I. In Focus This Week
Working with observers to improve voting system reliability
Election officials must work more closely with election observers
By David Levine
Special to electionlineWeekly
The goals of election observation are enhanced public confidence in the efficiency and integrity of the election process, and more efficient election operations.
Any voting system -- whether an optical scan paper ballot system, a Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) system, or something else -- has to function for the duration of the voting process, and election observers are trained to spot situations in which malfunctions, power outages, lengthy-set up times or other problems prevent voters from casting their votes, discourage them from doing do so, or cause votes already cast to be lost.
Election observers look at how voting machines protect against malfunctions, whether election officials can easily repair basic problems, and whether officials have been trained to deal with problems that arise during the voting process.
This means that one way to improve the reliability of voting systems in the United States is to have election officials work more closely with election observers.
This article discusses three ways to help achieve that goal -- providing guidance to election officials to ensure that all voting systems are observable; improving observer understanding of voting systems; and utilizing observers to evaluate (and improve) voting system reliability.
Taken together, these steps would improve coordination between observers and election officials and give the latter useful feedback on how their systems are working and how to fix flaws in them.
Ensuring that a voting system is observable
As with any electoral process, an integral part of voting system assessment is transparency, which is crucial to verifying (and assuring the integrity of) the electoral process and building public confidence.
Just observing voters and officials operating electronic voting and counting technologies is not meaningful. Observers need additional access to be confident that an election is proceeding properly. They can’t interfere in the process, but they should have full access to documentation about the system, including certification and testing reports.
And observers should not have to sign non-disclosure agreements to gain access to documentation or observe processes -- that jeopardizes their ability to report what they find, and contradicts the whole goal of transparency.
One way to make a voting system observable is to open its underlying processes to observation. Not all aspects of a voting system can be observed (e.g., a component or process may be protected by law from disclosure), but many can be observed and should be open to observers. Examples include election administrator and vendor deployment, set-up, and modifications, and certification, testing and audit activity.
A second way to ensure that a voting system is observable is to facilitate observer access, e.g., by offering observers the opportunity to test a system independently. While opportunities for external testing may have to be limited due to security, logistical and time constraints, allowing such testing is evidence of transparency.
As noted earlier, a third way to ensure that a voting system is observable is by making documentation accessible to observers. This includes identifying unavailable information and explaining why it is not available. Full documentation does not prove the reliability of a voting system, but its absence can indicate problems. The absence of documentation addressing known technical problems, for example, is more telling than the availability of other system documentation.
A fourth way to ensure that a voting system is observable is to make its source code publicly available. Election administration authorities should indicate whether source code has been checked/verified by independent group(s), and indicate how observers can verify that the identified source code is actually used on Election Day. Election observers rarely have the time or capacity to audit/validate source code, but they can determine if others have done a meaningful assessment and evaluate their conclusions.
Finally, a voting system can be made observable by printing result protocols and making them available at the polling place, the jurisdiction’s office, and the state election office, so that the observers can perform the classic audit task of checking the results at polling stations against those that were centrally recorded.
Some of the tasks outlined above call for advance preparation by election officials, but the work required pales in comparison to the downside of denying full access – inaccurate observer conclusions, bad press, and tension between election officials and observers, to name a few.
Improving observer understanding of voting systems
Most US jurisdictions now use electronic voting systems – either DREs or Optical Scan systems. But some continue to use, or have returned to, paper-based voting. And a few have embraced alternatives like mail or Internet voting.
Technologically advanced voting systems pose challenges to election observation. For example, as noted above technology can complicate direct physical observation of some processes.
Another challenge is that advanced voting technologies made not be well understood by the typical observer. Some election observer organizations, like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), have put out guidance on how to observe newer technologies. But election observers would benefit from current guidance about voting systems from the people who built, certified, purchased, and implemented them.
There are several ways to provide that guidance. Election officials can offer observer training and explain how their systems are protected against foreseeable malfunctions and how they are training workers to deal with problems as they arise.
