Tagged disenfranchisement

Voter registration problems in Maryland signal larger vulnerabilities for upcoming elections

Binary data disappears in a dark hole

Voter registration data lost in Maryland

This Monday, state officials in Maryland acknowledged that problems with their “motor voter” systems are more significant than originally described:

[A]s many as 80,000 voters — nearly quadruple the original estimate — will have to file provisional ballots Tuesday because the state Motor Vehicle Administration failed to transmit updated voter information to the state Board of Elections.

— Up to 80,000 Maryland voters will have to file provisional ballots, state says (Washington Post. 6/25/18)

This announcement, made only hours before the polls opened for Maryland’s Tuesday primary, will mean more than just a minor inconvenience for the tens of thousands of voters affected. Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore City), chairwoman of the Senate Education, Health and Environment Committee, said that this situation will “confuse voters, suppress turnout, and disenfranchise thousands of Marylanders.”

Yet the significance of this programming error is broader still. Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), who is also running for governor of Maryland, called the incorrect registration of thousands of voters a “catastrophic failure.” In his statement, he continued, “The chaos being created by this failure subjects real harm to our most cherished democratic values,”

Is this election season hyperbole? Not at all, says John Sebes, Chief Technology Officer of the OSET Institute (the organization that runs the Trust The Vote project). In his recent article, Maryland Voter Registration Glitch: A Teachable Snafu, Mr. Sebes identifies the wide-ranging problems that will follow from these kind of disruptions at a larger scale:

If a foreign adversary can use cyber-operations to maliciously create a similar situation at large scale, then they can be sure of preventing many voters from casting a ballot.  With that disruption, the adversary can fuel information operations to discredit the election because of the large number of voters obstructed.

— John Sebes, OSET Institute

It is, in fact, the credibility of the entire election itself that is at stake. These kinds of technical problems don’t need to be the result of nefarious interference in the election process. Mr. Sebes continues,

The alleged system failure (hack, glitch, or whatever) doesn’t even need to be true!  If this accidental glitch had occurred a couple of days before the November election, and came on the heels of considerable conversation and media coverage about election hacking, rigging, or tampering then it would be an ideal opportunity for a claimed cyber-attack as the cause, with adversaries owning the disruptive effects and using information operations to the same effect as if it were an actual attack.

—  Maryland Voter Registration Glitch: A Teachable Snafu by John Sebes

Maryland is clearly vulnerable to this kind of attack on the credibility of their electoral process. Already, some are sounding the alarm that these voter registration problems weren’t identified quickly — plus, there’s no way to verify the process itself:

Damon Effingham, acting director of the Maryland chapter of Common Cause, said it was “preposterous” that it took MVA officials four days to figure out the extent of the problem and that there is no system to ensure that its system is working properly.

— Up to 80,000 Maryland voters will have to file provisional ballots, state says (Washington Post. 6/25/18)

What’s the solution?

John Sebes and the Trust The Vote project have spent years developing open source election software and systems to address these issues. But that alone isn’t sufficient. Mr. Sebes identifies the steps that election officials can take now to prevent the kind of problems that Maryland is experiencing this week:

  • “It’s partly a technology effort to re-engineer election systems to be less fragile from errors and less vulnerable to attack.”
  • “How to ensure the correctness and integrity of poll books[?] … that depends on emerging open data standards and the question of certification of poll books.”
  • “Given the great importance of public credibility … election officials must also plan for proactive public communication.”

Mr. Sebes concludes:

The Maryland glitch is not so much about failed integration of disparate data systems, but much more about unintentional catalyzing of opportunities to mount “credibility attacks” on elections and the need for a different kind of preparation.

Read the full article, Maryland Voter Registration Glitch: A Teachable Snafu by John Sebes, on the OSET Institute website.

The OSET Institute runs the TrustTheVote Project, a real alternative to nearly obsolete, proprietary voting technology. TrustTheVote is building an open, adaptable, flexible, full-featured and innovative elections operating system called ElectOS. It supports all aspects of elections administration and voting including creating, marking, casting, and counting ballots, as well as managing all back-office functions. Check out this overview of the TrustTheVote Project to learn more. If you’re involved in the election process, as an election official, or an academic or researcher, join the TrustTheVote Project as a stakeholder to help develop and deploy open, secure, reliable, and credible election technologies. If you’re concerned about the health of our election systems, you can donate or volunteer. If you have any questions about the TrustTheVote Project, contact us today.

Crowd Sourcing Polling Place Wait Times – Part 2

Last time, we wrote about the idea of a voter information service where people could crowd source the data about polling place wait times, so that other voters would benefit by not going when the lines are getting long, and so that news media and others could get a broad view of how well or poorly a county or state was doing in terms of voting time.

And as we observed such would be a fine idea, but the results from that crowd-sourced reporting would be way better if the reporting were not on the “honor system.”  Without going on a security and privacy rampage, it would be better if this idea were implemented using some existing model for people to do mobile computing voter-stuff, in a way that is not trivial to abuse, unlike the honor system.

