By Pito Salas

The Voting Information Project is cool

Yeah this is old hat to election-insiders (I am not yet one, so I can still have that sense of wonder 🙂 but I just took a drive through the “Voting Information Project” web site. I think it’s a cool idea that could be a template to catalyze very useful election related information resources in a totally decentralized manner, where each state or locality can elect when and how to join in.

In case you haven’t heard about it, this is from their site:

“…As a fundamental step in this initiative, the Voting Information Project is partnering with a group of state election officials to develop and implement a technical standard, known as an “open format,” by which state and local election officials can more efficiently disseminate voting information. ” (from Voting Information Project)

If a state chooses to provide election related information in this format, at a known URL, this information will be pulled into the VIP system and in turn be deliverable to web sites, cell phones, twitter, facebook, yadi yada.

In other words, the one fairly simple piece of work is leveraged multiple times and brought to where it can be used by voters. Pretty cool, and maybe a template for decentralized adoption and deployment of election info services of other kinds in the future.

Here’s the FAQ of the Voter Information Project.

Government 2.0: Shouldn’t elections also be on the list?

I caught this post by Mark Drapeau of O’Reilly about where so-called Government 2.0 is headed in the next year or 2.0. It’s an interesting list, agree with it or not. It does seem to be the case that usually when folks are talking about Gov2.0 they don’t seem to be thinking about what can be improved in the way we run elections.

From the post: Government 2.0: Five Predictions for 2010-12(from O’Reilly Radar – Insight, analysis, and research about emerging technologies.:

“So, here are some non-exhaustive, somewhat creative, and entirely debatable trends and ideas that I foresee taking shape in the next three years or so. Why the next three years? Well, it’s hard to predict what will happen within a year – there are too many strange short-term factors, like natural disasters and Congressional behavior (but I repeat myself). Plus, the next three years is the remainder of Obama’s current term in office, so these are things we can expect to see either before his second term, or before the new President’s first term. So, that said, here are my five predictions for 2010-12:” (from: Government 2.0: Five Predictions for 2010-12)

Here is the list of predictions: Government 2.0: Five Predictions for 2010-12

Update on our work on ballot scanning

We’ve been putting together test cases and experimenting with techniques and actually developing code for actually scanning ballots – in other words, the ‘simple’ problem of taking a digital and figuring out if it is ‘correctly’ filled out by a voter, and who got the  votes. Here is a progress report on this work so far.

In that short document you will see, step by step, how one approach would work, the intermediate steps required, the supplementary information which would define the ballot style: how it would be detected and then applied. (The term ballot style, in this context means the information that specifies where to expect each vote oval on a particular ballot and what it means.)

We’ve made very good progress in this area. While we’ve worked so far only with one common look for ballots, so-called (by some) ‘office style’ ballots as generated by Premier. We believe that many if not all of our techniques would work equally well with other graphically designed ballots.

One interesting preliminary result is that it seems possible (and worthwhile) to get rid of the bulk of the computerish marks that decorate most ballots today and reduce that visual clutter to a set of 4 black squares in each corner of a ballot. That would be enough to allow the image analyzer to line itself up reliably. Read the progress report for the rest of the details.

Check out our wiki

Yes, it’s still a work in progress (I guess they remain that, forever.) But recently we’ve done quite a bit of neatening (gardening as they say among some wiki-geeks.) up of the TrustTheVote.org wiki. As we work, we will continue to add most of all we know and think as of a certain point in time. Between the TrustTheVote wiki and this blog, you should be able to have a pretty clear x-ray into the TrustTheVote project.

Wiki’s, unlike blogs, don’t change on a daily basis, and act more like a web site or document repository than as a newsletter or periodic update. Our goal is that as time goes by, you will be able to answer questions you have about TrustTheVote’s approach and projects, status reports, images and documents, and so on.

