Tagged voter registration

The Voting Information Project is cool

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the FAQ of the Voter Information Project.

Congress MOVEs to Help Overseas Voters

The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act is probably not high on your radar screen of activities in the U.S. Congress — but it is important to me, for two reasons, aside from the most basic one that it enables broader access for overseas voters.

  1. The bill avoided partisan politics that usually sidelines any election reform.
  2. The bill calls for sensible, incremental use of technology, including the Internet, to help voters.

I recommend the excellent National Journal Online article for a more in-depth view behind the scenes, with quotes from some of the organizations that helped identify the problem and its scope, and suggest solutions — such the Pew Center on the States, and Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law. The article also has a concise look at the current Congressional activity around technology and election reform – in the area of voter registration. My thanks to Eliza Newlin Carney for this fine reporting.


“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.


Voter Registration, Fraud, and Transparency

In this week’s news we have a classic example of how transparency (a.k.a. “open government”) has enormous potential to defuse some thorny political issues that can rise to the highest heights of U.S. political news.  The news is about Karl Rove’s involvement in Bush-administration actions to dismiss some U.S. Attorneys, including David Iglesias.

A New York Times article E-Mail Reveals Rove’s Key Role in ’06 Dismissals describes how Iglesias lost favor with the Bush Administration as a result of being perceived to be slack in pursuing cases of possible voter fraud.  In a PBS Interview, Mr. Iglesias described exactly what type of voter fraud was at issue, and how his investigation indeed sought, but did not find evidence of fraud to be prosecuted.  And the connection with voter registration?  The potential fraud in question was voter registration fraud. Mr. Iglesias said that New Mexico state GOP officials

singled out ACORN  as an entity that they thought was engaging in … a plan to register individuals who were not legally entitled to vote… under-aged people, people who perhaps were felons, people who perhaps were not American citizens.

The concern was that if such fraud were occurring, then it would enable the further fraud of actual voting by people who were fraudulently registered and had no legal right to vote. If that were to occur, the election result could be swung — particularly of concern in NM, where the 2000 presidential election hung on 344 votes — and even worse, one couldn’t be sure because of the inability to know after the fact how these hypothetical illegal voters actually cast their ballot.

That’s serious stuff. Again, you may be asking what’s the connection to voter registration systems technology. Well, consider the effect of lack of transparency. Mr. Iglesias’ efforts were based on information not readily available to the public, or to his detractors inside the beltway. As a result, there was real angst over ACORN’s activities and a possible conspiracy to swing a Presidential election. And that information vacuum was a factor in feeding the conspiracy theorists who may eventually have helped the process of sacking Iglesias.

Now, imagine a world in which there is, in fact, quite readily available information about [a] the entire stream of voter registration requests, [b] source of requests (e.g., individuals, ACORN, Rock the Vote, etc.), [c] county officials’ adjudication of those requests, [d] results of adjudication, etc. Suppose that a state could easily generate reports about this stream for officials (e.g., States’ A.G. or Federal DoJ,), and even openly publish redacted versions of these reports or even the raw data.

Well, that’s what we’re building in the TrustTheVote Project. And that transparency is (and should be) what “open government” is about.  If that transparency had been the case in NM a couple years ago, then the information vacuum would not have existed, except as willful refusal to examine readily available information.

And that’s where open-source, open-data, operationally transparent, “people’s technology” can be the basis for real IT systems that can fill information vacuums and defuse conspiracy theories — helping to increase the health of public discourse. Yes, it sounds a bit highfalutin, idealistic, so don’t take it from me — let us prove it with real running code and stuff people can see, touch, and try.


Voter Registration: Modernization vs. Technology?

A recent New York Times editorial spoke in favor of changes to U.S. voter registration practices, citing a recent study from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. From a technology perspective, those changes raise the question of impact to existing I.T. systems for voter registration, both those is use and under construction, including the TTV Registrar. Will these systems become obsolete, or at least require a “fork-lift upgrade”?

Here’s the connection. Current VR systems automate processes around the current practice of citizens being required to request to be registered, and re-request every time they change address. From the NYT:

In the United States, the burden of registering falls squarely on voters. In countries where the government does more of the work, according to a new study, registration rates are much higher. … voter registration modernization bill … should follow the lead of nations that are far more serious than the United States about getting eligible voters on the rolls — and have the registration rates to prove it.

The changes under consideration are part of some in-process legislation in the U.S. Senate, being led by Senator Charles Schumer. These changes partly shift the burden to the government. There are many variations and details, but the bottom line is that VR would no longer have a primary focus on processing VR requests from citizens, which would be far less frequent than today.

