Tagged election systems

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.

NY Times: Hanging Chad in New York?

NYT reported on the continuing counting in some New York elections, with the control of the NY state house (and hence redistricting) hanging in the balance. The article is mostly apt, but the reference to “hanging chad” is not quite right. FL 2000’s hanging chad drama was mainly about the ridiculous extreme that FL went to in trying to regularize the hand re-counting rules for paper ballots, while each time a ballot was touched, the rule could change because the chad moved.

In this NY election, the problem is not a re-count, but a slow count; not problems with the paper ballots per se, but with the opscan counting system; and not a fundamental problem with the ballot counting method, but several problems arising from poll-worker and election officials’ unfamiliarity with the system, being used for the first time in this election. Best quote:

Reginald A. LaFayette, the Democratic chairman of the Board of Elections in Westchester, said older poll workers had trouble reading the vote tallies printed out by the machines. “You take the average age of an inspector, it’s maybe about 65, and so you put a new product out with them, and the change has been overwhelming to some of them,” he said.

It’s another example of the of situation I recently described in North Carolina. These voting systems were built for time-to-market, rather than designed, engineered, and tested for usability and reliability — much less designed for simplicity of the process of combining tallies into election results.

The recent experience in New York is nothing truly new – but rather an example of the usability issues manifested in an election organization that, unlike those elsewhere using similar voting system products, has not yet learned by experience how to use these quirky systems with greater speed and transparency than the first time around. Of course, it is a shame that this type learning-by-doing in real elections is necessary at all, to get to a reasonably transparent election process. But that’s what the vendors served up the market, and that’s what TTV is working to improve on.

— EJS

The D.C. Pilot Project: Facts vs. Fictions – From Our Viewpoint

The TrustTheVote Project of the Open Source Digital Voting (OSDV) Foundation achieved another important milestone two weeks ago this morning, this time with the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics, although not without some controversy.  The short of it is, and most important to us, the Foundation has been given the opportunity to put real open source elections software into a production environment for a real public election.  But it turns out that milestone is struggling to remain visible.

[Note: this is a much longer post than I would prefer, but the content is very important to explain a recent announcement and our role.]

I’ve waited to launch a discussion in this forum in order to let the flurry of commentaries calm on the news.  Now we need to take the opportunity to speak in own voice, rather than the viewpoint of  journalists and press releases, and provide insight and reality-checks from the authoritative source about what we’re up to: Us. For those of you who have not read any of this news, here is a sample or two.  The news is about the District of Columbia is implementing a Pilot program to digitally deliver ballot to a group of qualified overseas voters, and accept digitally returned ballots from them.  (Actually, D.C. already has accepted digitally returned ballots via Fax and eMail.)  So, the headline might be:

District of Columbia to Launch Pilot Program to benefit Overseas & Military Voters with Digital Distance Balloting Solution Using Open Source Software from Non-Profit Voting Technology Group.”

I believe that is as simple and factual as it gets, and IMHO a fair headline.  However, here are two alternative headlines, depending on your view, interests, or issues:

  1. Open Source Voting Project Succeeds in Production Deployment of New Transparent and Freely Available Elections Technology.”
    -or-
  2. OSDV Foundation Advances Misguided Cause of Internet Voting, Despite Well Settled Dangers, Putting Election Integrity at Risk.”

If you follow our work or have read our statement on these topics before, then you recognize the headline #1 is where our interests and intentions are focused. Over the past two weeks, though, we’ve received plenty of feedback that some believe that headline #2 is the real and unfortunate news, undermining the efforts of those who tirelessly work for elections integrity. Well, that is not what we intended to do. But we do need to do a better job at communicating our goals, as the facts unfold about the project. So, let me back up a bit and start  an explanation of what we are really doing and what are real intentions are.

But first let me make the following statement, repeating for the record our position on Internet voting:

The Open Source Digital Voting Foundation does not advocate the general use of the public Internet for the transaction of voting data.  The technical team of the TrustTheVote Project strongly cautions that no Internet-based system for casting, let alone counting, of ballots can be completely secure, nor can a voter’s privacy be ensured, or the secrecy of their ballot protected.

