I. In Focus This Week
A deep dive into voting systems
Q&A with Wack and Keller of IEEE Voting Systems Standards Committee
By Brian Leclair, content editor
U.S. Vote Foundation
While many Americans are familiar with some of the high-profile issues in voting and elections systems, not many are aware that some of the best and brightest computer science and engineering professionals are dedicated to finding improvements.
As one can imagine, it is a major undertaking to bring the voting systems of a nation of 300 million citizens from punch cards to the latest technology of the 21st Century.
Recently, U.S. Vote Foundation (US Vote) spoke with John P. Wack and Dr. Arthur M. Keller, members of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) Voting Systems Standards Committee (VSSC).
Commonly referred to as VSSC/1622, their working group is building a common data format for election systems.
Chairman of the VSSC, Wack, is a voting standards researcher and developer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). He has been working on the VSSC/1622 project, and its predecessors, since 2009.
Keller, VSSC Standards Coordinator, joined the project in 2007 and has served as its chair and vice chair. He is a researcher in the Baskin School of Engineering at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In addition to his work with UC Santa Cruz, Keller is the managing partner of Minerva Consulting.
It may seem odd to people to see that a group called the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is involved in voting and elections systems. What is the IEEE doing that voters will experience?
Chairman Wack: The IEEE produces standards and guidelines for all sorts of technologies and so voting equipment actually fits right in. The IEEE began work on a comprehensive standard for voting systems in the early 2000s; however, this effort was superseded by the Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC) Technical Guidelines Development Committee (TGDC). After a several year hiatus, the IEEE began again working on a common data format for voting systems and this eventually led to where we are today, with a VSSC and several working groups reporting to it, all working on different aspects of voting system standards.
The standards produced by the VSSC will affect voting system equipment and how it operates. The standards thus far address common formats for import and export of data, thus election officials and manufacturers are most directly impacted by the standards. Future standards may go further and address aspects of devices that may directly impact voters, for example, the usability of a touch-screen device.
Will VSSC/1622’s innovations be relatively seamless to voters?
Chairman Wack: Seamless is a fairly good word to use in that the standards and guidelines produced tend to address structural aspects of voting systems that are “under the cover.”
Dr. Keller: For example, one of the standards we are developing addresses the need for a common data format for Election Results Reporting. This standard will improve the process of reporting results to the public and press, as well as researchers, by creating a common format for vendors to adopt and election officials and others to use.
How are voting systems different since the well-publicized issues in Florida during the 2000 general election?
Chairman Wack: Perhaps one of the most obvious differences is that there are fewer, if any, punchcard systems being used in elections. Initially, the federal government made large sums of money available to states to purchase new equipment and many states purchased all electronic touch-screen devices. In more recent years, various groups have raised concerns over the security and integrity of these all-electronic devices and as a result, some states have scrapped them in favor of paper ballots that are scanned by optical scanners.
A less obvious difference, but at the same time extremely important, is that the EAC instituted a testing and certification program that has resulted in a general improvement across the board in voting system reliability, integrity, and security. The previous program was run by the states and was not as rigid or comprehensive as the program today, thus problems in voting systems were less likely to be corrected in a timely manner. Today’s systems are better as a result of the EAC’s testing and certification program.
Dr. Keller: Component interoperability is one of the future goals of our work.
Although significant amounts of money were spent in the early part of this millennium on voting equipment, it was before the standards were updated. Now this equipment is aging and there is little money available for replacement. The development of newer equipment that supports some degree of interoperability among components may reduce the total lifecycle costs of election systems.
Is the U.S. working toward national uniformity in terms of voting equipment and elections technology?
Chairman Wack: Yes and no. I think some election officials are leery of any sort of national uniformity, and perhaps rightly so, since states generally run their own elections. But some degree of national uniformity is occurring out of necessity: the voting equipment market is relatively small and not able to support a large number of manufacturers with diverse products. National testing and certification further pushes in the direction of national uniformity with the number of certified systems being a subset of the voting equipment market.
