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Matthew Douglass

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OSDV Testifies (sort of) at CA Voting Systems Hearing

Greetings- So, I've taken a couple of days to decompress after a marathon of preparation for the Hearing this past Monday held by the CA Secretary of State.  Unfortunately, Secretary Bowen could not attend and preside over this important hearing as she was a victim of the global weirding that is dumping snow in multiple feet on Washington, D.C.  Somehow, I have to believe that had the Secretary presided as planned, things might have gone a just bit differently.

I took a couple of days before posting this because [a] I wanted to take in all of the kind messages we received from so many of you regarding our participation and the Hearing itself and weigh what others had perceived in watching online; and [b] give myself a chance to ensure that I wouldn't whine (too much) about how it went.  And the reason for that: whining is a waste of energy and the fact of the matter is the Hearing was a very important opportunity for everyone.

As to the way the Hearing went, the goodness of the digital world means all of it is recorded, archived, and on the public record.  So, I will not waste your gracious time reading our blog, nor my precious time writing posts completely regurgitating the turn of events.  However, I provide a couple of things here for your consideration.

First, my take is the CA Secretary of State needs to conduct another Hearing that is strictly focused on the challenges and opportunities of open source technology in elections systems.  Even had I been afforded the same amount of time as the other panelists (or even just the amount of time originally allocated) there is no way we could have had any sort of intellectually honest discussion about the many aspects of this increasingly popular topic. 

Sincerely, the fact that the topic made the agenda is an important step in the right direction.  However, there were just three questions fired at me in the midst of my providing some background on our project, and they reflect the reason I believe another Hearing is necessary.  Here they are/were, roughly paraphrasing (its on the record; you could look it up):

  1. When will your project have anything to deploy?
  2. Will your technology really be free?
  3. Is open source really better than closed, and why?

You'd probably concur that answering those questions alone should engage more than five minutes of discussion; well at least the 3rd question.  As I reflect, I goofed up the 1st answer leaving the Dias unimpressed (I suggested 2016 is when we anticipate our full system will be ready to deploy, although we have deliverables as early as, like, now) but there was simply no follow-up from the Dias, rather they fired a 2nd question as to whether our technology would be "free."  And my 2nd answer appeared to be met with doubt (at least two of the County Registrars on the Dias shook their heads in disbelief), because I answered, Yes.  But then I honestly conditioned it by adding,

If what you require is what we provide out of the box, then certainly.  If, however, you require some modification or tuning for your particular jurisdiction and you do not want to do so yourself, we ask for a donation to the Foundation to keep the project alive and defray the costs of work.

It appears I had them at "free" and lost them at "If."  Perhaps that's the challenge of a sound-bite world.  Let me just make this point at the risk of launching down a rat-hole of discussion like a Luge pilot *:

Just because the software is developed or deployed on an "open source" basis doesn't mean its free of development cost.

OK, on to my second point.  Rather than blather on about what we had to (or attempted to) say, you can read our prepared written testimony from which I derived my planned oral remarks here.  Please spend 20 minutes to give it a read because it will:

  1. Provide an overview of our motivation, charter, and project and explain clearly why (regardless of what the detractors are beginning to suggest about the potential of open source in elections) our project is viable, sustainable, adoptable, and deployable (sic, but you get the idea);
  2. Summarize our achievements, accomplishments and milestones for 2009;
  3. Offer some insight to how we believe what we're working on can help the State of California; and
  4. Present our perspectives on [a] the market transformation that can occur through open sourcing the underlying software technology of voting machinery, [b] the sustainability of the technology once our work here is complete, [c] describe 4 prospective deployment models for elections jurisdictions deciding that an open source based solution is right for them, and [d] present some thoughts on the simmering issue of re-thinking the process and model of certification.

Here's the bottom line: please indulge me, I'm really trying not to whine, because again, this was an important meeting regardless of time management issues)

What we're working on is very real, viable, sustainable, adoptable, deployable, and not disappearing any time soon.

