I. In Focus This Week
A deep dive into voting systems
Q&A with Wack and Keller of IEEE Voting Systems Standards Committee
, 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 The IEEE began work on a comprehensive standard for voting systems in the early 2000s; however, this effort was superseded by the Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC) Technical Guidelines Development Committee (TGDC).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.
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