We do not recommend replacing current voting systems by adopting Internet Voting systems. However, we think that there may be a use case in which Internet-based ballot return may be the only course of last resort for rapid delivery of a ballot in time to be counted. That case is the very limited situation of an overseas or military voter who believes that they may be disenfranchised unless they rely on a digital means to return their marked ballot, because physical means are not timely or not available. That is the situation that we genuinely believe is being restrictively addressed in the D.C. Pilot project that we are participating.

And to be crystal clear: OSDV’s role is supplying technology.  The District’s Board of Elections and Ethics is running the show, along withe the District’s I.T. organization. But why did we chose this role? The success of the TrustTheVote Project is predicated on accomplishing three steps to delivering publicly owned audit-ready, transparent voting technology:

  1. Design;
  2. Development; and
  3. Deployment.

Design.  We are employing a public process that engages a stakeholder community comprised of elections officials and experts.  We cannot design on our own and expect what we come up with will be what will work.  It is, and must be, a framework of technology components in order to be adoptable and adaptable to each jurisdiction that chooses to freely acquire and deploy the Project’s work. None of the TV Framework specifically addresses any transport means of ballot data.   The Framework voting systems architecture includes accessible ballot marking (“ABM”) devices, optical scanners for paper ballot marked by hand or ABM, and tabulators.  The Framework elections management services architecture includes EMS components, poll books, and ballot design studio.

Development.  We are employing an open source method and process, somewhat modified and similar in structure to how the Mozilla Foundation manages development of their open source software – with a core team that ensures development continuity and leadership, complemented by a team of paid and volunteer contributors.  And the development has to be open, to go along with the open design process, and open testing, delivering on the commitment to building election technology that anyone can see, touch, and try.  We’re developing for the four legs of integrity: accuracy, transparency, trust, and security.

Deployment. But “open source” at the Foundation is also about distribution for deployment.  As we’ve said before, the  OSDV Public License, based on our “cousin’s” license, the Mozilla Public License, meets the special needs of government licensee.  And in so doing we avail the source code, and where required, resources (in exchange for a development grant to the Foundation) to make the necessary refinements and modifications to enable the adopting jurisdiction to actually deploy this open source technology.  The deployment will generally be managed by a new type of commercial player in the elections technology sector: the systems integrator who will provide qualified commodity hardware, with the Project’s software, and the services to stand it up and integrate it with other jurisdiction’s IT infrastructure where required.

Motivation
One critic has asked, “Why would you agree to support any project that uses the Internet in elections or voting?”  Our motivation for working with the District of Columbia is all about the third “D” – Deployment.   All of our efforts are merely academic, unless stakeholders who have contributed to the specifications actually adopt the resulting open source technology as an alternative to buying more proprietary elections technology, when the opportunity arises to replace or enhance their current solutions.

Now, what about that “Internet” element?

The District of Columbia Board of Elections & Ethics (B.O.E.E) was in search of a solution to enhance their compliance with the MOVE Act.  Of course, people in many election jurisdictions were asking:

If I can deliver the blank ballot and reduce the cycle time for qualified overseas voters, then why shouldn’t we go all the way and facilitate digital return of the marked ballot?

Well, there’s a host of reasons why one shouldn’t do that.  For one quick example: our valued strategic technology partner collaborating with us on data standards, the Overseas Vote Foundation, not only offers digital blank ballot delivery, but  also have renewed their courier services through the assistance of the US Postal Service and FedEx to ensure that the Military voters’ marked ballots can, in fact, make it back in time.   But on the other hand, there is an unfortunate reality that once the digital path is open, OVF, US Mails, or FedEx notwithstanding, jurisdictions will explore leveraging the Net; its happening already in several locations.  That does not make it right or preferable, but it does make it a reality that we need to address.

So, the District at least – at our encouragement dating back to March in Munich – heard our encouragement to explore options, but they did have some requirements.

Specifically, they wanted to conduct a Pilot of a solution that might be a better alternative to accepting returned marked ballots as eMail attachments or Faxed marked ballots exclusively for their overseas and military voters.  And particularly unique to their requirements was – to our delight – a fully transparent open source software solution with unbridled ownership of the resulting source code for all elements of the Pilot solution.  That, of course, is in complete harmony with our charter and mission.