Now, back to the good news we mentioned previously: there is an existing model we could use to limit the opportunity for abuse.  You see, many U.S. voters, in a growing number of States, already have the ability to sit in a café and use their smart phone and a web site to identify themselves sufficiently to see their full voter record, and in some cases even update part of that voter record.

So, the idea is: why not extend that with a little extra record keeping of when a voter reports that they have arrived at the polls, and when they said they were done? In fact, it need not even be an extension of existing online voter services, and could be done in places that are currently without online voter services altogether.  It could even be the first online voter service in those places.

The key here is voters “sufficiently identify themselves” through some existing process, and that identification has to be based an existing voter record.  In complex online voter services (like paperless online voter registration), that involves a 3-way real-time connection between the voter’s digital device, the front-end web server that it talks to, and a privileged and controlled connection from the front-end to obtain specific voter data in the back-end.  But in a service like this, it could be even simpler, with a system that’s based on a copy of the voter record data, indeed, just that part that the voter needs to use to “identify themselves sufficiently”.

Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The fact is, State and/or local elections officials generally manage the voter database.  And our Stakeholders inform us its still likely these jurisdictions would want to operate this service in order to retain control of the data, and to control the ways and means of “sufficient identity” to be consistent with election laws, current usage practices, and other factors.  On the other hand, a polling place traffic monitor service can be a completely standalone system – a better solution we think, and more likely to be tried by everyone.

OK, that’s enough for the reasonably controlled and accurate crowd-source reporting of wait times. What about the benefits from it – the visibility on wait times?  As is almost always the case in transparent, open government computing these days, there are two parallel answers.

The first answer is that the same system that voters report into, could also provide the aggregated information to the public.  For example, using a web app, one could type in their street address (or get some help in selecting it, akin to our Digital Poll Book), and see the wait time info for a given precinct.  They could also view a list of the top-5 shortest current wait times and bottom-5 longest wait times of the precincts in their county, and see where their precinct sits in that ranking.  They could also study graphs of moving averages of wait times – well, you can ideate for yourself.  It’s really a question of what kind of information regular voters would actually value, and that local election officials would want to show.

The second answer is that this system must provide a web services API so that “other systems” can query this wait-time-reporting service.  These other systems should be able to get any slice of the raw data, or the whole thing, up to the minute.  Then they could do whatever visualization, reporting, or other services thought up by the clever people operating this other system.

For me, I’d like an app on my phone that pings like my calendar reminders, that I set to ping myself after 9am (no voting without adequate caffeine!) but before 3pm (high school lets out and street traffic becomes a sh*t show ;-)); but oh, when the waiting time is <10 minutes.  I’d also like something that tells me if/when turn-out in my precinct (or my county, or some geographic slice) tips over 50% of non-absentee voters.  And you can imagine others.  But the main point is that we do not expect our State or local election officials to deliver that to us.  We do hope that they can deliver the basics, including that API so that others can do cool stuff with the data.

Actually, it’s an important division of labor.

Government organizations have the data and need to “get the data out” both in raw form via an API, and in some form useful for individual voters’ practical needs on Election Day.  Then other organizations or individuals can use that API with their different vision and innovation to put that data to a range of additional good uses.  That’s our view.

So, in our situation at the TrustTheVote Project, it’s actually really possible.  We already have the pieces: [1] the whole technology framework for online voter services, based on existing legacy databases; [2] the web and mobile computing technology framework with web services and APIs; [3] existing voter services that are worked examples of how to use these frameworks; and [4] some leading election officials who are already committed to using all these pieces, in real life, to help real voters.  This “voting wait-time tracker” system we call PollMon is actually one of the simplest examples of this type of computing.

We’re ready to build one.  And we told the Knight News Challenge so.  We say, let’s do this.  Wanna help?  Let us know.  We’ve already had some rockin good ideas and some important suggestions.

GAM | out

Temporarily Missing, But Still in Action

Happy “Holidaze”

On the eve of 2012 we so need to check in here and let you know we’re still fighting the good fight and have been totally distracted by a bunch of activities.  There is much to catch you up on and we’ll start doing that in the ensuing days,  but for now we simply wanted to check in and wish everyone a peaceful and prosperous new year.  And of course, we intend that to “prosper” is to enrich yourself in any number of ways, not simply financially, but intellectually, physically, and spiritually as well… how ever you chose to do so 😉

Looking back while looking ahead, as this afternoon before the new year urges us all to do, we are thankful for the great headway we made in 2011 (and we’ll have much more to say about those accomplishments separately), and we are energized (and resting up) for the exciting and intense election year ahead.  And that brings me to two thoughts I want to share as we approach the celebration of this New Year’s Eve 2011.

1. A Near #FAIL

First, if there was one effort or project that approached “#fail” for us this year it was our intended work to produce a new open data, open source elections night reporting system for Travis County, TX, Orange County, CA and others.  We were “provisionally chosen” by Travis County pending our ability to shore up a gap in the required funding to complete some jurisdiction specific capabilities.

