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Bedrock 4: Into the Ballot Design Studio

Continuing our Bedrock election story (see parts one, two, and three if you need to catch up), we find the County of Bedrock Board of Elections staff, including design guru Dana Chisel, in the "ballot design studio," a dusty back room of the BBoE. Chisels in hand, staffers ponder the blank slate, or rather sandstone, of sample ballot slabs on easels. With the candidate and referendum filing periods closed and the election only a couple weeks away, it's time to make the ballots. Dana Chisel, design queen of Bedrock

Now, you might think that the ballot consists of the 3 items we know of - the race for Mayor, the race for Quarry Commission, and the question on the quarry fee. However, recall that each precinct in Bedrock County has a distinct set of districts. In this election, each precinct has a distinct ballot with a distinct set of contests corresponding to the districts that the precinct is part of. At a first cut, the contests by precinct are:

  • Downtown-001: the contest for mayor, and the referendum on quarry fees;
  • Quarrytown-002: the contests for mayor and quarry commissioner, and the referendum on quarry fees;
  • QuarryCounty-003: the contest for quarry commissioner, and the referendum on quarry fees;
  • County-004: the referendum on quarry fees.

You'll note that only Town residents -- in Precincts 1 or 2 -- are entitled to vote for mayor, while residents of the Mineral District -- in Precincts 2 or 4 -- are the only voters entitled to for Quarry Commissioner. Last, all voters in the county are eligible to vote on county revenue issues such as taxes and fees imposed by the county.

That, plus the list of candidates and the text of the referendum, comprise what might be called the content of each of the 4 ballots, or the ballot configuration. But the ballots themselves need to be designed: the ballot items have to appear in some order, and the candidates likewise; the ballot items have to be arranged in some visual design, vertically or horizontally, with sufficient space between each, fitting the size of ballot slates that they will be etched on … and so on.

Ballot for Precinct 1 in the Bedrock Special Election of 1 April, 1000000 B.C.

So, armed with chisels, the proverbial blank slate, and several tablets stating the legal requirements for contest and candidate order, design guru Dana Chisel marks out a prototype ballot containing all the requisite ballot content, laid out according to usability principles known since the Stone Age (left justified text, instructions separate from content, instructions with simple words along with pictures, and more). After a few tries and consultation with their boss Rocky, they have a design model for each of the 4 ballots. The next step are usability testing with volunteer voters, and using the results to create the final slabs that serve as the model for each ballot style. Then they're ready for mass reproduction of  ballots for the upcoming election -- get those duplidactylsaurs into action!

Now, you might think that they're ready for election day, but wait there's more, including the preparation of pollbooks, and then early voting, and then eventually election day operations.

Next time: Pollbooks and Early Voting

-- EJS

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Bedrock 3: The Big Picture

At the end of our last visit to the fictional Town of Bedrock, we left Fred as he applied to run for mayor. Now we'll continue the story, but with a focus on Bedrock itself, in order to continue building up a detailed, yet simplified, account of actual U.S. election practice. The focus is on Bedrock rather than its colorful denizens, because the answer to the current question -- can Fred be a candidate for mayor in the upcoming election? -- lies partly in the details of Cobblestone County and Town of Bedrock, how they are structured and administered for elections. At a first glance of the Bedrock County map, you'll see that the Town of Bedrock is entirely in Cobblestone County, dividing the county into two regions, the part that is incorporated in the Town, and the unincorporated portion.

Map for Election Administration of Bedrock

Look a bit more closely though, and you'll see the Mineral District -- not a town but a political division called an electoral district (in some states in the U.S., called a jurisdiction rather than a district). The Mineral District in the part of the county that's affected by quarrying operations at the Bedrock Quarry, and the Bedrockites who live there get to elect the Quarry Commission to regulate the Quarry. Look a bit more carefully and you'll notice that part of the Mineral District is in the Town of Bedrock, and the rest is in the unincorporated county.