Again, for those readers who know us, and understand our motivations and position on the Internet issue, you can understand our acute focus on the opportunity to deploy open source elections administration software in a real election setting. In the after-glow of this real possibility, and drilling into the details of how the ballot design studio could work for this, we realized we needed to get back to grappling with this digital ballot return detail of the Pilot project.

Initially, we were definitely concerned about how to approach this aspect of the Pilot, since we’ve been clear about our position on the use of the Internet.  But to be frank, with the prospect that the District could simply turn to commercial proprietary Internet voting systems vendors, we felt we had to help find an alternative open source approach for the limited purpose of this Pilot. We encouraged the B.O.E.E. to find an alternative means to digitally return the ballot, but neither by deploying Internet voting products, nor by continuing to rely on Fax or eMail attachments in the clear.  In return, they asked for our help in figuring out how they could implement a solution that worked with real ballot and attestation documents as digital artifacts, which could be transported on an encrypted channel.  This could be better than eMail to be sure, but still using public packet-switched networks.

We turned to several of our technical advisers and convened a meeting to discuss how B.O.E.E and OCTO could approach a digital vote-by-mail Pilot to explore this approach to improving on eMail attachments or Fax’d returns.  The meeting was frank, open, and rather than continuing the rhetoric of avoidance, we witnessed a bunch of stalwarts in information security express concerns, suggest points of mitigation, and brain storm on the possibilities.  And several were kicked around, but tossed aside for want of either acceptable user experience, cost limitations, or operational practicality.  A straw man solution was framed and members of the Core Team went off to refine it knowing that there were aspects that they simply could not address with this Pilot.  Perhaps the most important Pilot parameter: this could not and would not be an exercise to completely assess and determine solutions to all of the known vulnerabilities of securing a voting transaction over a public network.

But it was agreed that a “digital vote-by-mail” process – with the known vulnerabilities and constraints – could be a “worked example” that simply was not what proprietary commercial vendors are selling. And, it was realized that such a solution could not and should not claim any victory in improved security or privacy – no such reality can exist in this solution.

And folks, that is simply and honestly the extent to which we were and are treating this: a “worked example” to serve as a vehicle for voices on all sides of the argument to train their attention in assessing, testing, and determining the viability of such an approach strictly for those overseas and military voters.

One could say the Foundation took a calculated risk: that in order to achieve the larger goal of deploying open source elections technology into a real production environment (a first, and hopefully ground breaking step), we would have to accept that our Stakeholder, B.O.E.E would use the Internet to transport a ballot and attestation document pair using the best possible techniques currently available – HTTPS and standard encryption tools.  And at some measure, at least they had chosen not to pursue a commercial proprietary Internet voting solution, given their steadfast requirement of open source software and maximum transparency.

To my activist colleagues I offer this: we’re giving you a worked example on which to build your arguments against digital transport.  Please do so! We’re with you, believe it or not.  Very frankly, I’d be happy to support some initiative to severely restrict the use of public packet switched networks for transacting voting data.

I want to (re)focus the Project’s attention on the reason a few of us gave up our paying jobs some four years ago: to build a non-profit solution to restore trust in the computers used in the various processes of casting and counting votesWe don’t advocate iVoting.  We do advocate accuracy, transparency, trust, and security in the use of computers in elections and intend to keep working on that open source framework. We do believe limited Pilots are worth it for the special use case of UOCAVA voters,  if such a Pilot can fuel an intellectually honest debate and/or initiatives to resolve the concerns, or end the use of the Net altogether in this regard.  We think the District of Columbia’s Pilot is such a worked example.

OK, this went way over my intended length, but in the spirit of transparency its important we explain what’s been underway for the past several weeks from an authoritative source: Us. In the next installment on this topic, we will discuss more details on the technology we’ll provide for the District’s Pilot, and reiterate our concerns, but also consider the potential of the open source movement in public elections systems.

Thanks for reading.
Greg Miller

San Francisco Voting Task Force Public Hearing

Tomorrow night starting at 4:30PM the San Francisco Voting Systems Task Force is holding a Public Hearing to intake testimony and public comment on its draft prospective recommendations topics.  [Disclosure: I am a member of this Task Force, appointed by the S.F. City & County Board of Supervisors.]

