By Iain Padley

Introducing the Pennsylvania Voter Registration App

The TrustTheVote Project is proud to announce the launch of the Pennsylvania Voter Registration App developed in partnership with Rock the Vote, Pennsylvania Voice, and the office of the Pennsylvania Secretary of State.  This first in the nation program is the culmination of over a year of work and marks a significant improvement in the voting experience for the citizens of Pennsylvania.

The mobile App, which is available for Android users, leverages Pennsylvania’s innovative approach to online voter registration (OVR) to lower costs and increase efficiency.  Starting with a Pilot this election season, canvassers using the App are able to digitally submit voter registration applications directly to the Secretary of State’s office for approval. Additionally, canvassers can accept electronic signatures captured via a stylus, and partner organization can access non-sensitive registrant data.  This will eliminate the need for registrants to take further action and will ease the process of registering voters without driver’s licenses.

So, how does it work and why does it matter?

Over the past decade we have observed that election systems are too often viewed as a backwater of government IT.  Paradoxically, we also ask these same departments to be experts in the latest technology.  We believe this presents an opportunity to re-imagine the role of election officials in the registration process.  The technology certainly needs to be updated, but perhaps the underlying model needs to be examined as well.

Rather than building a single State-owned web page for conducting (OVR), the Pennsylvania Secretary of State invested in a system that allows 3rd parties to build software that connects directly to their office.  This system is unique in that it works without constant internet access, providing constant access to electronic voter registration without the need for WiFi or a data plan.

In short, this approach bridges the space between one of the the core competencies of election officials – building and maintaining voter lists – and the strengths of 3rd party organization – directly engaging and registering the communities they serve.

This is a significant development for the people of Pennsylvania and for our Democracy.  We are impressed by the State’s willingness to take bold action on this topic and develop a tool that is responsive to the needs of the people.  The finals solution is unique, forward thinking, and a model for the rest of the country.

The TrustTheVote Project is a longtime technology partner of Rock the Vote and we are excited to see another project come to fruition.

pa_ovr_2 pa_ovr_3 picture4

Some key advantages of The Pennsylvania Voter Registration App

  • Applications are completed on the App and passed directly to the Pennsylvania Department of State for approval, saving both county and state elections officials time and money.
  • Electronic signatures are accepted via a stylus, allowing all eligible voters – even those without a PennDOT ID – to get registered.
  • All applications submitted to the Department of State’s office are complete, significantly lowering the possibility of rejected applications.
  • Automatically captures nonsensitive registrant information that is immediately made available to partners through Rock the Vote’s partner portal.
  • It does not require constant data or internet connectivity to electronically register voters.
  • Available to voters in English and Spanish.
  • Initial release available for Android, but will eventually expand to cover iOS.

The Bigger ElectOS Picture

The Canvasser App is another example reference App for ElectOS, the open source 21st century democracy operating system in development at the TrustTheVote Project.  Once complete, ElectOS will support any number of Apps that can be developed to leverage ElectOS capabilities and open data.  Other examples of Apps for ElectOS include the voter registration App and service platform of Rock The Vote, BusyBooth (the forthcoming polling place traffic monitor to be piloted in Orange County, CA) and (an interactive practice ballot marking App)

Combatting the Reality Distortion Field

An important conversation took place this morning between the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and several key stakeholder groups and federal agencies. The call was convened to discuss the security of election processes ahead of this year’s presidential election. The conversation comes at a critical time for our nation as we take stock of the growing list of challenges faced by our Local Election Officials (LEOs.)

The EAC should be commended for its leadership in this space and for the work that they do in partnership with both LEOs and state officials. Conducting elections in the United States is truly a team effort and this type of engagement is critical to the health of our democracy. We agree with the EAC’s statement that:

Secretaries of State and state and local election officials are doing everything in their power to be prepared for possible security threats and that they take that responsibility extremely seriously.

This statement speaks to a reality of the American system of elections: Any effort to secure our critical democratic infrastructure must run through, and not around, local election offices. To ensure success we must support our LEOs in what has become a critical, yet often thankless job.

