Last Friday was the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in Washington, DC., where so many of us remember him saying “I have a dream.” The anniversary caught me by surprise when I noted it in the news, and tugged at me all day: what could Dr. King’s words have to say about the work that I do? That afternoon, I walked by San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens. There, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial has waterfalls that echo Dr. King saying Isaiah’s prophetic words, now inscribed in the magnificent granite by the roaring water:
No, no, we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’
I knew I wanted to say something about my dream, however geeky, inspired by Dr. King. What could election technology reform possibly have to do with justice rolling down like water? It took me a few days to figure it out. On that hot August day in 1963, immediately before those words of prophecy, Dr. King said:
We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.
I realized that decades after the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 National Voter Rights Act, despite some real progress, there is still doubt and dismay about these same issues of access to and legitimacy of elections, for all Americans. And worse: technology now clouds these issues further. So, here is my election geek’s dream, for which I ask your indulgence if my comparison of Dr. King’s dream of literal justice, and my dream of digital righteousness, seems in any way to demean King’s words and memory.
I have a dream that one day all election data will be free — freely available for us to see how elections are conducted. Today’s technology has many hills and mountains, rough places and crooked places. These are the unnecessary technical barriers to election IT systems being able to record and publish a wide variety of information, the lack of which today breeds distrust, discord, and even in some cases doubt in the foundation of democracy. I want data freedom to ring out and prove or disprove beliefs that voter registration systems are used to intentionally dis-enfranchise entitled voters, that vote tabulation is done incorrectly, that electoral fraud or voter fraud is real and regular. Here is an example of such data:
- the voter registration (VR) data that defines who is allowed to vote;
- the election management (EM) data that defines where people vote, and what they are allowed to vote on;
- the VR and EM system log data that shows exactly what public servants have been doing with systems that automate the public’s business of elections;
- the voting system logs that shows which systems operated correctly and reliably;
- the voting systems’ ballot and vote data that can allow independent checks for errors in counting votes;
- all the reporting and data mining that could be done with all this data aggregated, in order to present real information, statistics, patterns, and more that would move the policy discussions beyond concerns about what might be happening.
Wow! That is in fact a big list, and “mighty stream” would apply to the mass of data flowing in this dream. Yes, I know that technical barriers are not the only ones, but they’re big enough that privacy and other issues are largely moot. And yes, I know that many people, at local and state levels, and Federal agencies like NIST, are working on it. And of course so are we at TrustTheVote.
But this dream of the future is what motivates us to develop the technology and help with the standards that can help us really see what’s really going on with the activities of our election officials and NGO activists. I believe that almost all of them are honest and well-meaning, but often it’s hard to see. Visibility is part of what’s needed to move forward from the present state of discord about election integrity, and the technology that aids or hinders it. Today we really do walk in darkness, in rough places and even (some despair) crooked places, in an election geeks’ version of King’s “dark and desolate valley” that is un-exalted and unlit by sunshine of vital public data; where that ignorance and desolation breeds discord and distrust. And we can fix it, simply by building sunshine into each new election IT system as it’s built. We can and are exalting the valleys, making the crooked straight and rough places plain. And when the data is “free at last” we probably won’t be joining hands and singing as in Dr. King’s dream, but at least we’ll be able to climb out of ignorance and decide for ourselves if the cornerstone of democracy is weak or strong.
So, yes, I have a dream today. And I have Dr. King to thank for lifting it up. And I’ll have you readers to thank, if you go and read Dr. King’s words with election integrity in mind, the integrity of the system of voting and voting rights that Dr. King and so many others fought and died and still fight for.
And, yes, “we will not be satisfied until” that dream of digital righteousness becomes manifest in “every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all” our nation’s people can begin to really and truly Trust The Vote.