We approached prospective backers in addition to our current ones and unfortunately we could not get everyone on board quickly enough, and tried to do so on the eve of their budgetary commitments being finalized for other 2012 election year funding commitments, mostly around voter enfranchisement (more on that in a moment.)  We were short answers to 2 questions of Travis County, the answers to which well could have dramatically reduced the remaining fund gap requirement and allowed us to accelerate toward final selection and be ready in time for 2012.

For unexplained reasons, Travis County has fallen silent to answer any of our questions, respond to any of our inquiries, or even continue to advance our discussions.  We fear that something has happened in their procurement process and they simply haven’t gotten around to the courtesy of letting us know.  This is frustrating because we’ve been left in a state of purgatory — really unable to determine where and how to allocate resources without this resolved.  The buck stops with me (Gregory) on this point as I should’ve pushed harder for answers from both sides: Travis on the technical issues and our Backers on the funding question.

I say this was a “near #fail” because it clearly is unresolved: we know Orange County, as well as other jurisdictions, and media channels such as the AP remain quite keen on our design, the capabilities for mobile delivery, the open data, and of course the open source alternative to expensive (on a total cost of ownership or “TCO” basis) proprietary black-box solutions.  Moreover, the election night reporting system is a “not insignificant” component to our open source elections technology framework, and its design and development will continue.  And perhaps we’ll get some clarity on Travis County, close the funding gap, and get that service launched in time for next Fall’s election frenzy.  Stay tuned.

So, that is but one of several distractions that allowed this vital blog to sit idle for the last half of summer and all of the Fall.  We’ll share more about the other distractions in  upcoming posts as we get underway with 2012.  But I have a closing comment about the 2012 election season in this final evening of 2011.

2.  The 2012 Battles on the Front-lines of Democracy Will Start at the Polling Place

Millions of additional Americans will be required to present photo ID when they arrive at the polls in four states next year.  Kansas, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Texas will require voters to prove their identities, bringing the total number of States to 30 that require some form of voter identification, this according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

This is an issue that has reached the boiling point and we predict will set off a storm of lawsuits (and they are happening already).  It ranks very close to redistricting in terms of its impact on voter enfranchisement according to one side of the argument.  Opponents also argue that such regulations impose an unfair barrier to those who are less likely to have photo IDs, including the poor and the elderly.  The proponents stand steadfast that the real issue is voter fraud and this is the best way to address it.  Of course, the trouble with that argument is that after a five-year U.S. DoJ probe lasting across two different administrations found little (53 cases) discernible evidence of widespread voter fraud.   And yet, there are also reasonable arguments suggesting that regardless of voter fraud, there seems to be no difficulty in our elderly, disabled or poor obtaining ID cards (where required) in order to enable them to obtain Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps.

To be clear: the Foundation has no opinion on the matter of voter ID.  We see arguments on both sides.  Our focus is simply this: any voter identification process must be fair, not burdensome, transparent, and uniformly applied.  We’re far more vested in how to make technology to facilitate friction-free access to the polling place that produces a verifiable, audit-ready, and accountable paper trail for all votes.  We do believe that implementing voter ID as a means to restrict the vote is troublesome… as troublesome as preventing voter ID in order to passively enable those who are not entitled as a matter of citizenship to cast a ballot.

Regardless of how you come down on this issue, we believe it will be where the battles begin in the 2012 election season over enfranchising or disenfranchising voters begins.

And with that, we say, 2012: bring it.  We’re ready.  Be there: its going to be an interesting experience.  Here we go.

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.


Setting a Technology Agenda for Overseas Voting

I have arrived in Munich, reached my hotel and actually caught a nap.  It was a sloppy slushy day here from what I can tell; about 30 degrees and some wet snow; but spring is around the corner.  On the flight over the Pole last evening (I’m a horrible plane sleeper) I worked on final preparations for our Technology Track at this year’s UOCAVA Summit (which I wrote about yesterday).  I thought I’d share some more about this aspect of the Conference.  This is another long post, but for those who cannot be in Munich at this conference, here are the details.

Historically, as I see it, the Summit has been primarily a policy discourse.  While the Overseas Vote Foundation always has digital services to show off in the form of their latest Web facilities to support overseas voters, Summit has historically been focused on efforts to comply, enforce, and extend the UOCAVA (Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act).  This year, with the passage of the MOVE Act (something I also wrote about yesterday), a new tract of topics, discussion, (and even debate) has surfaced, and it is of a technical nature.  This is in principle why the Overseas Vote Foundation approached the OSDV Foundation about sponsorship and co-hosting.  We thought about it, and agreed to both.

Then came the task of actually putting together an agenda, topics, speakers, and content.

I owe a tremendous “thank you” to all of the Panelists we have engaged, and to Dr. Andrew Appel of Princeton, our Chief Technology Officer John Sebes, and our Director of Communications, Matthew Douglass, for their work in helping produce this aspect of Summit.  Our Director of Outreach Strategy, Sarah Nelson should be included in here for her logistics and advance work in Munich.  And of course, I would be remiss if I left out the fearless and brilliant leader of the OVF, Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, for all of her coordination, production work, and leadership.