To keep our Election Tale simple, that's almost all of the electoral structure of Cobblestone County that is the jurisdiction of the Bedrock BoE. The remaining part may be a bit more familiar: the precincts. Each precinct is a region in which all of the voters are entitled to vote on exactly the same ballot items; put another way, in one precinct all of the voters reside in exact same set of electoral districts. So in Bedrock County, there are 4 precincts:

  • The "Downtown-001" precinct, part of two districts: the district of the Town of Bedrock, and the district for Bedrock County;
  • The "Quarrytown-002" precinct, part of those same two districts, plus the Mineral District;
  • The "QuarryCounty-003" precinct, part of the Mineral District and the County;
  • The "County-004" precinct, part of just the district for the County.

Looking a little more carefully, you'll notice the Flintstone residence is in the QuarryTown-002 precinct, which means the Flintstones (or at least those of them that are registered voters) are eligible to run for offices in either the Town or the Quarry District. To say that more generally, in order to be eligible to run for an office, you have to reside in the district that the office is part of. Fred wants to run for Mayor of the Town of Bedrock, so he has to reside in the Town of Bedrock.

Rocky Stonerman

Back at the BBoE, Rocky has completed the eligibility check for Fred, having ensured that:

  • he resides in the Town of Bedrock,
  • he is registered to vote,
  • his current address matches the address in his voter record,
  • he is not serving jail time,

and perhaps some other eligibility requirements in Stone Age election law that we are not aware of. Fred is satisfied to find that on the Bedrock slab-site's Upcoming Election slab, he is listed as a candidate for mayor. However, there is also a bit of a surprise: his neighbor Betty Rubble is running against him! And also Barney Rubble is running for Fred's old Quarry Commission seat. Also, the commission's clerical errors seem to have been resolved, and the quarry fee referendum will be on the ballot. With a few more days of filing time left, an irritated Fred ponders who lives in the Mineral District, that might be convinced to run against Barney.

Next Time: it's time for ballot design - get out your Chisel!

-- EJS

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Munich: This Week’s iVoting Battleground

I am on my way to Munich, as I post this, for the 2010 UOCAVA Summit.  The OSDV Foundation is a co-host this year, and we’re coordinating the technology track of this 3-day gathering focused on the issues and opportunities for our overseas voters.  This year’s event is arguably the most important UOCAVA (Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act) gathering since the passage of the Act in 1986.  Last November, Congress and the President brought UOCAVA into the 21st century by passing the MOVE Act into law – which is somewhat like an amendment to UOCAVA. And 2 very important outcomes will be showcased this week in Munich.

2010SummitAs an aside, you may be asking why Munich and not, say, Washington D.C.?  Good question (especially as I spend 17 hours of my day traveling from the west coast to Munich).  But there is rhyme and reason here.  Every election year in the U.S. (which means every other year) the Overseas Vote Foundation produces the UOCAVA Summit in Europe to bring together all of our fellow citizens and their organizations stationed abroad to learn the latest developments in efforts to include Americans overseas in the processes of democracy state-side.  This includes large corporations with major installations in Europe and abroad, as well as NGOs and of course, the Military.  What you may not realize is [a] there are over 6 million Americans abroad, and [b] recent studies, which catalyzed the MOVE Act, indicate that as many as 1 in 4 overseas citizens are unable to participate in U.S. elections for a variety of reasons, but due mostly to verifying their registration status and/or receiving and casting a ballot in time to be counted.  So, this being a mid-term election year, the Summit is in Europe, and this time, Munich.

Now, what about those two outcomes?

The first major outcome of the MOVE Act to play prominently in this year’s conference is one of the fundamental mandates of the Act that states in relevant part, that elections jurisdictions shall provide a digital means to obtain a blank ballot for any overseas voter at least 45 days before an election.

At first glance, you might say, “Duh, of course, like, aren’t we already doing that?”  And the answer is, by and large, no.  But in this always-on digital age, making blank official ballots available for download, casting (filling out by marking choices), and then returning (through expedited mail means), seems to be the proverbial no-brainer.  And now, federal law makes it mandatory.

