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voting devices

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TrustTheVote on HuffPost

We'll be live on HuffPost online today at 8pm eastern:

  • @HuffPostLive http://huff.lv/Uhokgr or live.huffingtonpost.com

and I thought we should share our talking points for the question:

  • How do you compare old-school paper ballots vs. e-voting?

I thought the answers would be particularly relevant to today's NYT editorial on the election which concluded with this quote:

That the race came down to a relatively small number of voters in a relatively small number of states did not speak well for a national election apparatus that is so dependent on badly engineered and badly managed voting systems around the country. The delays and breakdowns in voting machines were inexcusable.

I don't disagree, and indeed would extend from flaky voting machines to election technology in general, including clunky voter record systems that lead to many of the lines and delays in polling places.

So the HuffPost question is apposite to that point, but still not quite right. It's not an either/or but rather a comparison of:

  • old-school paper ballots and 19th century election fraud;
  • old-school machine voting and 20th century lost ballots;
  • old-school combo system of paper ballots machine counting and botched re-counting;
  • new-fangled machine voting (e-voting) and 21st century lost ballots;
  • newer combo system of paper ballots and machine counting (not voting).

Here are the talking points:

  • Old-school paper ballots where cast by hand and counted by hand, where the counters could change the ballot, for example a candidate Smith partisan could invalidate a vote for Jones by adding a mark for Smith.
  • These and other paper ballot frauds in the 19th century drove adoption in the early 20th century of machine voting, on the big clunky "level machines" with the satisfying ka-thunk-swish of the level recording the votes and opening the privacy curtain.
  • However, big problem with machine voting -- no ballots! Once that lever is pulled, all that's left is a bunch of dials and counters on the backside being increased by one. In a close election that requires a re-count, there are no ballots to examine! Instead the best you could do is re-read each machine's totals and re-run the process of adding them all up in case there was an arithmetic error.
  • Also, the dials themselves, after election day but before a recount, were a tempting target for twiddling, for the types of bad actors who in the 19th century fiddled with ballot boxes.
  • Later in the 20th century, we saw a move to a combo system of paper ballots and machine counting, with the intent that the machine counts were more accurate than human counts and more resistant to human meddling, yet the paper ballots remaining for recounts, and for audits of the accuracyof machinery of counting.
  • Problem: these were the punch ballots of the infamous hanging chad.
  • Early 21st century: run from hanging chad to electronic voting machines.
  • Problem: no ballots! Same as before, only this time, the machins are smaller and much easier to fiddle with. That's "e-voting" but wihout ballots.
  • Since then, a flimsy paper record was bolted on to most of these systems to support recount and audit.
  • But the trend has been to go back to the combo system, this time with durable paper ballots and optical-scanning machinery for counting.
  • Is that e-voting? well, it is certainly computerized counting. And the next wave is computer-assisted marking of paper ballots -- particularly for voters with disabilities -- but with these machine-created ballots counted the same as hand-marked ballots.

Bottom line: whether or not you call it e-voting, so long as there are both computers and human-countable durable paper ballots involved, the combo provides the best assurance that niether humans nor computers are mis-counting or interfering with voters casting ballots.

-- EJS

PS: If you catch us on HP online, please let us know what you thought!

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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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More Twisted Logic: How Voting Machines Eat Pretzels

In a recent posting, I tried to give a flavor of the pretzel logic that derives from the crazy quilt of state-specific rules for counting ballots -- with a particularly notorious case from straight-party voting. The next question is, given this crazy quilt, what is a voting system supposed to do? Before answering that today, let me recap what a voting system is, for some more recent readers. Loosely speaking, a voting system is a set of hardware and software that are used for casting and counting ballots, preparing for casting/counting, and completing the tabulation process after casting/counting.* Components can include paper ballot scanners, direct record devices, tabulating software, etc. Now, back to the problem, and the specific case of straight-party voting, with a ballot marked for a straight-party vote of a particular party, and with an "emphasis" vote for that party's candidate for a top-ticket contest, and also an "over-ride" vote for another party's candidate in a down-ticket race on the other side of a 2-sided paper ballot. What's a counting device to do? As we said before, there are various different state-specific rules about what to do.

I bring up this case to illustrate a couple key ideas about our development of the voting system components of the TTV system:

  • the construction of ballot-counting software is much more that the exercise in the digital image processing functions that we're working on now, and
  • one size does not fit all.

As a result, we have several additional tasks for the voting system. We need to incorporate the notion of configuration data that encodes state-specific rules for interpreting marks on a ballot. And we need to implement an election-preparation process that to the greatest extent possible automates these choices, informs the election officials, but does not require humans to make explicit decisions which of several interpretation methods to use -- because after all, this choice is not at the discretion of local election officials. (Note to election ninja readers: I wouldn't be surprised to hear about a case where it is a local decision!). And if that sounds complicated enough, I won't even go into even more squirrelly cases of ballot interpretation that involve disputes over whether a mark is "sufficient to be a legal mark." One squirrel a day is enough!

-- EJS

* Details for the keeners: In the TTV system we're building, we have paper ballots for manual ballot interaction, an accessible balloting device for computer-aided production of a marked ballot, and a precinct ballot counting device used for interpreting ballot marks and counting votes at the precinct level. There is a similar device for central processing of mail and provisional ballots, and another central device to tabulate results by consolidating these various counts. On the preparation end, there is a device builder that creates each election's instance of the other devices. Rounding out the tail end of the process is the TTV Auditor, which consolidates audit logs of the activity of all the devices.

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Five Ways to Call a Voting Machine a ...

Today I have an excellent example of how important it is, and sometimes difficult, to maintain clarity around the technology that we're building in the TrustTheVote project, and what we are (and are not) doing in OSDV generally. This particular example illustrates how voting technology is already bedeviled by jargon, inconsistent terminology, and procedural confusion -- so that terminology and explanation that work for one group of people just don't work elsewhere.

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Mini-Minnesota in Virginia

I'd like to call your attention to this week's electile dysfunction news, which is about a mini-Minnesota situation in Fairfax County, Virginia. I think it's instructive because it illustrates how some problems with "paperless" voting are actually quite similar to a more old-fashioned form of voting, "paper only" voting, and a mooted new-fangled kind of voting, Internet voting.

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The Machineries of Democracy: Failed Trust, Elections in Courts

As you might imagine, it is hard to choose from the manyevents of Election Day 2008 to report and reflect on! But I thought that I’d pick a handful of events that show just how vitally important it is the election equipment be designed carefully – and the consequences of products that aren’t, and vendors that don’t seem to care. I have to say, it’s potentially dire, which is why I’ve picked as many as 3 events to support my claims.

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A first: election system vendors admits losing votes

Here is a first-ever admission: a real software bug in a real voting system can drop real votes, and has dropped votes. And perhaps has been doing so for years. I wrote earlier about the wrangle between the state of Ohio and Premier Election Systems (formerly Diebold), in which some real vote dropping was blamed on anti-virus software (which wasn't allowed to be in the machines in the first place!).

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