A quick note about Andrew:  I’ve had the privilege of working with Professor Appel on two conferences now.  Many are aware that one of our tract productions is going to be a debate on so-called “Internet Voting” and that Dr. Appel will give the opening background talk.  I intend to post another article tomorrow on the Debate itself.  But I want to point out something now that certain activists may not want to hear (let alone believe).  While Andrew’s view of Internet-based voting systems is well known, there can be no doubt of his interest in a fair and balanced discourse.  Regardless of his personal views, I have witnessed Andrew go to great lengths to examine all sides and build arguments for and against public packet switched networks for public ballot transactions.  So, although several are challenging his giving the opening address, which in their view taints the effort to produce a fair and balanced event, I can state for a fact, that nothing is further from the truth.

Meanwhile, back to the other Track events.

We settled on 2 different Panels to advance the discussion of technology in support of the efforts of overseas voters to participate in stateside elections:

  1. MOVE Act Compliance Pilot Programs – titled: “Technology Pilots: Pros and Cons, Blessing or Curse
  2. Technology Futures – titled: “2010 UOCAVA Technology Futures

Here are the descriptions of each and the Panelists:

Technology Pilots: Pros and Cons, Blessing or Curse

The title is the work of the Conference Sponsor, OVF, but we agree that the phrase, “Technology Pilots” trips wildly different switches in the minds of various UOCAVA stakeholders.  The MOVE Act requires the implementation of pilots to test new methods for U.S. service member voting.  For some, it seems like a logical step forward, a natural evolution of a concept; for others pilots are a step onto a slippery slope and best to avoid at all costs. This panel will discuss why these opposing views co-exist, and must continue to do so.

  • Paul Docker, Head of Electoral Strategy, Ministry of Justice, United Kingdom
  • Carol Paquette, Director, Operation BRAVO Foundation
  • Paul Stenbjorn, President, Election Information Services
  • Alec Yasinsac, Professor and Dean, School of Computer and Information Sciences University of South Alabama

John Sebes, Chief Technology Officer, TrustTheVote Project (OSDV Foundation)

2010 UOCAVA Technology Futures

UOCAVA is an obvious magnet for new technologies that test our abilities to innovate.  Various new technologies now emerging and how they are coming into play with UOCAVA voting will be the basis of discussion.  Cloud computing, social networking, centralized database systems, open source development, and data transfer protocols: these are all aspects of technologies that can impact voting from overseas, and they are doing so.

  • Gregory Miller, Chief Development Officer, Open Source Digital Voting Foundation
  • Pat Hollarn, President, Operation BRAVO Foundation
  • Doug Chapin, Director, Election Initiatives, The Pew Center of the States
  • Lars Herrmann, Redhat
  • Paul Miller, Senior Technology and Policy Analyst, State of Washington
  • Daemmon Hughes, Technical Development Director, Bear Code
  • Tarvi Martens, Development Director at SK, Demographic Info, Computer & Network Security, Estonia

Manuel Kripp, Competence Center for Electronic Voting

The first session is very important in light of the MOVE Act implementation mandate.  Regardless of where you come down on the passage of this UOCAVA update (as I like to refer to it), it is now federal law, and compliance is compulsory.  So, the session is intended to inform the audience of the status of, and plans for pilot programs to test various ways to actually do at least two things, and for some (particularly in the Military), a third:

  1. Digitally enable remote voter registration administration so an overseas voter can verify and update (as necessary) their voter registration information;
  2. Provide a digital means of delivering an official blank ballot for a given election jurisdiction, to a requesting voter whose permanent residence is within that jurisdiction; and for some…
  3. Examine and test pilot digital means to ease and expedite the completion and return submission of the ballot (the controversy bit flips high here).

There are, as you might imagine, a number of ways to fulfill those mandates using digital technology.  And the latter (3rd) ambition raises the most concern.  Where this almost certainly involves the Internet (or more precisely, public packet-switched networks), the activists against the use of the Internet in elections administration, let alone voting, are railing against such pilots, preferring to find another means to comply with the so-called “T-45 Days” requirement of placing an official ballot in the hands of an overseas voter, lest we begin the slide down the proverbial slippery slope.

Here’s where I go rogue for a paragraph or two (whispering)…
First, I’m racking my brain here trying to imagine how we might achieve the MOVE Act mandates using a means other than the Internet.  Here’s the problem: other methods have tried and failed, which is why as many as 1 in 4 overseas voters are disenfranchised now, and why Sen. Schumer (D NY) pushed so hard for the MOVE Act in the first place.  Engaging in special alliances with logistic companies like FedEx has helped, but not resolved the cycle time issues completely.  And the U.S. Postal Service hasn’t been able to completely deliver either (there is, after all, this overseas element, which sometimes means reaching voters in the mountainous back regions of say, Pakistan.)  Sure, I suppose the U.S. could invest in new ballot delivery drones, but my guess is we’d end up accidentally papering innocent natives in a roadside drop due to a technology glitch.