We have over 200 hundred members in our Stakeholder Community representing a dozen States and its growing.  We're feeling increasingly validated about what seemed like a pie-in-the-sky notion three years ago.  And maybe we're starting to feel just a tiny bit justifiably irreverent towards those who insist on believing that what we're doing can't possibly be the kind of change agent we believe.

We took this Hearing pretty seriously.  So, OK, I guess I'm a wee bit miffed that after all of the hard work a number of our team members like Matthew Douglass and John Sebes put into preparing for this Hearing, and the number of Advisers who graciously took time to provide their two-cents on our prepared testimony, that I had the worst performance of my life in a regulatory testimony setting.

As one individual who was watching online sent to me in a text, I was essentially "run" after just less than 12 minutes of participation, when legacy vendors had earlier been afforded 2x or more time allotment to make their case for what: a promise of an endless supply of spare parts?  A promise of thinking about maybe considering the possibility of some common data formats for interoperability, someday?  For  a bunch of buzzword compliant hand-waving phrase dropping about transparency and open (read: disclosed) source?  Really?

Don't get me wrong, its on the public record: we support a healthy viable commercial industry for voting systems.  We believe our open source technology can pave a new road to a more competitive, customer-centric market.

But for the moment, if we're to have an intellectually honest discussion about the future of voting in California: the people, the equipment, and the costs, then surely the topic of open source technology deserves equal time to the well over an hour afforded the vendors, rather than barely 12 minutes and three questions of which the answer to the last was aborted mid-sentence.

That's weird.  And that's not the technically adept and pragmatic California Secretary of State office I've come to know.  Seriously, I refuse to believe there was any malice, just simply a series of fumbles on time management and facilities (e.g., how is it that the guy helping with AV disappears just when I'm trying to light up the LCD projector with my Mac connection?)

Again: I know the Secretary and her Deputy of Elections (at least) are committed to exploring the opportunities of innovation and new technology approaches just as much as they are intent on working with vendors to improve current offerings.  I remain convinced of this. However, we had an opportunity to provide some insight to our work and educate the Dias and the audience on the challenges and opportunities of open source, and that didn't happen as hoped... this time.

Cheers GAM|out

Oh yeah, for those of you who made it this far and wondered about my red asterisk, I promised myself I'd find a way to weave in the start of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, opening Friday evening. Snap. ;-)

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OSDV Foundation Called to Testify on State of CA Voting Systems Future

Gregory Miller of the OSDV Foundation will be provide testimony during State of California Hearings on Future of Elections Systems next Monday, February 8th. CA Secretary of State Debra Bowen requested elections and voting systems experts from around the country to attend and testify, and answer questions about the current election administration landscape and how California can best prepare for the future.  The Secretary noted in a prepared statement:

Demands for increased transparency and services, shrinking government budgets, and technological advances that outpace elections laws and regulations have combined to challenge what many thought were ‘permanent’ solutions developed as part of the 2002 Help America Vote ActMany in California and across the nation are ready to move in a new direction.  The question is, what should Californians seek in the next generation of voting equipment and how can new products truly serve the interests of voters?

Secretary Bowen will preside over the Hearing, joined by county elections executives from Los Angeles, Orange, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Santa Cruz and Madera counties. In addition to the testimony from OSDV, wide-ranging testimony will come from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Pew Center on States, the Federal Voting Assistance Program, representatives from every major voting system manufacturer with contracts in California, and more.  The complete agenda is available here.

California has a strong record of thoughtful analysis of its voting systems. In 2007, Secretary Bowen led a top-to-bottom review of certified voting systems. Bowen asserted from the outset that the review:

Ensure that California’s voters cast their ballots on voting systems that are secure, accurate, reliable, and accessible.

And following the top-to-bottom review, on August 3, 2007, Secretary Bowen strengthened the security requirements and use conditions for certain systems.

