Yesterday I wrote about the latest sign of the downward spiral of the broken market in which U.S. local election officials (LEOs) purchase product and support from vendors of proprietary voting system products, monolithic technology the result of years’ worth of accretion, and costing years and millions to test and certify for use — including a current case where the process didn’t catch flaws that may result in a certified product being de-certified, and being replaced by a newer system, to the cost of LEOs.
Ouch! But could you really expect a vendor in this miserable market to give away new product that they spent years and tens of millions develop, to every customer of the old product, who the vendor had planned to sell upgrades to? — just because of flaws in the old product? But the situation is actually worse: LEOs don’t actually have the funding to acquire a hypothetical future voting system product in which the vendor was fully open about true costs including
(a) certification costs both direct (fees to VSTLs) and indirect cost (staff time), as well as
(b) costs of development including rigorously designed and documented testing.
Actually, development costs alone are bad enough, but certification costs make it much worse — as well as creating a huge barrier to entry of anyone foolhardy enough to try to enter the market (or even stay in it!) and make a profit.
A Way Forward?
That double-whammy is why I and my colleagues at OSDV are so passionate about working to reform the certification process, so that individual components can be certified for far less time and money than a mess o’code accreted over decades, and including wads of interwoven functionality that might need even need to be certified! And then of course, these individual components could also be re-certfied for bug fixes by re-running a durable test plan that the VSTL created the first time around. And that of course requires common data formats for inter-operation between components — for example, between a PCOS device and a Tabulator system that combines and cross checks all the PCOS devices’ outputs, in order to either find errors/omissions or find a complete election result.
So once again our appreciation to NIST, EAC, IEEE 1622 for actually doing the detailed work of hashing out these common data formats, which is the bedrock of inter-operation, which is the pre-req for certification reform, which enables certification cost reduction of certification, which might result in voting system component products being available at true costs that are affordable to the LEOs who buy and use them.
Yet’s that’s quite a stretch, from data standards committee work, to a less broken market that might be able to deliver to customers at reasonable cost. But to replace a rickety old structure with a new, solid, durable one, you have to start at the bedrock, and that’s where we’re working now.
PS: Thanks again to Joe Hall for pointing out that the current potential de-certification and mandatory upgrade scenario (described in Part 1) illustrates the untenable nature of a market that would require vendors to pay for expensive testing and certification efforts, and to also have to (as some have suggested) forego revenue when otherwise for-pay upgrades are required because of defects in software.