So let me give you a tour of some items of interest in the wiki. On the front page, there are a few landmarks to help you find stuff. In the top right corner, you see a list of the major TrustTheVote projects. You see links such as “Digital Voting Records System” and “Data Layer” among others. Each of these links goes to a project page, which you will see is in various stages of completeness.

Further on the front page, on the right, below the projects, is a “Recently Changed” list, which shows you exactly what pages have been most recently edited, and actually when that was, so you can see the parts of the wiki that we are working on.

In the left margin, you see an area called “Navigations”. Note the TTV Projects link which takes you to a one page table of all the projects with very brief summaries of what they are, so it’s a good place to get an overview.

Also in that same section is a “Stakeholder Community” link where we are putting information that we are exchanging with out stakeholder community, “a group of election officials, election technologists, election process experts, and advocates, who have graciously offered their advice to the OSDV Foundation’s TrustTheVote Project.”

I hope you will find this wiki a useful resource. You may notice that at this moment it is not editable; this is because we need to figure out a way to allow people to contribute to it without at the same time opening it up to the usual vandals and spammers that love to use open wikis as a launch pad for link farms and other non-sense.

Enjoy.

Another vote for paper

Check out No Voting Machine Virus in NY-23 Election(from Bo Lipari – Essays and Images:

“Finally, the good news – because New York votes on paper, everybody’s vote was counted. When the scanner stopped working, the ballots were removed and counted, so no votes were lost. Paper ballots, a software independent record of the vote, proved their great value in their very first outing in the Empire State. ” (from: No Voting Machine Virus in NY-23 Election)

Its an interesting article explaining what actually seemed to have happened in NY-23. I say “seemed” because I am sure there must be other interpreations and explanations, but the one I am citing here rings pretty realistic to me.

Ballot Design and the importance of (simple) usability tests

In another department of our megaplex one of my colleagues, Aleks Totic is working on ballot layout and design for the TrustTheVote technology suite. I came across this great blog post from the Brennan Center at NYU that describes a recent situation where it appears a simple bit of questionable (but valid) layout may have caused many voters to skip past a ballot initiative. From the conclusion of the article:

“What probably would have alerted officials to this problem ahead of time, and at little or no cost, would have been a simple usability test: observing ten or fifteen King County citizens as they “voted” on the ballot before the design was finalized. This solution is simple, easy and cheap. The Usability Professionals Association has a great explanation of how it’s done.” (from Ballot Design Still Matters)

Yes, it’s true, no matter how wonderful our ballot design guidelines are, and how well an automated checklist is applied to a ballot before printing, a simple usability test (“it aint rocket science”) is so simple and cheap, it should never be skipped.

It’s a good article: read the whole thing!

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Paper Ballots vs. Photcopying

One of my main concerns these days is the algorithms for scanning paper ballots. In other words, given a paper ballot, some kind of image capture (i.e. a scanner), what is the ‘best’ way to analyze them and determine the ‘voters’ intent?’

Two key terms in that description, ‘best’ and ‘voters’ intent’. I will be writing several more posts in the coming days to explore those two questions, as well as describe what we’ve learned so far about how to approach the problem technically.

In the meanwhile, to get your mind in the right frame, check out Paper Ballots, Photocopiers, and Security(from Bo Lipari – Essays and Images:

“When I heard that New York City had found that a photocopy of a ballot could be successfully scanned by both of the two systems being used in New York State, my first thought was that this is Sun-Rises-in-the-East news. It didn’t surprise me, and the first line of defense against attacks involving any type of fake ballot, photocopied or printed, is well designed and implemented ballot management security procedures. But this is a complex issue which bears some discussion.” (from: Paper Ballots, Photocopiers, and Security)

It’s a very interesting article that presents a detailed threat analysis of the question of photocopied ballots. Food for thought.

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End-to-end election in Tacoma Park

Check Dan Wallach’s post: Tacoma Park: first ever e2e binding election (from ACCURATE) which describes an actual real-world election using a so-called “end-to-end” vote casting and counting technology.

