More on NAS e-voting report

The NAS e-voting report, “Asking the Right Questions About Electronic Voting” has now been out long enough for thorough reading, and a number of folks have had the opportunity to work through what is a very lengthy and detailed report. For example, Dan Tokaji wrote recently in his Equal Vote blog that “it appears to be a careful and comprehensive evaluation of the the difficult questions raised by electronic voting technology.”

As the report itself summarizes, “The primary intent of this report is to describe some of the important questions and issues that election officials, policy makers, and informed citizens should ask about the use of computers and information technology in the entire electoral process, thus focusing the debate on technical and policy issues that need resolving.” This is an admirable goal, and we need to work to answer these questions and issues with rigorous research, exactly the sort of approach to the debate about voting technology that organizations like the National Academies of Science can help facilitate.

This report covers a lot of ground, and ranges from discussions of voting technology to questions about the processes used to develop, test, and certify voting systems for use. Furthermore, the report focuses on a broad definition of voting system, including not just the technologies used by voters to cast ballots, but also the electronic technologies used increasingly for voter registration.

Importantly, the NAS report raises the right questions about issues that are currently the focus of much public debate, like the security of voting systems (Section 4.2.2). But it also asks many new questions about issues that should be part of the research and public debate:

  • Trying to develop a better framework to understand fundamental problems like usability and human factors (Section 4.2.3).
  • The acquisition of voting systems (Section 4.2.1).
  • Poll worker training and new voting systems (Section 5.2).
  • The need for a better understanding of public confidence and public evaluation of voting systems (Section 6.3).
  • The role of the private sector in election administration (Section 6.7).

These broad issues — and the specific research questions raised about each in the NAS report — deserve careful reading by those interested in the electronic voting debate.

There is a lot to chew on in this report. Hopefully it will help stimulate additional interest throughout the sciences, and among both private and public sector organizations that can provide the financial resources necessary to undertake the sweeping research agenda called for in this report. Clearly, this report helps frame a research agenda, and we need to insure that this research agenda is undertaken. In particular, towards the end of the report (Box 6.1, pages 6-16 and 6-17) there is a brief presentation of “Possible Components of an Institutional Infrastructure to Support Electronic Voting”, of which a very large component of this infrastructure is research and development, as well as field investigations and testing.

Last, the report had a positive conclusion, one that folks from all sides of the voting technology debate should take note of:

In developing this report, the committee took note of the significant emotion and passion felt by all participants in the public debate about electronic voting. Although such passion and emotion are often regarded as impediments to a reasoned and and thoughtful public debate, the committee believes that these passions reflect — at heart — a very emotional and gut-level commitment to the notion of democracy. One can — and people do — take issue with various arguments about technology or organization, but on balance, the committee believes that the nation is much better served by passionate engagement than by dispassionate apathy, and so the passions expressed by the various participants on all sides of the debate are to be commended rather than disparaged …

Hear, hear!