Seriously though (whispering still), perhaps a reasonable way forward may be to test pilot limited uses of the Internet (or hec, perhaps even Military extensions of it) to carry non-sensitive election data, which can reach most of the farther outposts today through longer range wireless networks.  So, rather than investing ridiculous amounts of taxpayer dollars in finding non-Internet means to deliver blank ballots, one proposal floating is to figure out the best, highest integrity solution using packet-switched networks already deployed, and perhaps limit use of the Internet solely for [1] managing voter registration data, and [2] delivering blank ballots for subsequent return by means other than eMail or web-based submission (until such time as we can work out the vulnerabilities on the “return loop.”)  While few can argue the power of ballot marking devices to avoid under-voting and over-voting (among other things), there is trepidation about even that, let alone digital submission of the completed ballot. As far as pilots go, it would seem like we can make some important headway on solving the challenges of overseas voter participation with the power of the Internet without having to jump from courier mule to complete Internet voting in one step.  That observed, IMHO, R&D resulting in test pilots responsibly advances the discussion.

Nevertheless, the slippery slope glistens in the dawn of this new order.  And while we’ll slide around a bit on it in these panels, the real sliding sport is the iVoting Debate this Friday — which I will say more about tomorrow.

OK, back from rogue 😉

So, that this is where the first Panel is focused and where those presentations and conversations are likely to head in terms of Pilots.  In my remaining space (oops, I see I’ve gone way over already, sorry), let me try to quickly comment on the second panel regarding “technology futures.”

I think this will be the most enjoyable panel, even if not the liveliest (that’s reserved for the iVoting Debate).  The reason this ought to be fun is we’ll engage in a discussion of a couple of things about where technology can actually take us in a positive way (I hope).  First, there should be some discussion about where election technology reform is heading.  After all, there remain essentially two major voting systems commercial vendors in the industry, controlling some 88% of the entire nation’s voting technology deployment, with one of those two holding a ~76% white-knuckled grip market share.  And my most recent exposure to discussions amongst commercial voting vendors about the future of voting technology suggest that their idea of the future amounts to discussing the availability of spare parts (seriously).

So, I’m crossing my fingers that this panel will open up discussions about all kinds of technology impact on the processes of elections and voting – from the impact of social media, to the opportunities of open source.  I know for my 5 minute part I am going to roll out the TTV open source election and voting systems framework architecture and run through the 4-5 significant innovations the TrustTheVote Project is bringing to the future of voting systems in a digital democracy.  Each speaker will take 5 minutes to rush their topic, then our moderator Manuel will open it wide up for hopefully an engaging discussion with our audience.

OK, I’ve gone way over my limit here; thanks for reading all about this week’s UOCAVA Summit Technology Tract in Munich.

Now, time to find some veal brätwurst und ausgezeichnet bier.  There is a special meaning for my presence here; my late parents are both from this wonderful country, their families ended up in Munchen, from which both were forced out in 1938.   Gute nacht und auf wiedersehen!


Barbara Simons on Voter Registration

We have a special treat today with a guest blog from Barbara Simons, an eminent computer scientist who is on the Board of Advisors of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. (More on Barbara: her bio.) She has an excellent account of part of the story about where voter registration came from, and why it is controversial that U.S. citizens must proactively request permission to vote, and then pass muster w.r.t. eligibility requirements as evaluated by an election official.  The controversy, in a nutshell, is that registration can be a way of preventing people from voting, including via the practice of disenfranchising felons.  So where did the practice of registration, and the controversy, come from? Barbara: take it away …

[Ed. Note:  The following commentary from Barbara Simons incorporates for referential, historical, and explanatory purposes only quotations that by any standard today would be considered controversial, inappropriate, and simply reprehensible.  They are only quotes pulled from history to explain the point and are not the opinions or positions of Ms. Simons, the TrustTheVote Project, or the OSDV Foundation.]

Felon disenfranchisement was introduced in the South after the Civil War as a way of disenfranchising the newly freed slaves. Southern whites even invented new felonies that were applied almost exclusively to African Americans. Here are some quotes from that era.

From a Mississippi Supreme Court decision upholding the state’s disenfranchisement law (Ratliff v. Beale): “The [constitutional] convention swept the circle of expedients to obstruct the exercise of the franchise by the negro race.  By reason of its previous condition of servitude and dependence, this race had acquired or accentuated certain peculiarities of habit, of temperament and of character, which clearly distinguished it, as a race, from that of the whites — a patient docile people, but careless, landless, and migratory within narrow limits, without aforethought, and its criminal members given rather to furtive offenses than to the robust crimes of the whites.  Restrained by the federal constitution from discriminating against the negro race, the convention discriminated against its characteristics and the offenses to which its weaker members were prone.”

The following is from John Field Bunting, who introduced disenfranchisement legislation in Alabama in 1901: “The crime of wife-beating alone would disqualify sixty percent of the Negroes.” Perhaps the bluntest acknowledgment of the purpose of the felon disenfranchisement laws was provided by Carter Glass, a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1902.  Glass stated that Virginia’s felony disenfranchisement scheme

… will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than 5 years, so that in no single county will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.