Of course, caution: we don’t exactly want an unchecked number of blank ballots loose in cyberspace either (I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to realize why that might be a bad idea).  So, we need to ensure that we only issue ballots to a qualified recipient, and in fact, each qualified recipient returns one, and only one completed ballot.  Yes, yes, I know it is "block and tackle" sort of stuff.  But the devil is in the digital details.

Accordingly, there will be much to discuss about implementing MOVE Act mandates, particularly blank ballot delivery by digital means (read: downloadable, probably a PDF).  And, of course, the TrustTheVote Project is excited about this, because there is an opportunity to showcase the work underway on open source solutions to design, generate, and distribute blank ballots (that would be our Ballot Design Studio component of the TTV Elections and Voting Technology Framework -- incidentally, we're moving so fast that we have yet to update a bunch of documentation on the Ballot Design Studio project component on the Wiki... yes we need more help!).

The good news for our fellow overseas citizens is that this is a funded mandate, and all states and elections jurisdictions are hard at work determining how to meet the mandate.  And there's more good news because at least a few states are already there.   Non-profit organizations (NGOs) as well as the Department of Defense through the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) are also working hard to make services available ASAP.  So, it will happen.  And perhaps the OSDV Foundation open source technology – a publicly owned asset – will have a chance to play a role in that work.

There are many who are energized to make this as easy as possible in a digital age.  And to some, providing blank ballots in a downloadable PDF is merely a start to bringing the processes of democracy into the digital age.

Therein lies the 2nd prominent outcome to be showcased this week.

You see, rightly or wrongly (and the arguments both ways are non-trivial) some believe that if the blank ballot is available digitally, there is no reason why we cannot cut the cycle time of overseas voting completely by making it possible to fill out the ballot digitally and then returning it by digital means.

The Department of Defense, for example, argues from the simple point-of-view of risk management.  To many in the military, the benefits of a far greater probability of having their ballot received and counted far outweigh the risk of a ballot being read, intercepted, or even hacked (let alone revealing the identity of the casting citizen). A military statesman, whom I have a great deal of respect for, points out that shooting with "live ballots" is nothing compared to shooting with live bullets, so this is an easy decision (i.e., to adopt as digital a process as soon as possible to ensure speedy delivery and return of ballots).

For other overseas citizens, whose mail services are far better and accessibility challenges are far fewer, the digital means to complete the “ballot transaction” represents a powerful convenience given their remote (absentee) status.

But this opens “Pandora’s Internet Voting Box” to the opponents of this proposed digital efficiency, because if digital ballot casting is extended to our military, and then expanded to include overseas voters, goes the argument, then every absentee voter on the planet (including those merely “out of town” on elections day) will cry foul if they too are not allowed to participate in this highly efficient 21st century manner.

Then the horns kick in, and my shoes start to squeak, because this is a slippery slope, and gosh darn it, this sort of thing could lead to Internet voting!  That is the 2nd outcome of this week’s conference: the great debate on whether public packet-switched networks should be used to transact ballot data in public elections.

At times, we’ve alluded to our position on that matter in blog posts and other content here on the Blog and our project Wiki.  And I will leave it as an exercise for the bored and curious to “look it up.”  What I will say is this: contrary to several concerns raised, I signed up for, and remain committed (with a fiduciary sense of responsibility) to moderating a fair and balanced debate on Internet Voting or what we’ve coined ‘iVoting.”  And I have no intention whatsoever of attempting to sway the debate in one direction or another, favour one side or another, or allow my opinions to color my commentary or line of questioning.

It promises to be a lively discussion.

To some, the use of the Internet in public elections is inevitable as we progress into the digital age.  Maybe so.  And to several European nations, this step has already been successfully achieved.  Bear in mind that there are historical and key cultural differences between the USA and Europe in matters of public elections making adoption of methods like vote-by-mail as well the Internet both palatable and plausible.

