Category Archives: Voting technology

President Obama at South By Southwest calls for better use of technology in election administration

Last week President Obama visited the South By Southwest event, and he got engaged in a pretty wide-ranging discussion about a lot of ways in which the federal government could do a better job using technology to engage citizens in government. You can watch the video, or read the transcript.

The part of the conversation that I thought was most interesting regarded some of his comments about technology and elections. Here’s an extended quotation of his comments, which I wanted to emphasize:

THE PRESIDENT: Exactly. I’ve give you a second example, and that is the issue of voting — I mentioned this earlier. We’re the only advanced democracy in the world that makes it harder for people to vote. (Laughter.) No, I hear laughing, but it’s sad. We take enormous pride in the fact that we are the world’s oldest continuous democracy, and yet we systematically put up barriers and make it as hard as possible for our citizens to vote. And it is much easier to order pizza or a trip than it is for you to exercise the single most important task in a democracy, and that is for you to select who is going to represent you in government.

Now, I think it’s important for a group like this, as we come up to an election, regardless of your party affiliation, to think about how do we redesign our systems so that we don’t have 50 percent or 55 percent voter participation on presidential elections, and during off-year congressional elections, you’ve got 39 or 40 percent voting.

Q Mr. President, you’re in the state with the worst voter turnout in the country over the last few years.

THE PRESIDENT: By coincidence.

Q We would take 55 percent tomorrow if we could get it. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: There is a reason I’m bringing this up. (Laughter.) But it’s not just Texas. And so one of the things that we’re doing is engaging folks who are already doing interesting work in the online space, how can we create safe, secure, smart systems for people to be able to vote much easier online, and what are the technologies to help people get aware of what they’re voting about, who they’re voting for — that’s, again, an issue where you don’t want the federal government engineering all that. But what we can do is to have the incredible talent that’s represented in this auditorium really spend time thinking about that and getting to work on it.

This sounds interesting — it’s an excellent idea for the federal government to launch an initiative like this; a large-scale research effort to study “safe, secure, smart” systems for the administration of elections. I look forward to hearing more about this as the election season progresses, and I hope that the President makes good on his promise to “engage folks who are already doing interesting work” in this area. So as way of a shout-out to the President, the team at the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project has been working on these issues since 2000, and we are ready to do more!

Memories of elections past

This morning I read about a disputed election, for the student representative position on the Los Angeles Community College District board. It was written up in today’s Los Angeles Times, “After 2 contested elections, L.A. Community College District may finally have a tech fix.”

The basic issues with this election are that they are using paper ballots for the student trustee elections, and that they don’t seem to have any routine post-election auditing procedures to check the veracity of the hand-counting of the paper ballots. According to the story, “The fight may seem high schoolish, but it underscores a technology problem at the largest community college district in the nation. Instead of using machines to tally paper ballots, district officials counted them by hand. And instead of employing safeguards to make sure students voted only once, an audit revealed that up to six people voted twice.”

This just brought back memories of elections past, of paper ballots being counted by hand, and elections being conducted without strong post-election audit procedures. Regardless of whether the election is for the president of the United States, or for a student trustee to a local board, having strong administrative procedures can help insure that when elections are close and the results are disputed, there aren’t questions about the integrity of the election.

PCEA research white papers

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s report is getting a lot of attention and praise following its release on Wednesday. One aspect of the report I want to highlight is the degree to which the Commission aimed to ground their findings in the best available research, academic and otherwise.  It renews my faith that it may be possible to build a field of election administration that is more technocratic than it currently is.

The report’s appendix, available through the supportthevoter.gov web site, is a valuable resource on the available research about each aspect of the commission’s charge.

I want to lift up an important subset of that appendix, which is a collection of white papers written by a collection of scholars, drawn from a variety of fields and perspectives, that summarized the large literatures that were relevant to the commission’s work.  A collection of those papers has been assembled in one place, on the VTP web site, so that others might have easy access to them.  Here are the authors and subjects:

Much of this research effort was assisted by the Democracy Fund, though of course, the research is all the work and opinions of the authors. Speaking personally, I greatly appreciate the support and encouragement of the Fund through these past few months.

TGDC meeting, day two tomorrow

I just spent my morning out in Gaithersburg on the NIST campus, listening to the meeting of the EAC’s Technical Guidelines Development Committee (TGDC). The day has just ended. However, tomorrow will be a full agenda, too. You can listen in by going to the following link: http://www.nist.gov/itl/vote/. Tomorrow’s agenda will focus on UOCAVA-related issues. Check it out.

As I was watching today, I reflected on proposals to abolish the EAC, and just to let NIST deal with standards. As I watch the interaction between the EAC staff and commissioner Davidson, TGDC members, and NIST staff, it’s clear that each provides a set of distinct perspectives and, some would say, checks and balances. In particular, the EAC provides a distinctly public perspective on the proceedings, which would be difficult to replace if it weren’t responsible for the proceedings.

Survey on the Performance of American Elections Data Available

As part of my pre-Thanksgiving clean-up, I have finally gotten around to posting the data sets and documentation for three surveys my colleagues and I did in 2007 and 2008 to gauge the quality of American elections. The studies were funded by Pew, as part of their Make Voting Work Initiative, along with the late, great JEHT Foundation and AARP (for the Nov. ’08 study). The studies were conducted in November 2007 (gubernatorial races in KY, LA, and MS), February 2008 (15 Super Tuesday states), and November 2008 (all 50 states). Lots of questions about how well elections were run, from the perspective of voters, plus some questions about why non-voters didn’t vote.

The data are all on the MIT dSpace site: http://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/5523

One feature of these datasets is that we did parallel administrations using the Internet and telephone (random digit dialing), so people interested in how these two survey modes differ should find things of interest to them there.

