Tagged digital pollbook

For (Digital) Poll Books — Custody Matters!

Today, I am presenting at the annual Elections Verification Conference in Atlanta, GA and my panel is discussing the good, the bad, and the ugly about the digital poll book (often referred to as the “e-pollbook”).  For our casual readers, the digital poll book or “DPB” is—as you might assume—a digital relative of the paper poll book… that pile of print-out containing the names of registered voters for a given precinct wherein they are registered to vote.

For our domain savvy reader, the issues to be discussed today are on the application, sometimes overloaded application, of DPBs and their related issues of reliability, security and verifiability.  So as I head into this, I wanted to echo some thoughts here about DPBs as we are addressing them at the TrustTheVote Project.

OSDV_pollbook_100709-1We’ve been hearing much lately about State and local election officials’ appetite (or infatuation) for digital poll books.  We’ve been discussing various models and requirements (or objectives), while developing the core of the TrustTheVote Digital Poll Book.  But in several of these discussions, we’ve noticed that only two out of three basic purposes of poll books of any type (paper or digital, online or offline) seem to be well understood.  And we think the gap shows why physical custody is so important—especially so for digital poll books.

The first two obvious purposes of a poll book are to [1] check in a voter as a prerequisite to obtaining a ballot, and [2] to prevent a voter from having a second go at checking-in and obtaining a ballot.  That’s fine for meeting the “Eligibility” and “Non-duplication” requirements for in-person voting.

But then there is the increasingly popular absentee voting, where the role of poll books seems less well understood.  In our humble opinion, those in-person polling-place poll books are also critical for absentee and provisional voting.  Bear in mind, those “delayed-cast” ballots can’t be evaluated until after the post-election poll-book-intake process is complete.

To explain why, let’s consider one fairly typical approach to absentee evaluation.  The poll book intake process results in an update to the voter record of every voter who voted in person.  Then, the voter record system is used as one part of absentee and provisional ballot processing.  Before each ballot may be separated from its affidavit, the reviewer must check the voter identity on the affidavit, and then find the corresponding voter record.  If the voter record indicates that the voter cast their ballot in person, then the absentee or provisional ballot must not be counted.

So far, that’s a story about poll books that should be fairly well understood, but there is an interesting twist when if comes to digital poll books (DPB).

The general principle for DPB operation is that it should follow the process used with paper poll books (though other useful features may be added).  With paper poll books, both the medium (paper) and the message (who voted) are inseparable, and remain in the custody of election staff (LEOs and volunteers) throughout the entire life cycle of the poll book.

With the DPB, however, things are trickier. The medium (e.g., a tablet computer) and the message (the data that’s managed by the tablet, and that represents who voted) can be separated, although it should not.

Why not? Well, we can hope that the medium remains in the appropriate physical custody, just as paper poll books do. But if the message (the data) leaves the tablet, and/or becomes accessible to others, then we have potential problems with accuracy of the message.  It’s essential that the DPB data remain under the control of election staff, and that the data gathered during the DPB intake process is exactly the data that election staff recorded in the polling place.  Otherwise, double voting may be possible, or some valid absentee or provisional ballots may be erroneously rejected.  Similarly, the poll book data used in the polling place must be exactly as previously prepared, or legitimate voters might be barred.

That’s why digital poll books must be carefully designed for use by election staff in a way that doesn’t endanger the integrity of the data.  And this is an example of the devil in the details that’s so common for innovative election technology.

Those devilish details derail some nifty ideas, like one we heard of recently: a simple and inexpensive iPad app that provides the digital poll book UI based on poll book data downloaded (via 4G wireless network) from “cloud storage” where an election official previously put it in a simple CSV file; and where the end-of-day poll book data was put back into the cloud storage for later download by election officials.

Marvelous simplicity, right?  Oh hec, I’m sure some grant-funded project could build that right away.  But turns out that is wholly unacceptable in terms of chain of custody of data that accurate vote counts depend on.  You wouldn’t put the actual vote data in the cloud that way, and poll book data is no less critical to election integrity.

A Side Note:  This is also an example of the challenge we often face from well-intentioned innovators of the digital democracy movement who insist that we’re making a mountain out of a molehill in our efforts.  They argue that this stuff is way easier and ripe for all of the “kewl” digital innovations at our fingertips today.  Sure, there are plenty of very well designed innovations and combinations of ubiquitous technology that have driven the social web and now the emerging utility web.  And we’re leveraging and designing around elements that make sense here—for instance the powerful new touch interfaces driving today’s mobile digital devices.  But there is far more to it, than a sexy interface with a 4G connection.  Oops, I digress to a tangential gripe.

This nifty example of well-intentioned innovation illustrates why the majority of technology work in a digital poll book solution is actually in [1] the data integration (to and from the voter record system); [2] the data management (to and from each individual digital poll book), and [3] the data integrity (maintaining the same control present in paper poll books).

Without a doubt, the voter’s user experience, as well as the election poll worker or official’s user experience, is very important (note pic above)—and we’re gathering plenty of requirements and feedback based on our current work.  But before the TTV Digital Poll Book is fully baked, we need to do equal justice to those devilish details, in ways that meet the varying requirements of various States and localities.