Election officials can also put together written guidance in the form of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) that address issues like
- how a voting system is designed and configured to be user-friendly -- that the physical design of the system helps citizens vote, that the system gives clear feedback and prompts during a voter’s interaction with it, and that it addresses under-votes, over-votes, termination or interruption of the voting process before a ballot is completed, and blank and invalid ballots.
- whether all contestants are presented fairly on the ballot;
- what facilities that have been incorporated to increase access for voters with disabilities or difficulty with English; and
- how/whether a system can be repaired quickly if it malfunctions.
In addition to (or instead of) FAQs, election officials can put together a video that offers the same information.
And here’s a plus – the tools that help observers do their jobs would, in almost all cases, also be useful to poll workers.
Utilize observers to evaluate voting system reliability
Election observation is not a road to riches. People do it because they want to be helpful, and a good observer can be an excellent resource because s/he will often have had prior experience administering elections in another jurisdiction. It makes sense to take advantage of that.
Observers are trained to report on an array of voting machine issues, and their observations can be a source of immediate assistance. Here are some examples:
- problems that arise during voting machine setup at polling stations;
- ensuring that electronic memories do not contain any votes at the start of voting;
- whether voting machines are set-up to protect the secrecy of the vote;
- whether voters appear to understand how devices function;
- whether disabled and elderly voters can vote without assistance (and receive untainted assistance when they need it);
- using alternate languages in the voting process without difficulty;
- proper sealing of elements of a machine that are supposed to be sealed;
- whether polling officials or technicians understand the process, and improperly operate or handle voting machines on election day;
- procedure(s) for processing voters if voting systems become unavailable for more than a few minutes;
- adherence to closing procedures and timely, proper transmission of results to higher levels of election administration;
- immediate audits of the results conducted at a polling station; and
- what happens to recorded votes after election day.
As the use of new voting technologies expands, election observers are increasingly interested in how systems cope with malfunctions or voter errors, conducting pre-election tests, analyzing voter education material, and interviewing relevant stakeholders about their involvement in these activities. To ensure that observers can observe without interfering, it is important that election officials work closely with them. Making voting systems as transparent and accessible as possible, providing guidance/education in new developments, and listening to useful feedback will improve the election process – which is, after all, what it’s all about.
David Levine is an Election Management Consultant who has administered county, state, federal and private sector elections; developed election policy for non-profit organizations; and monitored elections in other countries. His expertise includes voter registration, election administration, poll worker training, outreach, research design and evaluation, voting system standards, logic and accuracy testing, post-election audits, voting accessibility, evaluating proposals and voting technology.
II. Editor's Note
For almost 15 years, electionline.org has brought you all the election administration reform news and information of the day through electionlineToday and of the week through our weekly newsletter electionlineWeekly.
Because of the generosity of such organizations as The Pew Charitable Trusts, Democracy Fund and the Hewlett Foundation we were able to bring you that news and information for free and free of advertising.
In order to continue providing you with the important news of the day and week, beginning September 1 we will be offering monthly underwriting for our daily and weekly postings (think more NPR, less local radio and television).
Underwriting will be available for electionlineToday, the weekly email that reaches about 4,300 inboxes each week and the weekly newsletter.
We will accept underwriting from a variety of entities in the elections world, but will not accept political advertising.
Job posting and marketplace listings from elections offices seeking to sell/trade voting equipment will remain free of charge.
III. Election News This Week
- Palm Beach County, Florida is once again at the center of an elections controversy only this time it’s about the relocation of a polling place. The Islamic Center of Boca Raton was replaced as a polling site reportedly following complaints from voters about the use of the site. The backlash to the relocation — to a library — was swift and came from a variety of sources. The Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations has send Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher a written request to restore the mosque as a polling place. U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel and Ted Deutch who represent the area both released statements opposing the move.
- More than 100 Contra Costa County, California voters cast two ballots in the state’s June 7 primary. Joe Canciamilla, the county’s elections chief blames an ambiguity in the state law that allows people to surrender a mail ballot at polling place and then vote again within a certain window of time. “This particular weakness in the system needs to be fixed, and it wouldn’t be hard to do,” Canciamilla told KCBS. The secretary of state’s office disagrees with Canciamilla and has asked him to provide evidence of the 113 alleged double voters.