The threat to our election infrastructure will not be of the kind that sees thousands of machines and polling places taken out of service across the country. To put it bluntly, that’s not how it works. In fact, we’ve used this space before to note that the diversity of our election systems can be viewed as an advantage in securing our current infrastructure.

A widespread attack is not the primary threat to our system, but a targeted attack in even a single precinct of a swing state could have a devastating impact on the public’s confidence in the political process. This type of attack is much more likely.

During this election cycle we have seen an unprecedented rejection of democratic norms by the nominee of a major political party who asserted that

The only way we can lose in my opinion — I really mean this, Pennsylvania — is if cheating goes on…

This type of rhetoric is a paradigm shift for LEOs and we must help them prepare for the road ahead. We know that no election is perfect and mistakes will be made, but in this new reality even minor missteps will we viewed as evidence of systemic corruption.

A Secretary of State once told our team that our job was to keep him off the front page of the local newspaper. If all goes to plan, then the conversation will be about the results and not the process. Unfortunately, that option is not available to LEOs this year.

Let’s be realistic. There is a reality distortion field that covers this election. Speculation is rampant and it’s difficult for the public to know who to believe. We must prepare LEOs for both real threats to their systems and the public relations challenges they will face before, during, and after election day. This is a part of – not in addition to – the task of securing our elections.

We believe that the integrity of the election process will be secured by ensuring the competency of election systems AND the confidence of the voters who use them.

The Quest for a Boring Election

This week has been a sort of public reintroduction to the awesome challenges faced by our Local Election Officials. For many Americans the terms “hanging chad” and “butterfly ballot” have long slipped from daily use, but the threats to our democratic institutions remain.  In fact, these threats have only grown in complexity since our last popular encounter in 2000.

The reality that we are even having a national discussion about voting infrastructure in a time of extreme political  intrigue is one indicator of the severity of the problem.  Elections should be exciting, but we hope the systems by which they are conducted are competent to the point of being, well, boring.  At the very least we hope they would not be a primary topic of discussion.  Unfortunately, we have a long way to go.

Local Election Officials (LEOs) work on the front lines of a critical and highly visible function of our democracy.  Their work facilitates the mandate by which our public officials govern and even small mistakes are seen as unacceptable.  Despite the challenges it entails, we expect our LEOs to do their jobs with a level of precision and accuracy that is almost unheard of in other sectors of society.

If we expect this level of performance from our public servants, then we must provide them with the support and resources they require to succeed.  As we’ve discussed before on this blog, The Obama Administration has taken an important first step by signaling forthcoming guidance for LEOs on protecting the nations voting infrastructure.

This guidance is significant as the current configuration of our infrastructure is so varied that a single solution is well out reach for the November elections.  The White House rightfully recognized this as a natural protection against widespread attack as it reduces the potential for a single threat to metastasize across the country.

You might also say that that varied infrastructure and those different systems also pose a pretty difficult challenge to potential hackers.  So it’s difficult to identify a common vulnerability throughout the system.

-Josh Ernst, White House Press Secretary

This is, of course, still little consolation for an individual LEO who faces a significant attack or system failure on election day.

Doug Chapin of Election Academy addresses this reality by making a strong argument for the personal responsibility of each election office to protect their systems:

Regardless of the response, it is vital for election officials in jurisdictions of every size and at every level to develop an awareness of cybersecurity issues – and, where possible to harden their systems against such attacks

Elections have never been simple, but there is a growing consensus that the game has changed.  Gone are the days when election technology was seen as a back water of government IT. LEOs are being asked to take on more risk and we must rise to the challenge of supporting them in this work.

Let’s Talk Solutions

Throughout the past week we’ve seen widespread coverage of the frightening state of our voting infrastructure. News outlets have rightfully been quick to highlight the dangers and magnitude of the situation, but we’ve heard little about practical solutions that can be implemented on a national scale — until now.

Multiple sources are reporting on the Obama Administration’s planned assessment and response to this looming crisis.  We feel this level of attention is long overdue and we look forward to the national discussion that we hope it sparks.  

We believe the White House and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are well positioned to put common sense measures in place to make best efforts to protect our Critical Democracy Infrastructure for this fall’s election.  However, durable solutions to these threats will require a long term commitment from local, state, and national stakeholders.