To others, this is a nightmare unfolding before their eyes.  These opponent activists have relied on academics and other domain experts’ assertions, observations, and statements, which are necessarily technically accurate.  The (valid) concerns of these technically precise professionals have fueled the fury within opponents who reasonably fear for the integrity of our elections, if they are conducted across a digital means where compromises and vulnerabilities are an inherent part of the architecture of packet-switched networks.  And caution should be exercised.

Does this mean that the notion of using the power and capability of the Internet to enable this important aspect of our digital democracy should be outlawed, forbidden, and eliminated from consideration?

Is there a middle ground that provides a way forward wherein carefully supervised experimentation, research, and further development into designs and deployments that address the persistent integrity issues?

Should we realize and respect that going forward democracies in a digital age must provide a plurality of means by which its citizens can participate in elections, whether that be by mail, in person at a polling place, partially through digital means, or entirely on-line?

Or are the integrity issues raised largely unwarranted in the face of technical capabilities, processes, policies, or procedures that are being drowned in the calls for a legislative mandate to make illegal the use of the Internet in any capacity in public elections?  (Note: keep it on the down low, but packet-switched networks have been used to back-haul aggregate election data for years.)

All of these are the questions and issues are being discussed (and debated) this week in Munich at the 2010 UOCAVA Summit.  And they are being driven by both [a] the passage of the MOVE Act into U.S. law and [b] the full throttle intent by some groups to advance all of the potential capabilities of digital delivery of ballots for (at least) overseas voters.  Stay tuned.

Cheers GAM|out

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MOVE Act Implementation: Call For Participation

The TrustTheVote Project issued its first formal "Call For Participation" ("CFP") to its Stakeholder Community last evening, and five elections jurisdiction have already indicated interest. The CFP is inviting collaboration from elections jurisdictions all over the country who need to determine how to comply with the mandates of the new federal MOVE Act -- particularly the requirement to provide a digital (online) means to deliver a download-ready blank ballot for any overseas voter wishing to participate in an election in their jurisdiction, and particularly one that has any federal contest included.

The TrustTheVote Project has developed a sufficient amount of its overall elections systems framework to be able to deliver a solution today for this requirement (pending any adjustments, modifications, or "tweaking" required to meet local requirements.) 

Really, this is a big deal.  You see, digitally serving anyone the official ballot for their district of residence is deceptively simple.  In fact, its non-trivial.  And yet, every jurisdiction where there are permanent residents stationed overseas either in the military or in some other NGO including simply an employer assignment needs to (and by federal law must) be able to cast an absentee ballot.  But how to get the ballot to them in time for them to prepare it and return to be counted?  We first presented a solution for this in a White Paper in December 2009.

To back up a bit, the MOVE Act was signed into law in November by the President, and essentially is intended to update and bring into the 21st century digital society the UOCAVA law from decades ago. For readers unfamiliar with these terms, here's a quick tutorial.

In 1986, Congress passed the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act ("UOCAVA").  The UOCAVA requires that the states and territories allow certain groups of citizens to register and vote absentee in elections for Federal offices. In addition, most states and territories have their own laws allowing citizens covered by the UOCAVA to register and vote absentee in state and local elections as well. United States citizens covered by the UOCAVA include: members of the United States Uniformed Services and merchant marine; their family members; and United States citizens residing outside the United States.

After the 2008 elections cycle it was determined that up to 1 in 4 military and overseas voters were disenfranchised because they didn't receive their ballots in time.  In the autumn of 2009, Congress passed the new Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, which is a complement and update to UOCAVA.  Among other provisions, the MOVE Act mandates that States shall provide a digital (online) means for a UOCAVA voter to manage their voter registration status and to receive a download ready blank ballot for the elections jurisdiction of their registered permanent residence.

Of course, there are those out there who shrill at the prospect that somehow, someway this could lead to Internet voting.  Very unlikely, and please don't get me started down that rat hole either.  Let me stay trained on the important point here.

