; the delay in counting those ballots can create the opportunity for a storm.

As a result, there is Florida-2000-style election meltdown looming in Ohio. Due to problems with Ohio's voter records database, perhaps as many as 100,000 Ohioans will vote on provisional ballots, a huge number when you consider that every one of them requires human decisions about whether to count it. And those decisions must be monitored and recorded, because if the decision is "yes" then it is irrevocable. Once a provisional ballot is separated from the voter's affidavit (explaining why they are entitled to vote even if the poll worker didn't think so) and counted, then you can't un-count it. Likewise, the "no" decisions lead to a pile of uncounted ballots, which can be the focus of litigation.

"How does a voter records system lead to this?" you might well ask, thinking of a voter registration system that mainly handles new voter registration (creating a new voter record), and updates or re-registration (e.g. changing the address in an existing voter record). Technology glitches could disenfranchise a voter, but create an election integrity meltdown? Yes - and that's because we're not talking about a voter registration system or database, but rather a voter records system that local election officials use for many purposes. And in this case, it's the hinge for absentee voting.

Here's how it works. An Ohio voter requests absentee status via a voter registration form, either a new registration or an update of an existing record. If that request is granted, the voter record's absentee status is updated. Later on, 50-something days before the election, local election officials use the system to find all the people in their county who will be voting absentee, and send each of them their absentee ballot via U.S. Post. But what if the "find all the absentee voters" part doesn't work? Then some people don't get an absentee ballot, and many of them will try to vote in person, and hit a snag, because:

  1. The find-the-absentee-voters part is tricky to do with the voter-records system, and many county officials were not given the correct instructions for the lookup. As result, many absentee voters didn't get an absentee ballot.
  2. What does seem to work OK is preparing the pollbooks for in-person voting, where the poll books indicate for each voter whether they have absentee status. As a result, you get voters with absentee status -- but no absentee ballot -- showing up on Election Day, and being told that they already have a ballot.

Then what? Well, if a voter is persistent and/or the poll workers well-trained and not swamped, then a poll worker will help the voter understand how to vote provisionally -- mark a ballot that does not go into the ballot box, but rather into an envelope with the voter's info. After the election, all these provisional ballot envelopes go to county election HQ, where election officials have to process each envelope, to decide whether the ballot inside should be counted.

Now, the 100,000 estimate kicks in. In a small county with thousands of provisional ballots, or a large county with tens of thousands, the provisional ballot processing can easily go all night and into the next day, because it can't even begin until all absentee ballots have been centrally counted, folded into the results from precincts, and tabulated as preliminary election results. Now suppose that statewide, the margin of victory for the presidential election is only tens of thousands of votes, and statewide there are 100,000+ provisional ballots that are yet to be counted?

In that case, provisional ballot processing is going to receive a lot of scrutiny, and every one of those non-counted ballots is going to be subjected to the type of controversy we saw in Minnesota 4 years ago with the Franken-Coleman senate contest that took weeks to resolve. And this is the situation that has many Ohio election officials (and me) praying that whatever the election result is, the margin is wider than the number of provisional ballots.

This situation is rooted in a voter records system that's too complicated and clunky for harried, under-funded, under-staffed, hard-working election officials to use reliably. So if you doubted that ordinary information technology could create a possible election meltdown just as easily as flaky proprietary voting systems, well, now you know. And that's just one reason why we've been hard at work on registration-related technology -- try to help create the public benefit of an election that is and can be seen to have been administered correctly, before the ballot counting even begins.

Keep those fingers crossed …

-- EJS

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Congratulations to California SoS Bowen - Online Voter Registration

Congratulations to California's Secretary of State Deborah Bowen, and the whole State Elections group, and their technology providers and operators! Today Bowen's office announced the launch of the state's new online voter registration system, which enables paperless online voter registration for those citizens of CA who already have a current driver's license with a paper-based signature digitally recorded by the DMV. Today's Sacramento Bee has plenty more information, but I'll just mention a couple items that have been points of concern in the past.

  • This new system does not change the CA state election law that requires that election officials gather both personal information and a signature as part of the voter registration process. With online registration, the personal information is gathered online, and used to obtain from the DMV a signature that the user already provided, along with the personal information, to the DMV, on a paper application form.
  • Good old fashioned paper applications with a wet ink signature are still acceptable -- and indeed are required for people for whom there DMV doesn't have a matching record with a signature on file.
  • This new system does not change election law regarding proof of identity. For those registering to vote for the first time, Federal law may require showing proof of identification for first-time voters, using current valid photo identification, utility bill, bank statement, or similar. Federal law does not require proof of identification at the polling place, if the voter's registration form has been verified by an election official. Election officials have the same responsibility -- whether registration is online or on paper -- to verify voter registration forms.