- This week, the Kansas Rules and Regulations Board, at the request of Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) approved a temporary regulation that will limit the voting rights of about 17,000 voters by allowing them to vote in federal elections but not state/local elections because they failed to show proof-of-citizenship when registering to vote. Under the temporary rule, instead of being given a separate ballot, the voters will be given a provisional ballot that will not be counted on Election Day and will only be counted later by the board of canvassers.
- Every once in a while, a story comes along that reminds you that most people really have no idea what goes into running a successful election. In Stark County, Ohio, the board of elections is pushing for the county to pay for a generator for their offices in case power should go out at a critical time — say election day/night. Because the BOE is funded largely from general fund tax dollars, the board is having to play a waiting game until the county administrator can find the money — about $75,000-$100,000 — to pay for a generator. “It's definitely in the works ... on the grid," County Administrator Brant Luther told the Canton Repository. Whether or not that happens before November 8 remains to be seen.
- Personnel News: Eric Wells, former Democratic state senator and husband to Secretary of State Natalie Tennant is challenging incumbent Kanawha County Clerk Vera McCormick this fall. Katy Owens Hubler, formerly with the National Conference of State Legislatures will now oversee Utah’s Voting Equipment Selection Committee. Kellie Lank is the new Candler County, Georgia election superintendent. Vincent Caprio has been named Easton, Connecticut’s Republican registrar of voters.
- In Memoriam: Seth Rich, a staffer at the Democratic National Committee was killed in Washington, D.C. this week. He was 27. At the DNC, Rich worked on the development of a computer program that allowed voters to find their polling place.
IV. Legislative Updates
Delaware: This week, Gov. Jack Markell signed legislation into law that lifts the financial burden for ex-felons to restore their voting rights. Under the new law, felons will still have to complete the terms of their sentence before their rights are restored, but they will not have to complete paying all fines, fees and restitution they may owe.
Michigan: Rep. Gretchen Driskell, D-Saline, and Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, introduced a "voter bill of rights" resolution that would amend the constitution to allow no-reason absentee voting, early voting and automatic registration when a voter gets a driver's license or state ID card. It would also automatically send ballots to Michiganders serving in the armed forces overseas.
Missouri: Gov. Jay Nixon (D) have vetoed legislation that would have required voters to show a government-issued photo ID in order to cast a ballot. Although there were provisions in the bill that would have exempted anyone born before 1946, those with disabilities or those with religious objections, Nixon said the allowances didn’t go far enough. “Due to the overwhelming evidence that photo ID requirements aren’t necessary, the proliferation of these laws is widely understood to be motivated by an attempt to suppress turnout among certain classes of voters,” Nixon said in his veto message.
V. Legal Updates
Georgia: Project Vote has sued Secretary of State Brian Kemp in an effort to force the release of voter registration records the group says it needs to determine if voters were improperly rejected or purged from voter rolls.
Minnesota: The Minnesota Court of Appeals has affirmed the conviction of Wanamingo Township Supervisor Thomas Joseph Shane who burned ballots after the spring 2014 election. According to the Republican-Eagle, Shane’s attorney argued that destroying ballots is a specific-intent crime under state statute, meaning the act needed to have been carried out with the intent to commit a crime. But the Appeals Court determined it is a general-intent law, and that the act only had to have been done on purpose. State law requires that ballots must be kept for 22 months following an election.
Nevada: Clark County District Judge Elissa Cadish dismissed has dismissed a challenge to the primary election saying that the challenger did not demonstrate the errors on voter registration cards could have changed the results of the election.
North Carolina: Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan has set a Sept. 26 trial date for the state’s voter ID law. Morgan rejected calls from lawyers for the state and Legislature to assign the case to a three-judge panel or dismiss it altogether. "I will move this case forward as expediently as possible," Morgan said in court according to WRAL.
Oregon: The Oregon Court of Appeals has overturned a misdemeanor conviction of a man who satirically offered to buy blank ballots. "No matter how much one might wish to reduce cynicism about elections (and any justifications for that cynicism), the legislature cannot accomplish that goal by suppressing expression because of the 'supposed harm that the message itself might be presumed to cause to the hearer or to society,'" Chief Judge Erika Hadlock wrote.
