Why Complexity? Look to the Balkans

Many thanks to what Dave Barry would call “alert reader Brandon F.” for posing a question that comes up a lot concerning digital voting. To paraphrase slightly: why not specify and standardize on ballot paper, ballot layout, ballot marking locations in the layout, and scanning systems to automate counting? Why is everyone making this so complex?

At the risk of making the answers more complex, I’ll set aside (for another day) some other questions that are hidden inside Brandon’s, such as: Why are elections officials so keen to reduce the number of paper ballots, in favor of electronically cast ballots? What is the problem with relying mainly on manual counting? Are these election officials’ preferences mainly to get the work done faster/better/cheaper, or is there some public good that accrues from these preferences?

Instead, for today, we’ll both look back and look ahead at elections procedures based on optical scan of manually marked ballots. Until recently, this was a fairly common elections procedure, so it’s a good question – why weren’t these standardized? Or, looking ahead, would it really be hard to standardize them?

Part of both these questions’ answers lie in the (for lack of a better word) balkanized elections landscape in the U.S. The Federal government delegates to states the responsibility for conducting Federal elections. Each state has its own separate standards for the production of paper ballots; what works in one state won’t be acceptable in some other state. Each states delegates to its counties the responsibility for conducting elections within the state’s guidelines. Each county contains multiple different jurisdictions for local officials and ballot measures, school district, harbor district, coastal commission, and more. In most densely populated areas, most precincts have their own distinct ballot “style” (list of races and measures), and some precincts even have two – and poll workers have to decide which ballot a voter is entitled to based on what side of the street they live on.

That’s what I mean by balkanized. And to take California as an example, ballots must fit on the front and back of one sheet of paper, without resorting to fine print. A ballot is literally a “tall order” that each county must fill several times for each election.

Looking back, the barrier to standardization was a commercial one. Opscan machine vendors simply had a lot of work to meet the needs of enough states to support a reasonable business, and the extent of conformance with state regulations was a competitive advantage that was valuable in direct proportion to the amount of effort, expense, and opportunity cost required to achieve and maintain state certification.

Looking ahead, such barriers can be irrelevant to a non-profit organization like OSDV working in the public good and funded in part by voters. Sorry if that sounds like a plug, but in fact part of OSDV’s work is to create the technology and processes to enable a future like the one Brandon asked about. But that work involves more than meets the eye, and for today I’ll just list some of the ingredients – most of which were not part of the “ecosystem” of opscan systems of days past, some of which are beginning to exist in useful form, and some of which will require considerable effort going forward. Here’s the partial list: a data representation standard for ballots; ballot definition tools; ballot design tools; ballot layout standards; system specifications for trustworthy computerized opscan systems; trustworthy opscan system products; means for independent assessment of trust; opscan systems with features sufficient to meet the requirements of all states; opscan systems that can be tailored to exclude features not wanted by some states; assessment of each state-defined variant system; certification in each state.

Though logistically feasible and without real technical difficulty, that’s still a load of work go create something that doesn’t exist today: a system trusted to do its job correctly without security or reliability issues, and that’s ready to head off to a wild ride in the Balkans.