To some, it might seem barely notable that people can fill out a form online, to submit a voter registration application -- after all, we fill out forms online for lots of things, and manage a great of personal business online. But online voter registration, underneath the covers, requires a lot work to maintain compliance with existing election law, adhere to the same model of protecting against fraud, go through all the bureaucratic and regulatory hoops to permit one part of the state government to get personal information from another part of the government (and one of them is the DMV!) ... and to do a lot of pesky system integration with legacy systems, to get the new system running as quickly as possible without re-implementing a lot existing I.T. systems.

Instead, I can tell you from personal experience, it is a lot of work, in more areas technical and non-technical than would seem believable at the outset. Kudos to CA and Bowen!

-- EJS

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NYT on Voting System "Plagues"

We're racing the calendar to cram in more voter-assisting features to the voter registration system projects that we have in hand. I am really looking forward to a slowing of the pace here, and having more time to blog and explain the benefits we're delivering with these systems -- particularly so, because voter registration issues seem to be popping up all over the U.S. and becoming a more prominent political issue. But for today at least, you don't need to hear it from me. Once again, my thanks go to the New York Times -- this time to Ethan Bronner -- for a really excellent round-up of recent events, and summary of the varying positions of the various stakeholders. Check out Ethan's article for quick catch-up on where things stand today with the politics of voter registration, and where technology fits in.

-- EJS

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Public Benefit from Online Voter Registration?

Some feedback on a couple recent blogs showed that I didn't do such a great job on defining how our OVR work creates public benefit. So let me try again, with thanks to a canny reader who pointed out the subtlety involved. But first, let me restate what our OVR work is: online voter registration assistance technology for NGOs like RockTheVote and government organizations like state and local boards of election. Through our work with RockTheVote, a large and expanding number of good government groups and other NGOs can quickly get an OVR system of their own, without deploying software or operating computers; and some can take advantage of options to largely re-work the appearance of the OVR web application, and/or integrate with mobile clients and social media. We're also helping drive registrants to the government organizations as well, for those states with a strong online voter registration systems, who have requested that the Rocky OVR system give users the option of registering with the state board of elections. Then, out at the bleeding edge, it is even possible for local or state election officials to piggyback on the OVR system to have their own 100% election-official-managed online voter registration assistance system, with the same look and feel as other county or state web sites, and all without any procurement or deployment.

So, fair enough, we're the technology provider in a mix of many organizations who either want to help people register to vote (NGOs) or are have a basic mission of helping people register -- county registrars and state election officials. So where is the public benefit? And where is the subtlety that I mentioned? Many people would say that in a broad way, the public as a whole benefits when more eligible voters are registered and participate in elections -- but not all. In fact, that is a political issue that we at OSDV want to steer clear of, especially given the political conflicts between some, who wish to aggressively register people in droves and who are more concerned about participation than eligibility, and others who are concerned about possible fraud and are more concerned about eligibility that participation. The debate about voter registration practices goes from one extreme where an election is tainted if it seems that a single eligible voter was barred from participation, to the the other extreme where an election is tainted if there is a suspicion about a single ineligible person having cast a ballot.

So where do public benefits arise separately from these political issues? In a word: access, from a citizen perspective; and duty, from an election official perspective. Every eligible citizen deserves and is entitled to access to elections. It is the duty of election officials to provide that access to the eligible citizens who demand access, and to fairly and expeditiously assess every request for eligibility. Whether or not one is a fan of voter registration drives, or of voter roll purging, there is this shared value: eligible citizens who are trying to participate in elections should not have the access blocked by election officials. Yet in many cases that does occur because well-meaning public officials simply lack the resources, staff, or budget to be responsive to citizen needs. In OSDV's wheel-house, the lack that we address is lack of  election technology, or lack of an effective way to acquire and deploy relevant technology.

And the technology angle is particularly important for younger citizens, who have been using computers and smart phones for practically everything for their whole lives. And network and mobile technology is in fact appropriate for registration and all manner of other voter services -- unlike voting which has unique anonymity and integrity requirements -- and so people expect it. Many election officials use technology to help them more effectively carry out their duties, meeting those expectations --  including those relating to voter registration. But for other election officials, there is gap between what they need, and what they are actually able to do within limitations of budget, procurement, staff; or products that simply don't provide the functions appropriate to their jurisdiction. So the gap has multiple dimensions, but across them all, government officials are doing less than they could, in performance of their duties to provide election access to those who are actively seeking it and are eligible.