For almost a decade OSET has been working to solve the most intractable problems faced by thousands of election administrators across the country.  These administrators are a vital and often under appreciated component of our Democracy.  It is critical that we provide local jurisdictions with the guidance and support they need to address these challenge and fulfill their essential role in our society.

We could not agree more with the Secretary of Homeland Security’s assertion that “We should carefully consider whether our election system…is critical infrastructure, like the financial sector, like the power grid.”

In fact, we would take it a step further and declare emphatically that it is.  However, we also appreciate that designating voting systems as critical infrastructure also must be accompanied by specific ways to help state and local election officials improve the integrity of their systems.  There’s nothing magic to designating election infrastructure as critical infrastructure.  There has to be a specific plan and resources to actually make it happen.



But is it Safe?

The Iowa Caucuses are one of the great curiosities of presidential politics.  Famous as much for their format as their results, these contests are notoriously difficult to report in realtime. Every cycle, media outlets and politicos race to share results as quickly and accurately as possible.  This year they had help from a party sponsored reporting application created by Interknowlogy in partnership with Microsoft.

Let’s be clear, this App is both useful and beautiful. For the first time in Caucus history the media and viewers could observe results in near realtime on an easily accessible platform.  Still, while there is no doubt that this technology is a big step forward we’ve found ourselves asking — “But is it safe?”

First, a little background.  The Iowa Caucuses consist of over 1,500 contests conducted in precincts throughout the state.  Unlike most elections (even in Iowa), these contests involve in-person participation and may require multiple votes to reach a decision.  The most important results, as you might expect, are the final votes.

The major parties have used a variety of systems to aggregate votes for the Caucuses. For example, until last year the Democrats were using an automated phone system that guided the reporting official through a series of prompts to secure relevant data (e.g., “Press 1 for ______(candidate), then enter the vote total…”).  That system remains in service today as a back up to the Inteknowlogy App and a relic of a bygone era.

So, how does this new technology change the Caucuses and where do we go from here?  Let’s take a look.

What it is: The Iowa Caucuses App is a digital tool used to report unofficial results from precincts on election night.  The application allows local representatives to use party specific instances of the app to instantly report results to the central office.  The official results, however, must be submitted in writing to each county party.  These paper results are used to elect delegates to the county conventions, who in turn elect delegates to the state conventions, who in turn elect delegates to the national conventions.

What it is not: In a word, official.  In another, secure.  This App has been designed to meet a real need, but it is not a security critical component of the election administration infrastructure.  There are few, if any, security consequences to the party if this application fails and end to end encryption is not required.  In fact, there is no requirement that this App meet a publicly mandated security standard. After all, if the official paper results are submitted correctly it should all work out in the end — right?

What this analysis fails to recognize is the important, albeit unofficial, role the Iowa Caucuses play in structuring the national political debate beyond Iowa.  Unofficial election night results play a central role in shaping the public perception of candidates. They can have an existential impact on these campaigns. The existence of an informal reporting system in addition to the official results process has always presented a very real vulnerability for our democracy.  In this respect the new system is no different than the old system and but still short of some critical features.

In 2012, this issue was clearly demonstrated by the Republican party when the results from several precincts were temporarily lost.  Under pressure from the media the Republican state party reported results prematurely, declaring Mitt Romney the winner by 8 votes. When the votes from the missing precincts were found the final result was corrected to reflect Rick Santorum’s victory.

With that in mind, I still hope the 2020 presidential election sees widespread adoption of this type of technology with two key additions.  

  • First, data can and should be reported in the federally approved election results common data format overseen by the National Institute of Standard and Technology (NIST.) If a government or partner organization is going present election night results they should also share the raw data for public consumption. In short, if we have the data we should publish the data.
  • Second, through the implementation of this technology the official and unofficial reporting processes should be brought together to provide an accurate and timely accounting of the results.

I think we can all applaud the work of the Interknowlogy team and the success of their application in the Iowa Caucuses.  However, while this exercise marks a step towards modernizing our election reporting infrastructure, we still have work to do.

The stakes of presidential elections are too high for even the smallest margin of error.  We have to get it right and we will.