Is it necessary to work toward such uniformity?
Chairman Wack: I believe that it is in some areas. The VSSC/1622 is working towards uniformity of data format and it makes sense to specify this for all states. There are other aspects of voting system design, such as security, that need to be implemented correctly and consistently. It makes sense to specify these standards.
Were there any personal voting experiences that led you to take professional action?
Chairman Wack: Initially, my work was in writing security standards for voting systems to ensure that they would be auditable. This, in effect, meant that voting systems had to produce a contemporaneous paper record that the voter could verify and that could be audited later and compared with electronic tallies. However, this caused significant problems in that many states had already purchased equipment that was all electronic and that did not produce a contemporaneous paper record. Some equipment was implemented with such a paper record added on, but auditing these systems was very difficult and not usable, compounding the problems. Seeing that election officials need to have systems that are usable in their operation, I recognized an opportunity to address this situation in my work.
Dr. Keller: I served as poll worker, Precinct Inspector, and Field Inspector for the Registrar of Voters for Santa Clara County, California. I designed the provisional ballot envelope and framework used in Santa Clara County while a Field Inspector.
I have been involved in the development of various systems involving large amounts of data. In college, I developed the tuition system for Brooklyn College. I produced a report for the Bursar and wanted him to check that the individual tuition bills were calculated correctly, while he wanted to make sure that the individual amounts of the cash received added up to the total. I learned about auditing financial systems during that year of work.
In voting, we need to ensure that the vote totals are aggregated properly, but unlike financial systems where we can trace each payment to an individual, ballots are linked to precincts, not individuals. This anonymity makes auditing more difficult.
What do you hope to accomplish in the field of voting and elections?
Chairman Wack: My goal is to implement a comprehensive model of election data for which specific common data formats can be flexibly generated for current and future voting equipment. More concretely, my goal is that all voting systems import and export their data in a common format (e.g., XML) that is publicly documented and that most people, with appropriate software, can read and write. I believe this will make systems easier to use, to test, and to interface with other equipment.
Dr. Keller: My aim is to help make voting systems more reliable, secure, auditable, trustworthy, more easily administered, with better voting interfaces, and a lower total lifecycle cost.
Any final comments about your work?
Chairman Wack: While almost all work done to date by the VSSC/1622 has involved an XML-based common data format, the VSSC is considering taking on other standards work that would involve writing functional requirements for voting systems, addressing how the systems operate and how they are used. Thus, our work is not limited to common data formats.
Secondly, as mentioned above, we are soon to make available for review a draft standard on a common data format for election results reporting. This particular standard includes a UML data model from which an XML schema has been generated. It is a fairly complicated standard but at the same time comprehensive and well documented. We hope that the reviews are favorable, the standard is finalized soon, and election equipment manufacturers incorporate the standard into their products.
Dr. Keller: For example, one advantage of the common data format for election results reporting when adopted is that the news media and election analysts (as well as election integrity activists and the general public) will be able to obtain a feed of incrementally updated election results. It will be available in a structured format on election nights that they can load into their reporting and projection systems without the need for screen scraping websites. That will produce faster, more accurate results for the public, as well as make it possible to detect potential reporting errors on election night.
II. Primary Roundup
Guam: While the major media outlets would have you believe that there were no primaries remaining in August after the 26th, the elections geeks and the residents of Guam know that simply was not true. On Saturday, residents of the island territory headed to the polls for their chance to cast ballots.
With absentee ballots still making their way to the island, elections officials estimate that the turnout was between 30 and 40 percent, which is down from past years, but still much higher than most states and the District of Columbia.
Overall things went well on Saturday, but there were a few reported problems including a leaking air conditioning unit at one precinct and reports of some voters showing up at the polls only to find their names not on the voting rolls.
There were issues with misprinted ballots, ballots that should have been double-sided, but ended up only having printing on one side. At a Monday meeting, the Guam Election Commission was able to determine that it was a mistake by the printing press. The ballots were replaced at the polling places when a voter received one.