Thoughts? Your ball (er, ballot?)
GAM | out

How Digital Pollbooks Can Ease the Voter ID Challenge

OSDV_pollbook_100709-1Some of you have heard the rumors and rumblings. Yes, an exciting new project in our open source elections technology framework is in the works.  And yes, it is an important tool for the front lines of democracy: election polling places.

We’ll have a  bunch more to officially say about our digital poll book project shortly.

But first, a thought about how this tool can help the Voter ID challenge.

The Progressive States Network recently posted a call for participation in a teleconference to discuss fighting a rising wave of renewed interest in compulsory photo identification at the Polls.  They note in part:

With a shift of control of state legislatures and governorships across the country taking shape this month, many conservative lawmakers are pushing laws that would require photo identification for all voters at the polls.  While these laws are touted as a catchall way to prevent voter fraud, in reality they only address voter impersonation, an extremely rare form of fraud.  More importantly they will cost states money that could be better spent in these difficult economic times and serve primarily to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters.

Maybe so, maybe so.  But we’ll sidestep that argument for a moment to point out that our newest framework project—the Digital Poll Book—can help address this problem, and is but one of several reasons the Digital Poll Book (as envisioned and being designed by the TrustTheVote Project) is a near imperative piece of election technology—open source, of course!

[Ed Note: watch for a post in the near future to provide a more proper overview of this exciting 2011 project—something we think will easily outshine work in 2009 on voter registration systems and work in 2010 on ballot design and generation.]

So, let’s have a look at some concerns people have about Voter ID, and where digital Poll books can help.

Concern #1: It’s a bad idea to have to trust poll workers
It’s a bad idea to trust poll workers to accurately and honestly perform the check for each voter that the ID document they present is valid, and that the document contains ID information that matches voter ID information in the poll book.  Erroneous or mendacious poll workers can incorrectly reject valid ID, or perform a false negative on the match of ID with poll book records, or just take enough extra time during check in to intimidate some people, and force longer lines at polling places.

Our Response:

  • That’s a valid concern—but about the proper performance of ID checks, rather than the ID check itself.
  • Digital poll books can ameliorate these concerns when combined with digital capture of ID.  Here’s how:  Increasingly, States’ driver’s licenses and state ID cards are card-reader ready (i.e., they can be swiped through a device to pick up or “read” the vital data encoded into the card.)  Such a swipe can be the basis for a digital poll book looking up a valid voter matching voter record, without reliance on the poll worker.  In other states an even simpler method of voter ID has the same effect—the Board of Elections issue single-purpose voter-ID cards, including bar code that can be scanned to provide the voter ID information.

Concern #2: A Registered Voter may not have a valid State ID
Not every registered voter has valid state ID, and for some people it is a physical or financial hardship to obtain state-verified identification.

Our Response:

  • That may well be true for a small population of people, but the statement assumes that State ID is the only valid voter ID. BoEs can choose to adopt alternatives, for example  BoE-issued voter-ID cards as used in some states today. Sending these to voters can be as easy as current routine BoE-voter interaction, along with sample ballot mail-outs, with no cost or effort to the voter.

Concern #3: The alternative of provisional voting in absence of valid ID is disenfranchising.
If a voter arrives at the Polling Place without valid ID where such is required, then at best they have to vote provisionally—which is potentially disenfranchising given the inconsistencies of counting provisional ballots.

Our Response:

  • It is true that many provisional voters do not have their ballot counted because of errors on or legibility of the provisional affidavit.  However, digital poll books can help by providing a provisional affidavit form helper that collects all of the required information, and prints a complete, correct, and legible affidavit for the voter.
  • It is also true that some people believe that provisional votes are often not counted. Notwithstanding the accuracy of claims of uncounted provisional ballots, sunshine is the best remedy for these concerns.  Digital poll books can help by capturing—for subsequent aggregation and publication—accurate information about provisional voters and affidavits, for members of the public to verify whether the number of counted provisional ballots matches the number that should have been counted.

Concern #4: Voter ID requirements are inconsistent with vote-by-mail.
Voter ID has little deterrence value for voter impersonation fraud, because of the option of voting by mail without voter ID. For voters that might be intimidated by an ID check at a polling place, voter ID shifts participation to vote-by-mail, where voters have additional risk (compared to in person voting) of not having their vote counted due to errors in preparing vote-by-mail materials.

Our Response:

  • The comparison of voter-ID in person, vs. vote-by-mail without ID, is a valid comparison in general, but varies by State — both in States’ use of vote-by-mail, and in States’ methods of identifying or authenticating absentee voters.  In a state with no-fault absentee, permanent absentee, permanent vote-by-mail, and similar practices, it may well be fruitless to impose voter-ID requirements on the minority of participating voters who vote in person.
  • However, other States have more limited and controlled use of absentee voting, with the large majority of voters voting in person.  In those cases, digital poll books can help ameliorate some of the above concerns and help enable voter ID benefits in States where such benefits are sought.

We think the Voter ID issue is thorny.  We also believe people should get involved with this debate as its likely to have a real impact in how America votes (where the Polling Place remains the epicenter of that civic duty).  We also believe that the elimination of paper-based poll books and reducing if not removing the related issues that can run with their people-based processes is an equally important part of this issue.  Our newest elections technology framework project for 2011 is the open source digital poll book.  Its truly exciting, and we envision it being based on some highly desirable, easy to use and insanely great technology.

Stay tuned for a briefing on the project.

GAM|out