OSCON Shows the Movement is Growing

One of our Executive Directors, Gregory Miller, had the opportunity to attend the O’Reilly Media’s Open Source Conference this week in my home town of Portland, Oregon (his too, in fact).  Summer is in full swing here, although no major heat waves so far; we’ve been enjoying cool morning marine layer followed by a pleasant upper 70s low 80s by mid afternoon lingering into an evening ideal for Portland’s many sidewalk cafes.  This was a perfect setting for a conference that continues to grow.  But maybe its just that people prefer to visit Portland in the summer more than struggle with the congestion of the Silicon Valley… and this year that included a considerable international presence of attendees.

The OSDV Foundation was invited to host a panel session on the role of open source in elections and voting systems.  Here is a copy of Gregory’s presentation from that well attended session yesterday.

We were equally fortunate to have a couple of other opportunities to share our story and work: a gracious mention of us during Tim O’Reilly’s keynote by Bryan Sivak, the CTO of the District of Columbia, and a 20 minute interview with Gregory and O’Reilly Radar Managing Editor Mac Slocum.

In another post by Greg himself he’ll provide the questions and his answers (as best as he can recall) from that interview for those more interested in skimming the text rather than sitting through the video replay.

We appreciate Tim O’Reilly’s growing interest in our work to create publicly owned critical democracy infrastructure for elections administration and voting.  And we thank him for the opportunity to participate.

Director, Communications & Outreach

OSDV Foundation Called to Testify on State of CA Voting Systems Future

Gregory Miller of the OSDV Foundation will be provide testimony during State of California Hearings on Future of Elections Systems next Monday, February 8th.

CA Secretary of State Debra Bowen requested elections and voting systems experts from around the country to attend and testify, and answer questions about the current election administration landscape and how California can best prepare for the future.  The Secretary noted in a prepared statement:

Demands for increased transparency and services, shrinking government budgets, and technological advances that outpace elections laws and regulations have combined to challenge what many thought were ‘permanent’ solutions developed as part of the 2002 Help America Vote ActMany in California and across the nation are ready to move in a new direction.  The question is, what should Californians seek in the next generation of voting equipment and how can new products truly serve the interests of voters?

Secretary Bowen will preside over the Hearing, joined by county elections executives from Los Angeles, Orange, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Santa Cruz and Madera counties. In addition to the testimony from OSDV, wide-ranging testimony will come from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Pew Center on States, the Federal Voting Assistance Program, representatives from every major voting system manufacturer with contracts in California, and more.  The complete agenda is available here.

California has a strong record of thoughtful analysis of its voting systems. In 2007, Secretary Bowen led a top-to-bottom review of certified voting systems. Bowen asserted from the outset that the review:

Ensure that California’s voters cast their ballots on voting systems that are secure, accurate, reliable, and accessible.

And following the top-to-bottom review, on August 3, 2007, Secretary Bowen strengthened the security requirements and use conditions for certain systems.

So its no surprise to us that continuing developments in the elections technology industry as well as legislative initiatives are leading the Secretary to conduct this Hearing next Monday.  Part of that change is best evidenced by the MOVE Act.

We’ll discuss more about the MOVE Act in other posts, but in summary, President Obama signed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act in October 2009.  The most immediate impact of the law from the State perspective has to do with the provision that establishes a 45-day deadline for States to provide ballots to voters. Because Primary results need to be certified and General ballots need to be constructed and conveyed, additional time (beyond 45 days) is required to meet the new federal guideline.  And the largest impact on elections technology, processes, and practices is two principle provisions of the Act that mandate States shall provide:

  1. A digital means by which overseas voters can verify and manage their voter registration status; and
  2. A digital means by which an overseas voter can receive a digital, download ready, blank ballot (think PDF).

Success in implementing these mandates will reduce lost participation of overseas voters, which studies have shown result in approximately 1 out of every 4 overseas  ballots not being counted because of failure to arrive in time.

But if it were only that easy.  You see, in 2008, many States changed their Primary dates by several months to allow their voters to more heavily impact the presidential nomination process.  And additional moves are likely in 2010 because 11 states and the District of Columbia have Primaries so close to the General Election that ballots may not be produced in time to comply with the new MOVE Act law.  California has a very large overseas and military voting contingent, and you can imagine MOVE Act mandates are on the minds of CA elections officials, State legislatures, and the Secretary.