The work of the TrustTheVote Project, to bring innovative open source digital voting technology to the public, already addresses the mandates of the MOVE Act.  And we've reached a point where issuing the CFP just makes sense to enlarge the pool of jurisidictions testing and evaluating our solution, and positioning themselves to acquire the tools when they are ready.

And of course, the really nice part: the software tools are free -- that's the benevolent point of the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation and the TrustTheVote Project.  Yes, we appreciate and encourage donations to the Foundation to defray the development costs (particularly if a jurisdiction desires the assistance of our technology development team to tailor the software to their exacting requirements), but the source code is free and will be theirs to do with as they wish (especially for software that does not require certification for voting systems purposes.)

Interested?  Great!  Get started by downloading the CFP here.  And get in touch with us.

Cheers GAM|out

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Why Publish Ballots?

I'd like to thank Eric Rescorla for making an excellent and pithy point about the purpose of publishing images of  marked ballots.  But first, thanks (again) to Mitch Trachtenberg of the Humboldt Transparency Project for publishing a hand-picked set of ballot images that provide a great example of the difficult borderline cases of interpreting hard-marked paper ballots -- whether it is a human or some software doing the interpreting.  Ballot publication can show how much of a given election result actually depended on these borderline cases. Eric made a broader point that is so widely misunderstood that it truly merits repetition:

The main point of publishing ballot images  is to allow people to independently verify that the images published correspond to the votes recorded for those images.

True, but verification requires more than ballot images - it requires that each image is published along with information about how that ballot's marks were interpreted as votes that were counted.  I cringe every time somebody talks about ballot image publication as though it were just posting some JPEGs on a Web site.

By viewing the images plus these "cast ballot records", members of the public can look at a ballot image and decide for themselves whether they think its votes were interpreted correctly -- and if not, whether the putative mistakes are enough to effect the outcome of a race.

And just as important, consider the cases where an election official is involved in deciding an ambiguous mark - particularly at large scales such as with vote-by-mail.  As a result, broader transparency requires that the election process maintain audit records of these decisions, in case they need to be re-visited.

So, sure, the publication of images alone is helpful for transparency, but Mitch's examples show how much interpretive leeway there can be. And in close elections, that leeway can influence whether a recount is required, or even influence an election result. So it's just as important to maintain and publish cast-ballot records, audit records, and the like.

But that is a lot of work!

And often is not feasible with current voting systems and election management technology. It's actually quite a job to maintain and publish all this information in a form useful to members of the public - a job that we're working on at the TrustTheVote Project of course, by building all of our election technology system components with the "Save Everything" principle.

-- EJS

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A Tale of Two Ballots

To give an idea of a some of the many aspects of ballot design that we're working on, I have a couple ballot images for you, from Larry Norden's keynote presentation at the EVT conference recently. The problem illustrated is that the first contest is spread across two columns, which looks like it might be two separate contests. As a result, a voter might make a selection in the box at lower right, and make a selection in the box at middle top -- in which case neither vote would count. In this picture, the big red arrow shows how to improve this ballot, by putting all of the candidates in one box in one column.

BrennanBetterBallot1

Fair enough. In our ballot design studio, this error probably won't even be an option -- contests wouldn't be spread across a column break or page break except in exceptional cases with really long candidate lists.

The second picture is of an ideal re-design of the same ballot, using some principles from the design standards that AIGA developed for the EAC. In addition to re-organizing the content, the layout has several usability improvements. The use of color and shading highlights the separation between contests and separation of groups of contests. It's much easier to see at a glance that there are 8 contests in 3 categories. Likewise, the straight-party voting option is clearly like a contest, rather than being in the same box with the instructions to the voter.

BrennanBetterBallot2

Again, in our ballot design studio, we're developing design templates that adopt the use of color and shading in a similar way, rather than having uniform black text and thin black lines on a plain white background.

So what's the point? This is the easy stuff! In the next few postings about ballot design, we'll show how the design improvements illustrated here are just the tip of the iceberg. The phrase "the devil is in the details" does not even begin to describe the situation! Stay tuned.

-- EJS

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