This is a fascinating scenario: allowing voters to actually verify, by true mathematical proof, that their vote actually got included in the total. This is unique and seems very welcome and a great trust-enhancer in fair elections.

But the mathematics behind it are far over the head of 99.99999% of the voters. So if it adds trust and confidence, why does it? And does it actually have to work in order to add trust and confidence?

For example, does it matter that my airline seat can double as a flotation device, and that it will actually work, or does it give me confidence no matter what?

Or, on the other hand, does it remind me that the plane actually may crash, and hence reduce my trust and confidence? On the third hand, the mathematics (and physics, and aerodynamics) that keep the plane aloft, are also way over the most of our heads.

One more worthwhile factoid:  in the Tacoma Park election, the end-to-end cryptography are complemented by vanilla paper ballots which offer a familiar and understood safety valve:

From the “Takoma Park: first ever e2e binding election” post:

“It’s important to note that, for this particular election technology, the votes are being cast on traditional paper ballots that could always be counted, recounted, or otherwise inspected manually.

That’s not strictly necessary for election security — our own VoteBox system works more like a paperless electronic voting system and has the same security guarantees as Scantegrity — but it’s essential when rolling out a new technology where a real election with real politicians’ careers is at stake. We need to know that real elections can be really verified, and we need a fallback position if the crypto somehow goes wrong. ” (from: Tacoma Park: first ever e2e binding election)

Exciting stuff!

Since we are talking about standards…

I came across this post about standards, by Adam Bosworth, a well known net luminary who is working (or so I gather) on Electronic Medical Records. You can imagine that next to Elections, E-Medical-Records has got to be a virtual quagmire party for people who worry about data interchange.

The post, which you should read in it’s entirety, lays out 7 excellent principles which I agree with wholeheartedly:

  1. Keep the standard as simple and stupid as possible.
  2. The data being exchanged should be human readable and easy to understand.
  3. Standards work best when they are focused.
  4. Standards should have precise encodings.
  5. Always have real implementations that are actually being used as part of design of any standard.
  6. Put in hysteresis for the unexpected
  7. Make the spec itself free, public on the web, and include lots of simple examples on the web site.

Adam concludes:

“Let’s be honest, a lot of standards are written for purposes other than promoting interoperability. Some exist to protect legacy advantages or to create an opportunity to profit from proprietary intellectual property. Others seem to take on a life of their own and seem to exist solely to justify the continued existence of the standards body itself or to create an opportunity for the authors to collect on juicy consultant fees explaining how the standard is meant to work to the poor saps who have to implement it. I think we can agree that,  whatever they are, those are usually not good standards. Health data interoperability is far too important an issue to let fall victim to such an approach.” (from Adam Bosworth)

To which I would add, “… and our democratic elections are also far too important not to heed his advice.”

Eh Tu Coding Standards?

As you may know, our approach to developing software is kind of agile development meets high assurance. What the heck? We are now engaged in prototyping and modeling, so the slider is to the agile development side. But the high assurance part will come. And when it comes, and when we want our code to be certified, then clearly coding standards (and many other matters) will come to the fore.

But for the moment, as you take a look at the code that we have already put out there on github, and other code that it is on it’s way, remember where we are in evolution. For now, we feel that coding standards are kind of a moving target and so we are not going to be draconian in our oversight of that. In fact I have to say that harder than following a particular set of coding standards is ensuring that software we design and write is as simple, clear and well structured as possible, and then some. Personally I place a higher value on that than on whether we use 2 or 4 space tab settings 😉 The other point worth noting is that different parts of the overall election technology suite are subject to different degrees of review and certification. For example, it stands to reason that the code driving the design of ballots is different than the code tabulating the vote.

So as software engineers who care about their work and especially where we are working on something as important as elections technology you can count on us writing code that we can be proud of. You won’t find us crying crocodile tears when some of our code comes into the public domain and is scrutinized – after all, that’s what we’ve been all about from the very start.

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