The end of Reconstruction marked the beginning of disenfranchisement for the newly freed slaves.  In the South during the Jim Crow era that followed, African Americans were prevented from registering by a combination of poll taxes, literacy tests, felon disenfranchisement, and threatened or real violence.  For example, there were 130,334 African American voters in Louisiana in 1896, but only 1,342 in 1904.

According to “Registration of Voters in Louisiana”: “Six pages of [the Constitution of 1898] are devoted to suffrage and elections.  The object of the convention was, of course, to establish white supremacy by reducing the number of Negroes voting to a minimum.  The qualifications to vote as well as

the entire system of registration were written in such a way that most Negroes could be disenfranchised.

Other clauses were incorporated to permit the poor white to vote and yet not admit the Negro to the ballot.”

Felon disenfranchisement laws still have a disproportionate impact on African Americans.  Only Maine and Vermont (both of which have small African American populations) have no felon disenfranchisement laws.  Felons can vote from prison in those states.  Southern states are disproportionately represented among states with the extensive felon disenfranchisement laws, as are states with large non-white prison populations.  African American males have been significantly impacted, with roughly one in six disenfranchised in the early 21 century because of felony convictions.

It seems likely that if the U.S. didn’t engage in felon disenfranchisement that a number of election results, including at the presidential level, would have had different outcomes. The U.S. is the only democracy that has lifetime felon disenfranchisement.  We are still living with the legacy of slavery.

Barbara Simons

PS: Thanks again to Barbara for a valuable history lesson of background for our work at TTV to  include registration as a legally required part of a broader effort voter record management technology, that also includes some of the changes contemplated by the “election modernization” efforts in Congress.  — John Sebes, CTO TrustTheVote Project

FCC Wanders into the Internet Voting Quagmire

Why, oh why?” you’re wondering (given our teaser title, that is).  Well, at first we were we also wondering why.   This all began about a month ago, and it’s a bit clearer now.  With some breathing room made possible by the holiday, I want to explain how the FCC and online elections could be even remotely connected (no pun intended), but first, Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah (belated), and Merry Christmas (today) to those celebrating.

Two weeks ago we responded to an FCCrequest for comment;” an agency process with far more regulatory structure than the kind of “RFC” we’re used to.  But being the organization we are, with the mission we have, we felt we had to weigh in.

To be sure, we knew there would be tons of submissions from every “Who-Dog and their Larry” (and apparently we weren’t far off).  So the request was simply this: the FCC wanted input on the role of broadband in civic participation in the age of digital democracy.  And they divided that inquiry into two categories:

  1. the so-called digital town hall and related online civic interaction services (the meat and potatoes of the emerging “digital democracy”), and
  2. (wait for it) …elections.

Of course, the activists quickly decoded the FCC inquiry about broadband in the process of elections to read: “Internet Voting” and acted accordingly.  Although we’re not advocates of using the public Internet for casting and counting of ballots any time soon, we were a bit more circumspect in our addressing the FCC’s inquiry.

You see, we’ve been rhythmically bombarded with inquiries about whether our open source voting systems development efforts include the Internet, what we think of Internet-based public elections, and when will people be able vote from their Droid or iPhone, etc.  And we tread gently on that issue because, while we’re excited by the enthusiasm we’re seeing for bringing real innovation into voting systems, frankly, there is far more to do to bring about trust, transparency, accuracy, and security in computers used in elections than we have resources to address as quickly as we’d like, let alone looking at a public, largely insecure transport layer for the critical data involved.  I’m sure there is some alluring if not downright techno-sexiness to that concept, but the gap between here and reality would’ve downright inspired Moses at the shore of the Red Sea.

So, we looked at the FCC inquiry when it was launched in mid-November and at first, shrugged it off as someone playing on subway rails.  Then it dawned on us: this was a chance to go on record with our position and make sure that we’re part of that conversation before someone attempts something silly like piloting an election across the cloud (OMG).

On a more serious note, we were catalyzed to comment by [1] some reality about why the FCC is wandering into this quagmire when Lord knows they have plenty to do with spectrum auctions, net neutrality, universal access fees, etc., and [2] important work we’re involved in through our partnership with the Overseas Vote Foundation and MOVE Act implementation.  I’ll have more to say about the MOVE Act in a separate post, but suffice it to note here that the Act, recently signed into law, is designed to enfranchise military and overseas voters in elections by requiring States to provide online methods for overseas voters to transmit absentee applications and voter registration information and download blank ballots for mark and return by surface postal mail.

For those readers who want to cut to the chase and see what we had to say in response to this curious FCC inquiry, have at it here.  For the rest who remain amused by our fuzzy insight, read on.