III. Election News This Week
- U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason ruled this week that state elections officials in Alaska are in violation of the Voting Rights Act by failing to provide adequate language assistance to Alaska Natives who speak Yup’ik and Gwich’in. Plaintiffs had argued that English-language voters receives volumes of pre-election information while those who speak Yup’ik and Gwich’in only got information on when and where to vote. Gleason ordered a list of things to fix by Friday and mandated that the state complete the fixes by the November election.
- Late last week, the Hawaii Supreme Court dismissed three separate challenges to the state’s August primary. The dismissed lawsuits include one filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and residents of Pahoa who sought a do-over of the storm-delayed August primary. The Hawaii Supreme Court concluded that it does not have the power or authority under the Hawaii Constitution or by Hawaii Revised Statutes to grant the relief sought and dismissed the complaint.
- In other litigation news Special Judge Hollis McGhee dismissed the election challenge filed by Chris McDaniel in the Mississippi GOP primary runoff. According to the Associated Press, McGhee determined that McDaniel waited too long to file his challenge. “The undisputed facts are that McDaniel filed his complaint 41 days after the date of the election,” McGehee said, speaking from a Gulfport courthouse. “The law requires it to be done within 20 days.” Also in Mississippi this week, U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas threw out a lawsuit filed by True the Vote that sought the birthdates of Mississippi registered voters. In her decision to toss the case, Atlast said “Plaintiffs are not entitled to any of the requested documents they seek…”
- Since Illinois launched its new online voter registration system earlier this summer, more than 5,000 people have used the system to either register for the first time or update their registration. And proving that even elections can be sexy, Equality Illinois has created a voter registration ad to encourage people to use the new online registration system.
- Hmmm…a voting rights activist was arrested in North Carolina this week for distributing literature about voting rights. The Charlotte police said Ty Turner was arrested because he violated a city ordinance that forbids distributing voting literature on parked cars. A spokesperson for the police department said Turner was not arrested, but detained.
- It’s like an elections burn book. When the Cherokee County, Texas GOP failed to provide a list of elections judges by the deadline county Elections Administrator Shannon Cornelius created a list based on voting records and submitted it to the secretary of state. Problems arose when Karen Morris, the chair of the county GOP took issue with some of the choices and wrote her objections down next to the names of each of the judges. “She pointed out all of the problems with the people, and that’s was has a lot of judges on the list pretty upset,” Cornelius told KETK. “That made me upset because that put me in a bad light as far as voters,” Mary Lykins told the station when she saw she was scored by Morris as a ‘weak republican’. According the latest reports, the Republican Party of Texas is now threatening to sue if the list of eligible election judges is not changed.
- Now this is something Homer Simpson could get behind! The pastry chef’s at Portland, Oregon’s Voodoo Doughnuts recently baked custom Oregon-shaped doughnuts for the secretary of state’s office in support of the office’s voter registration drive during the month of September.
- Personnel News: Tracy Waters, Polk County, North Carolina elections director has resigned. The resignation was effective immediately. Carroll Jenkins has retired as the Hawkins County, Kentucky clerk. Jenkins served as clerk for 12 years after retiring from a 33-year career at Eastman Chemical Co. Jenkins is being replaced by Nancy Davis. Dana Mulligan has been appointed to serve on the Salem County, New Jersey board of elections. Glenwood Dickerson has been hired by the St. Thomas-St. John District board of elections as a sergeant-at-arms to keep the peace at the board’s sometimes-contentious meetings. Juanita Murray, Cochise County elections director has officially resigned from her position effective October 7. James Stevenson was sworn in as the Manchester, Connecticut Democratic registrar of voters this week. Stevenson follows in the footsteps of his father who served in the position from 1970 till 1996.
- In Memoriam: Edward W. Norton, former member of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics has died of colon cancer. He was 76. Norton was appointed to the DCBOEE in 1983 by former Mayor Marion Barry and served six years. According to The Washington Post he earned the reputation of a reformer and worked to purge inactive voters from the city’s rolls. Norton is survived by a son and daughter and his ex-wife D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.