Of equal interest, Los Angeles County, the largest election jurisdiction in the United States, is engaged in a process known as the Voting Systems Assessment Project (VSAP) to determine the design of their next generation voting system.

Serving over 4 million registered voters, the County is examining the ways in which it can modernize its voting systems.  Dean Logan, the County Registrar and Ken Bennett, the County IT Director are working to analyze the ways in which technology can ensure their ability to meet operational mandates and better serve their voters.  With the VSAP underway (a project the OSDV Foundation is participating in), our “take” is that more (and possibly dramatic) change in elections technology in the great State of California is all but assured.

Stepping back, the current voting technology used in Los Angeles County and elsewhere is provided by private companies; they offer election jurisdictions proprietary technology solutions that need to be certified by the CA Secretary of State. While there is oversight at a State level, and mandates at the Federal level, each jurisdiction must purchase their own technology and do the very important business of conducting elections. Consequently, jurisdictions find themselves in multi-year contracts for technology.

This gives a jurisdiction continuity, but impairs their ability to innovate and collaborate, learning from neighboring or similar jurisdictions elsewhere in the state or country.

With L.A. County — the largest elections jurisdiction in the nation — considering the future of elections technology for their voters, the mandates of the MOVE Act implementation bearing down, and the complexities of the largest States’ processes and regulations for selection and implementation of elections technology, the Secretary’s Hearing next week is of a near essential nature.

So we are honored to be asked to testify next week.  And the timing is good.  As a means to developing a holistic architecture for next generation systems, one of the imperative elements is a common data format for the exchange of election event data.  This is one particular element we’re working on right now.  In fact, we will shortly be collaborating with a group of States and jurisdictions on the testing of several framework components including: election event management, ballot preparation, and automated generation of printable ballots (watch for this announcement shortly).

Here’s the cool thing: It turns out that all of this work currently underway in the TrustTheVote Project which is leveraging this common data format and some other innovations, provides a ready-made open source freely available solution to implement the mandates of the MOVE Act.

So, we hope that this work will prove to be relevant and purposeful for the Hearings.  Our opportunity to testify is timely because we believe our work is in line with the agenda driving the hearing: What do next generation systems look like and how do states like CA comply with Federal mandates? How can we develop quickly to adapt to changing needs on the ground from elections officials, voters, and federal requirements?

We’re excited to participate; go Greg!

For interested viewers, there will be a webcast available here.  And the event will likely be carried live on Cal Channel Television.

Stay tuned; more to come.

Minnesota Finally Has 2 Senators (& a National Civic Summit)

The OSDV team had a wonderful time in beautiful, but construction-heavy downtown Minneapolis, MN. The TrustTheVote Project was an active participant at the National Civic Summit. Spanning July 15th through the 17th, the two-day conference was free and open to the public.

The Summit asked participants, “How can we increase civic imagination and capacity to solve today’s challenges in ways that serve the public interest?” Good question.

Heavy involvement from Minnesota’s Citizens League, the League of Women Voters, the governmental and public affairs teams at Target Corp. (sans Target dog), and a strategic dovetail into the regular meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State meant that a wide variety of presenters and participants were involved.

A real highlight was a presentation Friday by Aneesh Chopra, Federal Chief Technology Officer, who spoke about the White House’s efforts to bring technology and tools to simplify, streamline, and open government for the people. Well done, “”!

Aneesh Chopra is introduced at the National Civic Summit 2009

Aneesh Chopra is introduced at the National Civic Summit 2009

Greg Miller, Chief Development Officer at OSDV delivered a talk on critical democracy infrastructure, which was attended by a group including California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and Minnesota elections director Gary Poser. The highlight of the Summit was the opportunity to engage in discourse with informed citizens–sharing the latest work of the TrustTheVote Project. They found us at the booth, during the Tweetup, in presentations, and in the hallways, asking questions about open source, the ways in which technology can assist in elections, and wondering how they might help.

Greg Miller presents the TrustTheVote Project at the National Civic Summit 2009

Greg Miller presents the TrustTheVote Project at the National Civic Summit 2009

Our hats are off to the many volunteers who made the Summit a success!