So that “reality check” is that the Obama Administration is leaning on the FCC to fashion a strategic plan for widespread broadband adoption and growth in the U.S. as part of its Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009.  And in the course of doing that, the FCC has been looking into the needs of citizens to access the Internet through reasonably speedy means (read: broadband).  So, civic participation would certainly constitute a valid reason for the FCC wandering into the free market’s territory of broadband build-out, right?  And if the FCC could determine the utility of broadband access to foster civic participation, then a whole bunch of justification for crafting this strategic broadband plan could be made.  Thus, the FCC needed to pose a public inquiry, and someone (we aren’t sure who, but have a theory) put the proverbial bug in the FCC collective ear that “elections” are one such “civic engagement” to be examined.  Thus the FCC waded into this quagmire (or firmly gripped the 3rd rail; choose the metaphor that paints the preferred picture) of Internet voting.

I note as an aside that one of our esteemed Sr. Members of Technical Staff, Pito Salas, posted a comment here recently about the notable absence of elections on the agenda of “open government.”  Well, it appears that while it may not have appeared on that agenda, it seems to be on the Administration’s agenda vis-à-vis the FCC inquiry.

And so we responded.

What’s the sum and substance of our position?  Well here it is in short, and you can read more if you dare.  I’ll summarize with the synopsis followed by a Technology Point and a Policy Point.

For starters, The OSDV Foundation and TrustTheVote Project were pleased to have had an opportunity to provide comment on an increasingly vital aspect of broadband in the United States: its use in civic participation and the processes of democracy.

Technology Point: The use of the Internet as an element of critical democracy infrastructure is here to stay.  The ‘Net is inherently insecure, but affords citizens a vital means of communication and information sharing.  Continued availability and accessibility to real broadband requires continued development of the capabilities of packet-switched networking.

Policy Point: The Internet is becoming critical infrastructure and its role in a digital democracy is sufficiently vital enough to build broadband policy around the ability of American citizens to participate in the processes of democracy in a digital age.

We encouraged the Commission to develop a comprehensive national broadband plan that particularly includes a plan for the use of broadband infrastructure and services to advance civic participation.

Technology Point: The processes of civic participation will require services that are transparent, trustworthy, accurate, and secure.  This means continued innovation in a service layer that is inherently insecure.

Policy Point: A national broadband public policy will necessarily entail a yin-yang relationship with private enterprise.  Ensuring civic engagement is a clear matter for government and a solid reason to have a broadband public policy in place, which can inform many debates and legislative initiatives.  And yet, clear roles and responsibilities between government and the privates sector in delivering this critical infrastructure is imperative.

To the extent their Plan includes consideration of broadband infrastructure for election processes and services, we advised careful consideration of what the architecture for a broadband-based voting system should look like and called upon experts and stakeholders to facilitate that understanding.  Clearly, the digital age and increasingly mobile society can benefit from digital means for such civic participation services.  However, the extent to which the challenges discussed in their inquiry can be adequately addressed remains unclear.

Technology Point: There is much to be worked out in terms of technically ensuring accuracy, transparency, trust and security in relying upon the Internet or broadband infrastructure to conduct civic engagement.

Policy Point: Fashioning this policy cannot occur in a vacuum void of competent technical input.

Nevertheless, any such Plan should consider the possibility that broadband infrastructure may be called upon in the future to support and sustain elections services in some capacity, whether strictly for back-office functions or all the way out to ballot casting and counting services.

Technology Point: If this cat is out of the bag, considerable research, development, and innovation is required before broadband infrstructure (read: Internet) can be reasonably relied upon for the level of civic engagement contemplated in the FCC inquiry.

Policy Point: Any broadband policy must consider this inevitable move toward a digital democracy.  Accordingly, issues such as digital divide, network neutrality, final mile, and quality of service assurances must be considered.

We do not recommend reliance on home or personal broadband connected digital devices for citizen-facing voting services for the foreseeable future or until such time as the challenges discussed herein are resolved to the satisfaction of the public.

Technology Point: The Internet is inherently insecure; home and personal computers are inherently insecure.  And a whole bunch of technical innovation is required to change that, and even then, these problems are likely to persist.

Policy Point: Disciplined thought leadership is imperative.  Sure we’d all like to simply cast our ballots from wherever we are with whatever device we have access to.  And some no longer consider the privacy element and vote-sale concern to be issues.  But many still do and will for some time to come.  The benefits of speeding towards a fully digital, online democracy continue to be outweighed by the risks of doing so.  That does not mean policy should forbid such, but it does compel policy makers to provide guidelines for cautiously proceeding.

That advised, we did encourage the Commission to take a citizen-centric approach to fashioning its broadband policy with regard to civic participation in terms of voting and elections services.  By “citizen-centric” we were referring to an approach that considers the wants and needs of an increasingly mobile society in a digital age.  As one simple example, we suggested the FCC consider the typical citizen voting situation wherein the voter is employed sufficiently far away from their home precinct such that it is logistically impossible for them to reach their polling place in time before or after their work day to cast their ballot, while fulfilling their responsibilities to their employer.

Technology Point: America is the consummate mobile society; whether its our propensity to relocate or our requirements of travel, the 21st century requires information services to put consumers at the center and appreciate and respect their mobility.