IV. Legislative Update
California: More vote-by-mail legislation has been approved in California. This time, AB1873 will allow San Diego County to conduct mostly mail ballot elections during special elections to fill open legislative and congressional seats.
Also in California, a bill (AB 2194) that would have instituted automatic recounts paid for by tax-payers is dead for this session according to The Sacramento Bee. According to the paper, Assemblyman Kevin Mullin (D-San Mateo), who introduced the bill, said partisan bickering killed it.
Ohio: A group of GOP lawmakers have signed a discharge petition that would push House Bill 269 for consideration by the full House. The bill would require voters in the Buckeye State to show a photo ID in order to cast a ballot.
V. Tech Thursday
Florida: This week, Leon County became one of the first counties in the Sunshine State to use Clear Ballot, software intended to verify ballots. While state law requires that counties only check up to 40 percent of ballots for validity, Clear Ballot allows county elections officials to quickly and efficiently review 100 percent of the ballots and flag those with issues for further review by the canvassing board. According to WTLV, the software costs $40,000 in addition to a yearly support fee, but that analysis shows it could be cheaper than staff hours to review the ballots.
Missouri: The Ste. Genevieve County commission voted to provide the funds necessary for the county clerk’s office to purchase 25 iPads. The $27,000 price tag includes cases and training. The iPads will be used to replace the bulky paper poll books that have been used for years.
Wisconsin: A group of tech entrepreneurs have created a website called Vote (Mostly) Online that allows Wisconites to register to vote, request an absentee ballot and get information about voting and candidates. The service is aimed at millennials, but can obviously be used by anyone. “The problem is not that we don’t care; it’s that the voting process doesn’t fit into our mobile lifestyle,” co-founder Niko Skievaski, told the Wisconsin State Journal.
Mississippi: Voter ID
Pennsylvania: Polling places
Tennessee: League of Women Voters
Washington: Voting rights
West Virginia: State elections
VII. Upcoming Events
Please email upcoming events — conferences, symposiums, seminars, webinars, etc. to firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Voter Registration Day — The 3rd annual National Voter Registration Day is scheduled for September 23. In its first two years, more than 1,000 groups and 10,000 volunteers registered over 360,000 people to vote. When: September 23. For more information, click here.
EVOTE2014: Verifying the Vote — The Competence Center for Electronic Voting and Participation is hosting a 6th annual conference on electronic voting. This conference is one of the leading international events for e-voting experts from all over the world. One of its major objectives is provide a forum for interdisciplinary and open discussion of all issues relating to electronic voting. The format of the conference is a three-day meeting that deals with the topics from a both a theoretical perspective and a practical one. Practical papers should use case studies. No parallel sessions will be held, and sufficient space will be given for informal communication. Where: Lochau/Bregenz, Austria. When: October 29-31, 2014. For more information, click here.
National Student/Parent Mock Election — Now in it’s 34th year, the National Student/Parent Mock Election invites you to join the world’s largest national mock election and nation’s larges civic education project. Since 1980, students have learned what it means to be informed voters, casting votes for Presidential, U.S. Congressional and gubernatorial candidates. What’s more, students continue to demonstrate the value of civic engagement – from organizing their own debates and campaign activities to holding student rallies. When: October 30, 2014. For more information and to register, please click here.
National Conference of State Legislatures Forum— Mark your calendars now for NCSL’s fall forum. More information will be available in September, but make sure to get this in ink on your calendar now. Where: Washington, D.C. When: December 9-12.
VIII. Job Openings
electionlineWeekly publishes election administration job postings each week as a free service to our readers. To have your job listed in the newsletter, please send a copy of the job description, including a web link to email@example.com. Job postings must be received by 5pm on Wednesday in order to appear in the Thursday newsletter. Listings will run for three weeks or till the deadline listed in the posting.