We encourage everyone who can make it to attend and give us your input on these draft proposed recommendations.  This is an early stage document and does not represent any final recommendations of the VSTF.  The Agenda and description can be found here.  The location of the meeting is:

SFCitySeal1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place,
Room 34 Lower Level

San Francisco, California

If you can’t make it in person, no worries as we’re accepting written input through the 24th of February, which you can submit digitally if you wish to: voting.systems.task.force@sfgov.org or by U.S. Mails (address details on site here).

For those interested in some details; I submitted a letter to the Task Force Chair with some comments of my own on our Draft recommendations under consideration document, and you may wish to have a look at them here.

Cheers
GAM|out

MOVE Act Implementation: Call For Participation

The TrustTheVote Project issued its first formal “Call For Participation” (“CFP”) to its Stakeholder Community last evening, and five elections jurisdiction have already indicated interest.

The CFP is inviting collaboration from elections jurisdictions all over the country who need to determine how to comply with the mandates of the new federal MOVE Act — particularly the requirement to provide a digital (online) means to deliver a download-ready blank ballot for any overseas voter wishing to participate in an election in their jurisdiction, and particularly one that has any federal contest included.

The TrustTheVote Project has developed a sufficient amount of its overall elections systems framework to be able to deliver a solution today for this requirement (pending any adjustments, modifications, or “tweaking” required to meet local requirements.) 

Really, this is a big deal.  You see, digitally serving anyone the official ballot for their district of residence is deceptively simple.  In fact, its non-trivial.  And yet, every jurisdiction where there are permanent residents stationed overseas either in the military or in some other NGO including simply an employer assignment needs to (and by federal law must) be able to cast an absentee ballot.  But how to get the ballot to them in time for them to prepare it and return to be counted?  We first presented a solution for this in a White Paper in December 2009.

To back up a bit, the MOVE Act was signed into law in November by the President, and essentially is intended to update and bring into the 21st century digital society the UOCAVA law from decades ago. For readers unfamiliar with these terms, here’s a quick tutorial.

In 1986, Congress passed the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (“UOCAVA”).  The UOCAVA requires that the states and territories allow certain groups of citizens to register and vote absentee in elections for Federal offices. In addition, most states and territories have their own laws allowing citizens covered by the UOCAVA to register and vote absentee in state and local elections as well. United States citizens covered by the UOCAVA include: members of the United States Uniformed Services and merchant marine; their family members; and United States citizens residing outside the United States.

After the 2008 elections cycle it was determined that up to 1 in 4 military and overseas voters were disenfranchised because they didn’t receive their ballots in time.  In the autumn of 2009, Congress passed the new Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, which is a complement and update to UOCAVA.  Among other provisions, the MOVE Act mandates that States shall provide a digital (online) means for a UOCAVA voter to manage their voter registration status and to receive a download ready blank ballot for the elections jurisdiction of their registered permanent residence.

Of course, there are those out there who shrill at the prospect that somehow, someway this could lead to Internet voting.  Very unlikely, and please don’t get me started down that rat hole either.  Let me stay trained on the important point here.

The work of the TrustTheVote Project, to bring innovative open source digital voting technology to the public, already addresses the mandates of the MOVE Act.  And we’ve reached a point where issuing the CFP just makes sense to enlarge the pool of jurisidictions testing and evaluating our solution, and positioning themselves to acquire the tools when they are ready.

And of course, the really nice part: the software tools are free — that’s the benevolent point of the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation and the TrustTheVote Project.  Yes, we appreciate and encourage donations to the Foundation to defray the development costs (particularly if a jurisdiction desires the assistance of our technology development team to tailor the software to their exacting requirements), but the source code is free and will be theirs to do with as they wish (especially for software that does not require certification for voting systems purposes.)

Interested?  Great!  Get started by downloading the CFP here.  And get in touch with us.

Cheers
GAM|out

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.
Matt

Tim Bray on the way Enterprise Systems are built (compared to open source)

Tim Bray is one of the main people behind XML so he has some serious cred in the world of building and deploying systems. So it with interest (and some palpable butterflies) that a recent missive of his: “Doing it Wrong”.