Residual votes in LA and Palm Beach Counties

During my lunch talk at the Technology, Diversity, and Democracy conference Mike has previously reported on, I used the case of Palm Beach County, Florida to discuss how metrics to gauge the quality of the voting process sometimes are right under our noses, and under-utilized.

Here is a little more detail about PB County (and all of Florida), along with a comparison with LA County (and all of California).

The accompanying graph shows the residual vote rate for Palm Beach County, Florida, from 1992 to 2008. (As far as I can tell, Florida did not gather separate turnout statistics prior to the 1992 presidential election, so we can’t calculate the residual vote rate earlier than 1992.) For the purpose of comparison, I also show the rate for the whole state (excluding PB County) and the nation.

The PB County residual vote rate surged in 1996 (perhaps an early sign of maintenance issues with the punch card devices?) and again in 2000. By comparison, the residual vote rate for all of Florida, while a bit above the national average, was basically flat.

After 2000, Florida not only quickly abandoned the antiquated systems they were using, but they also instituted a reporting system that tracks explicitly the residual vote rate for the top-of-the-ticket races every two years. Here, for instance, is the 2008 analysis of over- and under-votes.  The results of these changes are evident after 2000. In PB County, the residual vote rate dropped from 6.4% in 2000 to 0.5% in 2004. In the rest of the state, the rate dropped from 2.6% to 0.4%. These numbers moved up a bit in 2008, but it’s clear that PB County, and the state as a whole, has entered a new regime in striving to make every vote count.

Now look at a similar graph for LA County, along with the rest of California. California’s residual vote rate has been trending downward since 1992, dipping down below the nationwide average before 2000.  But as the rest of the nation has aggressively tried to reduce residual vote rates, the rest of the nation has now caught up with California.  LA County, which started off significantly higher than the rest of the state — with a notable spike in 1996 — has seen its residual vote rate drop faster than the state as a whole, so that it is now fairly close to the statewide and nationwide averages.

Note, by the way, that there is no dramatic shift in the residual vote rate — absolutely or compared with the state as a whole — with the introduction of the Inkavote system in 2004.  The downward trend just continues.

The differences between California and Florida, and between Los Angeles and Palm Beach counties, are significant, when we think about how elections are run in both states.  However, there are many similarities.  Both are large states that rely on fairly large counties to conduct elections.  Leaving aside LA County, the average California county had a turnout of 179,000 voters in 2008, compared to an average of 126,000 in Florida counties.  County election directors in both states are on the whole highly professional, even though they are chosen in different manners.  Aside from the fact that California ballots are much longer than Florida ballots, one major difference is that Florida has institutionalized an effort to minimize “lost votes,” whereas California has not.

In 2008, the residual vote rate for Florida was 0.7%, compared to 1.3% in California.  If California could reduce that rate to Florida’s, over 82,000 additional votes would be recovered among Golden State residents in presidential years.  The number for LA County alone is over 20,000.

EAC Commissioners Blog

Not exactly a blog, but the EAC has gotten a lot better about using technology to make their hearings and meetings public.

I went to their website today and found this set of notes from Commissioner Donetta Davidson and Matt Weil on early voting in Florida.

For those who don’t know already, the big innovation in Florida this year is the requirement that ballots be printed on demand.  Conny McCormack was down there as well, and I’ll see if Conny wants to put up a guest posting on the blog.

Must-Read for Election Officials: "State of Alaska Election Security Project Reports"

I’ve been meaning for some time to post a link to these reports produced by the University of Alaska-Anchorage: “State of Alaska Election Security Project Phase 1 Report;” and the “State of Alaska Election Security Project Phase 2 Report.” The Phase 1 report was published in late December 2007, and I was a peer reviewer of that report. The Phase 2 report was published in May 2008.

The reason I say that this work is a must-read is that it is more than just the typical security review of voting technologies; the Alaska-Anchorage team took a broader perspective, and argued strongly for studying voting systems in their policy and procedural context. Here is a long quote from the Phase 1 report:

The report is an overview-level evaluation of recent studies and a determination of their relevance to Alaska’s systems, technologies, and procedures. It is the first part of a multi-phase project to evaluate the security of Alaska’s election system.(footnote deleted). The research includes a detailed study of the evaluation reports from California, Florida, Maryland, Ohio and Connecticut, a review of the response to the California study by equipment provider Premier Election Solutions (formerly Diebold) , and an overview of Alaska’s election laws and procedures. The team conducted interviews with members of the University of California and Florida State University evaluation teams, with officials from the State of Alaska Division of Elections, and with election officials from California, Florida and Connecticut. As a result of this Phase 1 work, the research team identified areas within the election system and equipment used that warrant further analysis necessary to develop more definitive conclusions.

California, Florida, Connecticut, Maryland and Ohio conducted their studies using equipment that is also used in Alaska. These evaluations found serious technical vulnerabilities in the systems studied. Most reports also point out that procedures have the potential to either mitigate or exacerbate vulnerabilities
reported at the equipment level. Many of these items have been proactively flagged by the officials in the Division of Elections. As appropriate, they have implemented measures and identified possible approaches to address some of these vulnerabilities.

Each state in the US can adopt processes and procedures to meet their unique requirements. They can also select from a range of vendors and equipment provided federal certification standards have been met. Given the wide range of implementations, it is critically important that all system and procedural issues be investigated carefully in the context of policies and procedures in place in the state in which they are evaluated. In Alaska, this approach is essential to determine what, if any, impacts these issues have on the security of elections in Alaska. The use of paper ballots as the primary record of votes, the procedures for hand recounts and the uniform practices across the state may reduce vulnerabilities in Alaska elections.

The Phase 2 report implements this approach, and issues a long list of recommendations that are well-worth reading.