So when we or anyone else helps to fill that gap with new or better or more available technology, then we have enabled public benefit: election officials can do more in spite of having less resources every year; entitled voters can vote; and thirdly and often overlooked, good government groups and watchdog agencies have more visibility to assess how well the election officials really are doing their job. And that third factor is quite important. Just look at the horror-show of suspicion, vituperation, conspiracy theory, litigation, and Internet-speed dis- or mis-information that spun up recently in Talahassee and Memphis and elsewhere, over removal of people from voter rolls. It may be that nefarious people really were rigging the poll books, or it may be the electronic voter records are in significant dis-array, or it may be voter record databases are antique and prone to administrative error. But we'll never really know. Resource constrained election organizations, that run old election technology with demonstrated flaws, and little or no self-record-keeping, find it extremely difficult to demonstrate to interested and entitled observers, exactly what is going on inside the computers, when one of these election year firestorms brews up.

And when the firestorm is big enough, it essentially prevents election officials from delivering on a fundamental duty: performing accurate and trustworthy elections. In other words, those firestorms are also a detriment to public confidence in elections. We, in addition to helping election officials perform their duties, are also passionate about delivering technology that can help with the transparency that's part of firestorm prevention, and reducing their public detriment.

And lastly that brings me to a related point for another day: how the technology that we're developing now can help deliver that transparency, along with the improvement in the technical infrastructure for U.S. elections. The next chunk is still in the oven, but I really look forward to sharing it here, when it is fully baked.

-- EJS

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Online Voter Registration for Jurisdictions Large and Small (Part 2)

My last posting was a bit of a cliff-hanger (sorry) for the claims that:

  • We're doing useful work to enable NGOs and election officials to offer online voter registration assistance to voters ...
  • ... without doing a major acquisition or system integration of the scale that VA is doing now (with OSDV help) or that WA has done or CA is doing in a similar way ...
  • ... but rather using a middle way, between those large projects and the "download this PDF to fill out by hand" kind of support.

The key here is to enable election officials to extend a major change in usability, while spending modest time and effort to quickly stand up an online voter registration assistance service.

As I wrote earlier, we took the first step a few weeks ago when we went live with a new release of the "Rocky" OVR assistance system operated by RockTheVote and hosted by Open Source Labs. The main feature of the new release was a web services application programming interface (API) that provides other web applications with access to all of Rocky's functions for voter registration assistance. Now it is time for me to connect the dots from there to actual benefit for voters and election officials -- starting with an explanation of what the API is.

If you take a test drive of "Rocky" you will see a human interface for people and their browsers to interact with Rocky. By contrast, the programming interface is for other web sites to interact with Rocky, or indeed any software including mobile apps and FaceBook apps. Another web site could implement its own separate human interface -- different branding, different workflow -- while a mobile app could assist the user by pulling information stored on the mobile device. But either way, the web site or mobile app does not need to have any back-end. Instead, they rely on Rocky for checking user data, constructing PDFs, storing registrant data, sending email reminders, and so forth.

As a result, we've substantially lowered the cost in time and effort for any elections officials or NGOs to develop and deploy their own online-voter-assistance system, by opening up Rocky to be the back-end for these systems, so that all the complexity -- and cost of deployment! -- of the back-end functionality just drops out of these systems. No database to set up and manage, no computational heavy lifting. For organizations that already have a web site, it can be as simple as adding one or a few new forms pages, with a link to Rocky that will submit the voter's registration information, and present back to the user the PDF with their completed form and mailing instructions.

Any organization can use Rocky via the API in this way, including local elections offices that already have a Web site that they can update to use the Rocky API. And for local election officials in particular, there is an additional benefit. Via the API they can obtain a digital copy of the voter registration form data, and a tracking number. When the signed paper form arrives in the mail, they can type or scan in the bar-coded tracking number, and get the form data, so that they don't have to retype all the information on the form -- a time consuming (and in peak voter registration season, expensive)  task with much scope for human error.

There's a lot to like about this approach, but it gets even better. In an upcoming release there will be even more features that will help organizations have the very own Rocky OVR system, but without having to have an existing web site that is easy to modify. Depending on how fancy an elections org wants to customize the look and feel, it could be a matter of a couple hours work to get up and running. Even better! More on that when the system is live.

-- EJS

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