So its no surprise to us that continuing developments in the elections technology industry as well as legislative initiatives are leading the Secretary to conduct this Hearing next Monday.  Part of that change is best evidenced by the MOVE Act.

We'll discuss more about the MOVE Act in other posts, but in summary, President Obama signed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act in October 2009.  The most immediate impact of the law from the State perspective has to do with the provision that establishes a 45-day deadline for States to provide ballots to voters. Because Primary results need to be certified and General ballots need to be constructed and conveyed, additional time (beyond 45 days) is required to meet the new federal guideline.  And the largest impact on elections technology, processes, and practices is two principle provisions of the Act that mandate States shall provide:

  1. A digital means by which overseas voters can verify and manage their voter registration status; and
  2. A digital means by which an overseas voter can receive a digital, download ready, blank ballot (think PDF).

Success in implementing these mandates will reduce lost participation of overseas voters, which studies have shown result in approximately 1 out of every 4 overseas  ballots not being counted because of failure to arrive in time.

But if it were only that easy.  You see, in 2008, many States changed their Primary dates by several months to allow their voters to more heavily impact the presidential nomination process.  And additional moves are likely in 2010 because 11 states and the District of Columbia have Primaries so close to the General Election that ballots may not be produced in time to comply with the new MOVE Act law.  California has a very large overseas and military voting contingent, and you can imagine MOVE Act mandates are on the minds of CA elections officials, State legislatures, and the Secretary.

Of equal interest, Los Angeles County, the largest election jurisdiction in the United States, is engaged in a process known as the Voting Systems Assessment Project (VSAP) to determine the design of their next generation voting system.

Serving over 4 million registered voters, the County is examining the ways in which it can modernize its voting systems.  Dean Logan, the County Registrar and Ken Bennett, the County IT Director are working to analyze the ways in which technology can ensure their ability to meet operational mandates and better serve their voters.  With the VSAP underway (a project the OSDV Foundation is participating in), our "take" is that more (and possibly dramatic) change in elections technology in the great State of California is all but assured.

Stepping back, the current voting technology used in Los Angeles County and elsewhere is provided by private companies; they offer election jurisdictions proprietary technology solutions that need to be certified by the CA Secretary of State. While there is oversight at a State level, and mandates at the Federal level, each jurisdiction must purchase their own technology and do the very important business of conducting elections. Consequently, jurisdictions find themselves in multi-year contracts for technology.

This gives a jurisdiction continuity, but impairs their ability to innovate and collaborate, learning from neighboring or similar jurisdictions elsewhere in the state or country.

With L.A. County -- the largest elections jurisdiction in the nation -- considering the future of elections technology for their voters, the mandates of the MOVE Act implementation bearing down, and the complexities of the largest States' processes and regulations for selection and implementation of elections technology, the Secretary's Hearing next week is of a near essential nature.

So we are honored to be asked to testify next week.  And the timing is good.  As a means to developing a holistic architecture for next generation systems, one of the imperative elements is a common data format for the exchange of election event data.  This is one particular element we're working on right now.  In fact, we will shortly be collaborating with a group of States and jurisdictions on the testing of several framework components including: election event management, ballot preparation, and automated generation of printable ballots (watch for this announcement shortly).

Here’s the cool thing: It turns out that all of this work currently underway in the TrustTheVote Project which is leveraging this common data format and some other innovations, provides a ready-made open source freely available solution to implement the mandates of the MOVE Act.

So, we hope that this work will prove to be relevant and purposeful for the Hearings.  Our opportunity to testify is timely because we believe our work is in line with the agenda driving the hearing: What do next generation systems look like and how do states like CA comply with Federal mandates? How can we develop quickly to adapt to changing needs on the ground from elections officials, voters, and federal requirements?

We're excited to participate; go Greg!

For interested viewers, there will be a webcast available here.  And the event will likely be carried live on Cal Channel Television.

Stay tuned; more to come. -Matt

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