I don’t know how much of what he says is relevant to what we at TrustTheVote are doing and how we are doing it, but it makes for interesting and highly relevant reading. I do know that many of his examples are very different from elections technology, in fundamental ways, and for many many reasons. So there’s no one-to-one correlation, but listen to what he says:

“Doing it wrong:Enterprise Systems, I mean. And not just a little bit, either. Orders of magnitude wrong. Billions and billions of dollars worth of wrong. Hang-our-heads-in-shame wrong. It’s time to stop the madness.” (from “Doing it Wrong” from Tim Bray)

and:

“What I’m writing here is the single most important take-away from my Sun years, and it fits in a sentence: The community of developers whose work you see on the Web, who probably don’t know what ADO or UML or JPA even stand for, deploy better systems at less cost in less time at lower risk than we see in the Enterprise.” (from “Doing it Wrong” from Tim Bray)

and:

“The Web These Days · It’s like this: The time between having an idea and its public launch is measured in days not months, weeks not years. Same for each subsequent release cycle. Teams are small. Progress is iterative. No oceans are boiled, no monster requirements documents written.” (from “Doing it Wrong” from Tim Bray)

and:

“The point is that that kind of thing simply cannot be built if you start with large formal specifications and fixed-price contracts and change-control procedures and so on. So if your enterprise wants the sort of outcomes we’re seeing on the Web (and a lot more should), you’re going to have to adopt some of the cultures and technologies that got them built.” (from “Doing it Wrong” from Tim Bray)

All of these quotes are from “Doing it Wrong” from Tim Bray. I suggest reading it.

OSDV Responds to FCC Inquiry about Internet Voting

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asked for public comment on the use of the Internet for election-related activities (among other digital democracy related matters).  They recently published the responses, including those from OSDV.  I’ll let Greg highlight the particularly public-policy-related questions and answers, but I wanted to highlight some aspects of our response that differ from some others.

  • Like many respondents, we commented on that slippery phrase “Internet voting”, but focused on a few of the specific issues that apply  particularly in the context of overseas and military voters.
  • Also in that context, we addressed some uses of the Internet that could be very beneficial, but are not voting per se.
  • We contrasted other countries’ experiences with elections and the Internet with the rather different conditions here in the U.S.

For more information, of course, I suggest reading our response. In addition, for those particularly interested in Internet voting and security, you can get additional perspectives from the responses of TrustTheVote advisors Candice Hoke and David Jefferson, which are very nicely summarized on the Verified Voting blog.

— EJS

The Future of Voting Systems in Los Angeles County

ole0This past week I was privileged to be invited to an engaging and very informative  event hosted by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project on Caltech’s Pasadena campus.  Turns out that L.A. County is in the early stages of figuring out “where to from here” for their next generation elections systems technology, and this event was the launch of “VSAP” their Voting Systems Assessment Project.  And they cleverly* asked the Caltech/MIT VTP to assist them in this process, framing their assessment and search in terms of “Technology, Diversity, and Democracy.”

My Take Away: With all due respect to the innovative thinking stirring in States working with the TrustTheVote Project, such as North Dakota, New York, New Hampshire, Oregon or Washington, to name a few, Los Angeles County stands to become the benchmark for what can be done, if for no other reasons than:

  1. they are far and away the largest voting district in the nation,
  2. they have unspent HAVA funds and CA bond measure proceeds they must invest in voting and elections technology improvements (or run the risk — however remote, but politically disastrous — of losing these appropriations), and
  3. they are acting in a manner I see as impressively innovative.

So, let me share why I believe this, what I learned last Wednesday, and how I see this impacting the work of the TrustTheVote Project (and vice-versa).

The Tail Wagging the Dog

Los Angeles County is the largest and most diverse election jurisdiction in the nation, serving more than four million registered voters of a wide range of race, ethnicities, national origins, age groups, and socio-economic status. The sheer physical size of their jurisdiction is impressive covering over 4080 square miles, encompassing 88 cities and over 500 political subdivisions, with 4,883 precincts and 4,394 polling locations supporting the casting of over 3.3M ballots in six languages in the last general election cycle.  That’s ridiculous in size and complexity.