Associate, Pew Charitable Trusts, Election Initiatives, Washington, D.C. — primary responsibilities involve supporting the activities and goals of the portfolio of Pew’s Election Initiatives work, which includes the Elections Performance Index, Upgrading Voter Registration, the Voting Information Project, as well as other projects aimed at improving the research portfolio of the elections team. The Associate will be an integral part of all these projects, spending much of his or her time researching and drafting reports, memos, policy briefs, 50-state scans and other research products that are highly relevant to policy deliberations. This individual will need to analyze and translate large amounts of data and research related to election administration into written products that policymakers and the public can easily understand. Additionally the Associate will be part of team collecting, cleaning and coding data as well as communicating with states and counties when conducting research. Consequently, the Associate must be able to think creatively about how to collect, use and report elections information from state and local officials. This individual will be required to coordinate and sustain our inquiries and relationships as well as manage research consultants we work with. The Associate also will work closely with the senior associate in the processing of contracts and subgrants, ensuring they are complete and accurate, as well as other aspects of supporting the team’s operations such as assisting with meeting planning. It is expected that this position is for a term period through December 31, 2015, with the possibility of an extension pending the success of the program, funding sources and board decisions on continued support. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job posting and to apply, click here.
Associate (Research), Pew Charitable Trusts, Election Initiatives, Washington, D.C. — primary responsibilities involve supporting the activities and goals of the Pew’s Elections Performance Index project. The Elections Performance Index provides election officials, policy makers and citizens the data and tools they need to assess the state of election administration in America and identify specific improvements that can be made in the way elections are conducted. At its core, the Elections Performance Index provides an empirical assessment of how well the nation’s democracy is working. This position will be an integral part of this project by overseeing its data and spearheading communication with states and counties. The associate will ensure the project meets internal and external deadlines by conducting and overseeing the data work necessary to construct the index and ensure the highest quality of reporting available. Along with this work, this individual will be required to coordinate and sustain our inquiries and relationships in the states with regards to this project. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
Election Assistant, Los Angeles County — performs one or more of a variety of assignments essential to the conduct of elections and related functions of the Department of Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk. Positions allocable to this intermediate level class work under the supervision of an Election Assistant III or other higher level supervisor on a variety of assignments essential to the conduct of primary, general and special elections and related election functions of the Department of Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk. Such assignments include: Supervising teams of subordinate staff processing voted ballots; troubleshooting precinct operational problems; preparing election related equipment; distributing and retrieving election materials; and developing and conducting election related training. Some assignments may require frequent heavy lifting over 25 lbs. combined with bending and stooping. Depending on the nature of the various assignments, incumbents may work a definite short-term basis or an indefinite longer-term basis depending on the needs of the Department. Salary: $19.56 per hour. Application: For the complete job posting and to apply, click here.
Voting Systems Manager, Colorado Secretary of State — the position manages the voting systems team to ensure certification of voting systems, county support for technical issues, and implementation of the Election Night Reporting, Uniform Voting Systems, Post-Election Audit, Risk-Limiting Audit, and Ballot on Demand programs. Responsibilities include: Supervision of the voting system team, oversees certification of voting systems and verification or reinstallation of trusted build on county systems, ensures timely reporting of election night results on statewide basis, plans and implement Uniform Voting System when approved and funded, assists counties with technical issues relating to pre-election voting system testing, coordinates statutory post-election audits and plans for and implements risk-limiting audits on statewide basis, provides assistance to counties with ballot-on-demand, ensures that county voting systems are periodically audited and used in compliance with all applicable legal requirements, assists counties and vendors in resolving technological issues related to voting systems. Qualifications: Graduation from an accredited college or university with a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration, Business Management, Information Systems, Information Technology, or Engineering and three years of professional experience in election administration, large scale project implementation, program management or supervision. Salary: $4,764.00 – $6,973.00 Monthly. Application: For complete job posting and to apply click here. Deadline: Sunday, September 14, 2014 at 11:59pm MT.