That’s potentially big change to election administration, but would it be a big change to I.T. systems for election administration, especially a state’s Digital Voter Registration System (DVRS)? I don’t think so. I can only speak from experience in our project to build the TrustTheVote Registrar, an open source software system for states to use to implement a DVRS. The processing of citizen (re)registration requests is an important part of a DVRS, but it’s not actually the technically most significant part. A DVRS is, essentially, a data management application for a voter database, with relatively low complexity of the data, relatively few direct transactions on the VRDB, but several potentially hairy data interchange functions with other systems, such as those of the state DMV, corrections agency, change-of-address and dead persons registries, etc. The DMV, in particular, is an indirect source of citzen VR requests; a DVRS must obtain from a DMV system the notifications of motor-voter transactions, and convert each one into a voter registration request or change-of-address transaction on the VRDB.

What would VR modernization add to a DVRS? More of those potentially hairy interchange functions, with additional external systems that contain information that would help detect VR-relevant changes in a citizen status, such as turning 18, or changing address, or becoming naturalized. So why do I say that’s not a big change? But DVRSs already need to “get it right” for current data interchange requirements. If a DVRS already meets that challenge, then VR modernization would require the addition of more data feeds that can deliver more instances of existing transactions on its VRDB.

So the key is flexibility, and there I must toot the twin horns of open source and agile system development, two of the 3 pillars of the TTV Registrar. Agile development can yield systems that are flexible for extensibility of existing features like data interchange. Open source means that a government IT shop, using an open source DVRS, would not have cost or lock-in barriers to implementing extensions driven by VR modernization. And for VR modernization, the 3rd pillar becomes even more important: operational transparency. With the increased pace of VR (re)requests, increasingly automated, the public may have just as much interest in seeing what a more automated VR process is doing, as it does today in seeing how human operators use or abuse a DVRS. In many areas, some Americans are not so trusting of election officials to conduct voter registration processes with high integrity; with modernization and more automation, the people may not feel any more confident in the correctness of computers’ operation. But with modernized VR processes, and modernized DVRSs, transparency features can help with public trust and accountability on both areas.


Tech Improvements to Good Election Recipes

In a previous post I described the Minnesota election process recipe and later described some room for improvement — well, now you can read it straight from MN Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, what he’d like to do to improve the recipe.

Those improvements are mainly in election process and practice. I’d like to stir the pot a bit more, and add suggestions for some technology-enabled improvements for transparency and accountability measures, which could help a lot in future re-count situations like the one recently experienced in Minnesota. These tech measures focus on automation and tracking of the process of reviewing vote-by-mail (VBM) envelopes, determining whether the form on the envelope has been fill out properly, dated, and signed with a signature that matches a signature on file. Only if all these tests pass is the envelope queued for processing that leads to counting the VBM ballot inside. Otherwise, the VBM envelope and ballot are excluded – situations that were the focus of much of the controversy in the MN recount.

Interestingly, some of these same transparency and accountability measures, useful for VBM, already apply to voter registration systems. This is ironic, because it is lack of confidence in voter registration systems that is driving increased voter usage of vote-by-mail as a form of early voting. The common factor in both cases is a piece of paper that has an pen-and-ink signature. Here’s how the automated process works.

  • The signed piece of paper (VR request or VBM envelope) arrives at a county’s election office, and is scanned, with the digital image stored.
  • A clerk examines the piece of paper to determine all required info is present, including a signature and, if appropriate, a signature match.
  • If not, the clerk can reject it, but they must provide information about the reason for rejection, with this information being stored along with the digital image.
  • Those records can be made available to the public (with suitable redaction for privacy of voters), to create public accountability for those decisions, and visibility into the operations.

You can see this in action in TTV’s fictitious state of Jeffersonia’s VR system (a work in progress of our TTV Registrar), but similar accountability measures, if not so much transparency, are already in existence in real VR systems — but not as far as I know in county VBM processing.

For VBM, even more benefits are possible, because the records also create internal accountability, audit, and review. In some states, this review process could be on-going as the VBM envelopes arrive, even in states where it is not allowed to actually count VBM ballots until election day. And with a rolling review process, each decision could be reviewed by one or more people, without the requirement for reviewers to get physical access to the VBM envelopes. That way, a good portion of erroneous decisions could be caught and corrected routinely, rather than becoming time bombs for a recount. And further, the accept decisions could be reviewed before election day as well. In the case of an incorrect reject decision, there is review and recourse to actually count the ballot. But for an incorrect accept decision, once the envelope has been opened and the ballot removed, the ballot must be counted — there is no way to go back an associate the ballot with the envelope.

With this scheme, not only would there be increased citizen confidence from the transparency of the process, I think that there would also be increased confidence from visibility that the process actually includes checks and balances that are properly executed. Am I dreaming? I hope not. We’re building this type of transparency for VR systems, and there is little technical challenge in extending it to VBM processing. But I can dream that as states and counties improve their recipes, this approach will become a possible ingredient.


Oregon Elections in the Digital Age: Please Start at the Beginning

Oregon is one of several states that this month have legislative activity that’s starting to look at the phrase "Internet voting". Wired Oregon reports on Attempts to Bring Elections into Digital Age as a pair of bills, one for online voting, and one for online voter registration. But the reference to the recent report on the Pew Center on the States is a bit misleading.

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