I refer to this as the tail wagging the dog (still a funny visual), because while the State of CA is the largest the state of the union and one of the most significant global economic powers in its own right, it is LA County that represents the single largest elections jurisdiction of the State and the nation.  This is, from what I could ascertain, a significant point because I believe LA County is dead-set on exercising forethought, visionary leadership, and setting the bar for not only election systems complexity, but possibly excellence in choice, implementation, and operation.   Ultimately, LA County may be the standard (and trend) setter, and I am certain they will be a significant influence on the work of the TrustTheVote Project.

Show Us the Money

And we all know how money talks.  There is a — let’s just say “non-trivial” —  amount of financial resource at their disposal.  And this isn’t a matter of indiscriminate spending in harsh economic times.  No, these are previously allocated dollars courtesy of State and Federal programs directed at specifically upgrading and improving elections systems and processes.  And so one can expect the herds rushing to the trough in hopes of relieving LA County of some of that purse.  And that’s where this could get interesting.

The elections & voting systems industry (if we can call it that) is a wreck; consolidation continues, there are essentially 2 vendors left and very possibly there will be only one remaining by next year.  Frankly, I would be shocked if ultimately LA County chose yet another legacy vendor’s monolithic solution of yesteryear technology with draconian service agreement commitments as their “next generation.”    And there is no love-loss on their current ES&S InkaVote Plus system.   Moreover, voting systems certification remains a confusing hurdle.   All indications from this event are that decision makers are finished with any notion of proprietary or black box solutions.

Yet, there is no doubt, none at all, that the complexities, scale, and integration requirements for LA County will be too difficult and rich a prospect for a start-up, some well intentioned fly-by-night project, or advocates’ wishful thinking about an opportunity to bring in wholesale revolution to a solution, born of either an academic, philanthropic or entrepreneurial vision.

However, the work of the TrustTheVote Project, Caltech/MIT VTP, and other efforts will certainly have a role to play in assisting LA County in its assessment, prototyping, and ultimate selection of a new platform or (more likely) components thereof.

But the financial wherewithal means one more important thing: the opportunity to do things carefully and correctly.  That leads me to point three.

Evolve — Immediately

LA County officials understand that innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity and not a threat.  While Ken Bennett, L.A. County’s IT Director in charge of elections systems made a compelling case that any upgrades or improvements must be evolutionary in order to protect operational continuity, Dean Logan, L.A. County Registrar, set an imperative tone about the importance of taking this perhaps once in a generation opportunity to make every effort to be as innovative as possible, and with little delay given their financial and operational mandates.

And with the remainder of this post I want to speak a little to how it appears that’s going to happen in L.A. County.

The Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk for L.A. County used the event as a launch pad for an ambitious and unprecedented Voting Systems Assessment Project (VSAP) to determine the current and future needs to be address through the modernization of the County’s voting system.

L.A. County’s approach is a marked departure and new arrival in the effort to improve a jurisdictions’ elections and voting systems technology.  For myself, I find it a stark contrast to the approach taken by the City and County of San Francisco where I am seated as a member of their “San Francisco Voting Systems Task Force.”

L.A. County immediately sought out the CalTech/MIT VTP to facilitate a process which I will explain in further detail in a follow-up post, and side-stepped (for now) the incredible bureaucratic overhead of a formal Board of Supervisors empowered Task Force.

While the City of San Francisco has good reasons and laudable goals for their far more formal approach, the downside is that the very regulations (1953 Brown Act and Sunshine Ordinances) put in place to ensure transparency, we’re created in the Industrial Age, with IMHO arguably Agrarian Age thinking, and now are actually stifling the potential transparency, agility, and capabilities of the Digital Age.

Bottom line: the SF-VSTF has spent three months essentially organizing itself due to the highly restrictive nature of the regulations that inhibit if not outright prohibit any communications — even for organizational purposes — between the Task Force Members (including notably eMail) if the number of recipients to those communications constitutes what would be construed as a quorum.

And honestly, L.A. County accomplished more in a single day of 6 hours last week than we’ve done in 8 hours worth of meetings across 3 months at the S.F. Voting Systems Task Force.  Ouch.