Policy Point: While there remains tremendous value in the traditional concepts of the polling place and election day, the fact is our 21st century society is now passing from the industrial age into the information age.  And we’re in a transition period between ages.  The best policy will afford a spectrum of options, supporting everyone from those who are content to taking a day off to cast their ballots, to those who need to cast it remotely in a time shifted manner.

If there are any “best-practices” we can identify at this juncture with regard to broadband deployment of election services, two were particularly clear to us:

  1. personal or home connected devices should not be permitted to be utilized for ballot casting; and
  2. broadband connected ballot marking devices should be restricted to government authorized polling places.

Technology Point: The technical challenges to allow such are mountainous hurdles at this point, unless the venue can be controlled (and even then, issues will abound, but may be more readily addressable)

Policy Point: Respect must be sustained for the privacy imperative of casting ballots, and providing a means and venue where such can be done in a private and secure manner, while leveraging the benefits of technology requires political pragmatism.

Finally, we advised that the overseas voting challenges combined with the MOVE Act signed into law offer an opportunity to incrementally approach leveraging of broadband infrastructure to improve participation of overseas citizens, military, and diplomatic personnel in U.S. elections.  And that should begin with the delivery of blank ballots.

So, that’s our position, and we’re sticking with it.

Happy Holidays!

“I Have a Dream” too

Last Friday was the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in Washington, DC., where so many of us remember him saying “I have a dream.” The anniversary caught me by surprise when I noted it in the news, and tugged at me all day: what could Dr. King’s words have to say about the work that I do? That afternoon, I walked by San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens. There, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial has waterfalls that echo Dr. King saying Isaiah’s prophetic words, now  inscribed in the magnificent granite by the roaring water:

No, no, we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’

I knew I wanted to say something about my dream, however geeky, inspired by Dr. King.  What could election technology reform possibly have to do with justice rolling down like water?  It took me a few days to figure it out. On that hot August day in 1963,  immediately before those words of prophecy, Dr. King said:

We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

I realized that decades after the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 National Voter Rights Act, despite some real progress, there is still doubt and dismay about these same issues of access to and legitimacy of elections, for all Americans. And worse: technology now clouds these issues further. So, here is my election geek’s dream, for which I ask your indulgence if my comparison of Dr. King’s dream of literal justice, and my dream of digital righteousness, seems in any way to demean King’s words and memory.

I have a dream that one day all election data will be free — freely available for us to see how elections are conducted.  Today’s technology has many hills and mountains, rough places and crooked places. These are the unnecessary technical barriers to election IT systems being able to record and publish a wide variety of information, the lack of which today breeds distrust, discord, and even in some cases doubt in the foundation of democracy. I want data freedom to ring out and prove or disprove beliefs that voter registration systems are used to intentionally dis-enfranchise entitled voters, that vote tabulation is done incorrectly, that electoral fraud or voter fraud is real and regular. Here is an example of such data:

  • the voter registration (VR) data that defines who is allowed to vote;
  • the election management (EM) data that defines where people vote, and what they are allowed to vote on;
  • the VR and EM system log data that shows exactly what public servants have been doing with systems that automate the public’s business of elections;
  • the voting system logs that shows which systems operated correctly and reliably;
  • the voting systems’ ballot and vote data that can allow independent checks for errors in counting votes;
  • all the reporting and data mining that could be done with all this data aggregated, in order to present real information, statistics, patterns, and more that would move the policy discussions beyond concerns about what might be happening.

Wow! That is in fact a big list, and “mighty stream” would apply to the mass of data flowing in this dream. Yes, I know that technical barriers are not the only ones, but they’re big enough that privacy and other issues are largely moot. And yes, I know that many people, at local and state levels, and  Federal agencies like NIST, are working on it.  And of course so are we at TrustTheVote.

But this dream of the future is what motivates us to develop the technology and help with the standards that can help us really see what’s really going on with the activities of our election officials and NGO activists. I believe that almost all of them are honest and well-meaning, but often it’s hard to see. Visibility is part of what’s needed to move forward from the present state of discord about election integrity, and the technology that aids or hinders it. Today we really do walk in darkness, in rough places and even (some despair) crooked places, in an election geeks’ version of King’s “dark and desolate valley” that is un-exalted and unlit by sunshine of vital public data; where that ignorance and desolation breeds discord and distrust. And we can fix it, simply by building sunshine into each new election IT system as it’s built. We can and are exalting the valleys, making the crooked straight and rough places plain. And when the data is “free at last” we probably won’t be joining hands and singing as in Dr. King’s dream, but at least we’ll be able to climb out of ignorance and decide for ourselves if the cornerstone of democracy is weak or strong.

So, yes, I have a dream today. And I have Dr. King to thank for lifting it up. And I’ll have you readers to thank, if you go and read Dr. King’s words with election integrity in mind, the integrity of the system of voting and voting rights that Dr. King and so many others fought and died and still fight for.

And, yes, “we will not be satisfied until” that dream of digital righteousness becomes manifest in “every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all” our nation’s people can begin to really and truly Trust The Vote.