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.
Today’s example is just one of the voting system components that’s being built at TTV, a type of beast that is well-understood (in voting tech circles) but which there doesn’t seem to be a unique and consistent name for. We have to have some form of electronic voting machine, in order for handicapped voters to cast a ballot unassisted. But there are several different types of devices like this, with a bewildering variety of names — DRE, DRE–VVPAT, EBM, EBP, BOD — that at times are used to describe the same thing, and at other times some very different things. The corresponding TTV component is what we call the Accessible Ballot Marker (ABM): a computing device that enables voters to view ballot information using audio and/or video and/or tactile displays, to indicate choices among candidates, and when finished, to print (on blank paper) a complete paper ballot.
But what is it exactly, and what is it for? Some people use the term DRE or touch-screen generically for e-voting devices, but the ABM doesn’t actually record votes; it just prints ballots. How about an Electronic Ballot Marking device? or Electronic Ballot Printing device, or Ballot on Demand device? Hard to say, since some people make fine distinctions between whether we start with blank paper or an unmarked ballot, or whether we end up with a marked ballot or an unmarked ballot. And how is such a device used? Does everybody use it, or is mainly for enhanced access? Is the printed paper treated as the ballot, or is it a paper audit trail component? If it is a ballot, is it counted in the precinct, or centrally? Manually counted, or electronically?
The answer is: not necessarily any. This is a subtle point: the definition of the ABD does not include any idea about what happens next to the printed ballot, or any assumption other votin methods. The ABD is just a tool for producing a paper ballot from a bunch of human/computer interactions. But other than that, it is the election officials (not the techies who make the software) who decide how to use it!
In other words, at TTV "we just build stuff!" But this is an incredibly hard message to get across, in cases where technology developers (the current vendors) have been telling election officials how to conduct elections. As a result, this is the message we say nearly every day to an election official: we’re not a vendor, we’re not here to tell you what to do, we just make stuff, and we want to make it the way that you would use it.