The result for the SF-VSTF: a highly lethargic process that although intended to ensure transparency to the processes, is actually not as transparent as possible in this era of social media.  Although a Twitter account exists for the SF-VSTF, it has remained silent.  And talks of Wikis, Blogs, or public online repositories have been all but shut down at mention.  The City Attorney’s argument is that not everyone has online access and this approach would aggravate a digital divide.  Maybe so.  Maybe so.  But I have to believe there are ways to meet the Sunshine needs of those few remaining citizens with no way to reach a web browser, while leveraging the power and capability of the Digital Age to empower San Francisco to advance their imperative agenda.

Enough.  I’m writing about the Future of L.A. County Voting Systems.

So, contrast this (S.F. County efforts)  to L.A. County.  The VSAP seeks to establish a new participatory approach that initiates the process with public input to ensure the “people” element is well balanced with those of the “technology” and “regulatory” elements.  And how are they doing it?  With Symposiums as they held last week, for sure.  And through focus groups.  And through citizen’s committees to gather and ingest this input.

And perhaps most importantly (as explained to me by one of their officials): they will use every appropriate aspect of the Internet and digital media to advance their efforts, engage the public, and ensure the widest access to their work and research of others — globally.

And that just makes such sense — especially if you’re going to lead in the digital age.

And while L.A. County’s approach (my volunteer efforts there) invigorates both my sense of the importance of what we’re trying to do on the SF-VSTF and the work the TrustTheVote Project with several States and jurisdictions, the L.A. County effort also frustrates me in witnessing how the very ordinances designed to ensure transparency on process are likely going to stymie the best intentions of the San Francisco City & County Voting Systems Task Force.

I campaigned for and earned a seat on the SF VSTF with visions of San Francisco — in the heart of the world’s leading technology center — leading the digital democracy and “we.gov” movement because of the opportunity to leverage the very best that social media, technology, and the Internet can provide to large-scale public collaborative efforts to invigorate the modernization of its elections and voting systems.  Well, for San Francisco, maybe not so much after all.

Perhaps at some point, someone with the wherewithal to modernize the Brown Act and related Sunshine Ordinances, will do so by realizing (as LA County has) that innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity and not a threat.

In the mean time, here is to the real leader in California.  Hail to the vision, determination to innovate, and thought leadership of the Los Angeles County Recorder-Registrar.  They are, after all the largest voting jurisdiction in the nation; if their challenges can be met, they will be the de-facto benchmark for all other jurisdictions.

So, somewhat unexpectedly, innovation and leadership in modernizing elections technology may not emanate from the Silicon Valley, but in Southern California instead.

That observed, I still believe there is learning to be had, that this is a (bear with me) a “teachable moment” for the SF-VSTF, and we would do well in San Francisco to track L.A. County’s progress.

Meanwhile for the work of the TrustTheVote Project here, I see enormous synergies and opportunities to assist L.A. County.  They are thinking about technology transparency; they are considering how to evolve (but quickly); they are leaving nothing off the table; and they are interested in exploring, examining, and study.  They understand the importance of prototyping, the process of design for usability, the imperative of design for accessibility, and making damn certain they make the best informed decisions possible.  And they know they need to leverage the power of the Internet, social media, and the digital age to do all of this.

In my next post I’ll detail how L.A. County is proceeding with VSAP and offer some more about how the TrustTheVote Project will likely be of high value to them.

GAM|out

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* I wrote “cleverly” above because L.A. County might well have taken S.F. County’s formal approach to creating a Task Force, but in casual conversation with LA County officials and folks at Caltech/MIT VTP, what I learned was they made a conscious decision to avoid formalization at this juncture.  And in fact they wished to avoid the very bureacratic complexities that would be wrought by the formality of a sanctioned Task Force.   Instead, they creatively reached out to the Caltech/MIT VTP and asked for their assistance in producing the Symposium, holding it on their Campus, and enabling the Registrar-Recorder to move very quickly in an agile fashion.  This was not — they stressed — in effort to avoid public participation or side-step government processes to ensure transparency, but rather to jump-start a process and use it as an information gathering vehicle.  Then, they will utilize citizen committees to advance the important efforts of public input.  I call that clever.