Comments Prepared for Tonight’s Elections Technology Roundtable
This evening at 5:00pm members of the TrustTheVote Project have been invited to attend an elections technology round table discussion in advance of a public hearing in Sacramento, CA scheduled for tomorrow at 2:00pm PST on new regulations governing Voting System Certification to be contained in Division 7 of Title 2 of the California Code of Regulations.
Due to the level of activity, only our CTO, John Sebes is able to participate.
We were asked if John could be prepared to make some brief remarks regarding our view of the impact of SB-360 and its potential to catalyze innovation in voting systems. These types of events are always dynamic and fluid, and so we decided to publish our remarks below just in advance of this meeting.
Roundtable Meeting Remarks from the OSDV Foundation | TrustTheVote Project
We appreciate an opportunity to participate in this important discussion. We want to take about 2 minutes to comment on 3 considerations from our point of view at the TrustTheVote Project.
For SB-360 to succeed, we believe any effort to create a high-integrity certification process requires re-thinking how certification has been done to this point. Current federal certification, for example, takes a monolithic approach; that is, a voting system is certified based on a complete all-inclusive single closed system model. This is a very 20th century approach that makes assumptions about software, hardware, and systems that are out of touch with today’s dynamic technology environment, where the lifetime of commodity hardware is months.
We are collaborating with NIST on a way to update this outdated model with a “component-ized” approach; that is, a unit-level testing method, such that if a component needs to be changed, the only re-certification required would be of that discrete element, and not the entire system. There are enormous potential benefits including lowering costs, speeding certification, and removing a bar to innovation.
We’re glad to talk more about this proposed updated certification model, as it might inform any certification processes to be implemented in California. Regardless, elections officials should consider that in order to reap the benefits of SB-360, the non-profit TrustTheVote Project believes a new certification process, component-ized as we describe it, is essential.
2nd, there is a prerequisite for component-level certification that until recently wasn’t available: common open data format standards that enable components to communicate with one another; for example, a format for a ballot-counter’s output of vote tally data, that also serves as input to a tabulator component. Without common data formats elections officials have to acquire a whole integrated product suite that communicates in a proprietary manner. With common data formats, you can mix and match; and perhaps more importantly, incrementally replace units over time, rather than doing what we like to refer to as “forklift upgrades” or “fleet replacements.”
The good news is the scope for ballot casting and counting is sufficiently focused to avoid distraction from the many other standards elements of the entire elections ecosystem. And there is more goodness because standards bodies are working on this right now, with participation by several state and local election officials, as well as vendors present today, and non-profit projects like TrustTheVote. They deserve congratulations for reaching this imperative state of data standards détente. It’s not finished, but the effort and momentum is there.
So, elections officials should bear in mind that benefits of SB-360 also rest on the existence of common open elections data standards.
3. Commercial Revitalization
Finally, this may be the opportunity to realize a vision we have that open data standards, a new certification process, and lowered bars to innovation through open sourcing, will reinvigorate a stagnant voting technology industry. Because the passage of SB-360 can fortify these three developments, there can (and should) be renewed commercial enthusiasm for innovation. Such should bring about new vendors, new solutions, and new empowerment of elections officials themselves to choose how they want to raise their voting systems to a higher grade of performance, reliability, fault tolerance, and integrity.
One compelling example is the potential for commodity commercial off-the-shelf hardware to fully meet the needs of voting and elections machinery. To that point, let us offer an important clarification and dispel a misconception about rolling your own. This does not mean that elections officials are about to be left to self-vend. And by that we mean self-construct and support their open, standard, commodity voting system components. A few jurisdictions may consider it, but in the vast majority of cases, the Foundation forecasts that this will simply introduce more choice rather than forcing you to become a do-it-yourself type. Some may choose to contract with a systems integrator to deploy a new system integrating commodity hardware and open source software. Others may choose vendors who offer out-of-the-box open source solutions in pre-packaged hardware.
Choice is good: it’s an awesome self-correcting market regulator and it ensures opportunity for innovation. To the latter point, we believe initiatives underway like STAR-vote in Travis County, TX, and the TrustTheVote Project will catalyze that innovation in an open source manner, thereby lowering costs, improving transparency, and ultimately improving the quality of what we consider critical democracy infrastructure.
In short, we think SB-360 can help inject new vitality in voting systems technology (at least in the State of California), so long as we can realize the benefits of open standards and drive the modernization of certification.
There was chatter earlier this Fall about the extent to which SB-360 allegedly makes unverified non-certified voting systems a possibility in California. We don’t read SB-360 that way at all. We encourage you to read the text of the legislation as passed into law for yourself, and start with this meeting notice digest. In fact, to realize the kind of vision that leading jurisdictions imagine, we cannot, nor should not alleviate certification, and we think charges that this is what will happen are misinformed. We simply need to modernize how certification works to enable this kind of innovation. We think our comments today bear that out.
Moreover, have a look at the Agenda for tomorrow’s hearing on implementation of SB-360. In sum and substance the agenda is to discuss:
- Establishing the specifications for voting machines, voting devices, vote tabulating devices, and any software used for each, including the programs and procedures for vote tabulating and testing. (The proposed regulations would implement, interpret and make specific Section 19205 of the California Elections Code.);
- Clarifying the requirements imposed by recently chaptered Senate Bill 360, Chapter 602, Statutes 2013, which amended California Elections Code Division 19 regarding the certification of voting systems; and
- Clarifying the newly defined voting system certification process, as prescribed in Senate Bill 360.
Finally, there has been an additional charge that SB-360 is intended to “empower” LA County, such that what LA County may build they (or someone on their behalf) will sell the resulting voting systems to other jurisdictions. We think this allegation is also misinformed for two reasons:  assuming LA County builds their system on open source, there is a question as to what specifically would/could be offered for sale; and  notwithstanding offering open source for sale (which technically can be done… technically) it seems to us that if such a system is built with public dollars, then it is in fact, publicly owned. From what we understand, a government agency cannot offer for sale their assets developed with public dollars, but they can give it away. And indeed, this is what we’ve witnessed over the years in other jurisdictions.