Pennsylvania: A former Allegheny County election judge and two others were charged with conspiring to steal funds during April’s primary election. Sharon Troutman is accused of submitted false attendance rosters and pay sheets for her son and cousin.
U.S. Virgin Islands: The joint elections board of the U.S. Virgin Islands has rejected a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding ADA compliance at polling sites. According to the St. Croix Source, while the joint board did not have problems with many aspects of the settlement, they did take exception with the requirement to train election workers in ADA compliance or to designate someone to oversee each polling place for compliance issues.
Utah: U.S. District Judge Jill Parish has denied motions to throw out claims in a lawsuit that alleges vote-by-mail procedures in San Juan County hinder the ability of Navajo citizens to vote. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, the suit, filed in February, says the county closed all polling places and the only way to vote in person in the 2014 election was to go to the clerk's office in Monticello, which is not on the reservation. The plaintiffs are seeking an order reopening polling sites and requiring translation services to Navajo-speaking voters for all future elections.
VI. Tech Thursday
Arizona: The Arizona secretary of state’s website and online voter registration portal is back online this week after being taken off line for more than week over fears of a possible security breach. Following a forensic analysis by cybersecurity investigators, it was determined that no breach had occurred. "We have not found any evidence of malware or command and control software in the voter registration system and have restored its use," Secretary of State Michele Reagan said in a statement. "Voters can check their registrations and EQUAL users can continue to collect $5 contributions. We have implemented measures to ensure that access to the system is secure. For these reasons, we believe it is safe and prudent to turn the system back on and continue its use."
Virginia: Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) recently unveiled a new voter registration system that will eliminate the need for paper when voters register to vote at Virginia motor vehicle offices. According to The Washington Post, each year the DMV mails more than 500,000 completed paper voter registration applications to the state’s department of elections, which then sorts and mails them to local registrars. The new system will allow that to all be done electronically.
VII. Opinions This Week
Kansas: Two-tier voting system
Maine: Ranked choice voting
Maryland: Voting system
Missouri: Voter ID
North Dakota: Election reform
Ohio: Voter purge
Pennsylvania: Instant runoff voting
Texas: Voter ID
Virginia: Ex-felon voting rights
Washington: Election implementation
VIII. Available Funding/Awards
2016 Baxter Award for Election Practitioner
The International Foundation for Electoral Systems' (IFES) Joe C. Baxter Award recognizes the contribution of a professional whose skills, dedication and sacrifices to the field of election administration epitomize the mission of IFES and embody the spirit of former IFES Senior Adviser for Election Administration Joe C. Baxter. Baxter had a firm commitment to the principles of local ownership, transparency and sustainability of electoral administration.
The Baxter Award honors an election practitioner with a proven track record of exceptional dedication to empowering people to have a say in the way they are governed. IFES presents the Baxter Award annually to one individual at a ceremony typically held in concurrence with IFES' U.S. Election Program or Chief of Party Conference.
The recipient of the Baxter Award must agree to receive the award personally at IFES' ceremony.
IX. Upcoming Events
National Association of Counties Annual Conference — NACo’s Annual Conference and Exposition provides an opportunity for all county leaders and staff to learn, network and guide the direction of the association. The 2016 Annual Conference is hosted by Los Angeles County. The conference will be held at the Long Beach Convention Center. Attending the Annual Conference provides member county officials with the opportunity to vote on NACo’s policies related to federal legislation and regulation; elect officers; network with colleagues; learn about innovative county programs; learn more about issues impacting counties across the country; and view products and services from participating companies and exhibitors. When: July 22-25. Where: Long Beach, California. For more information and to register, click here.
National Conference of State Legislators Summer Meeting — the 2016 Legislative Summit will be held in Chicago. The elections portion will include: Politics 2016: State Election Preview, Evaluating Elections, What to Do If You’ve Got a Disputed Election, Technology: Improving Elections One Bit or Byte at a Time? And Helping our Military Vote. When: Aug. 8-11. Where: Chicago. For more information and to register, click here.
Election Center Annual Conference— Conference attendees will be inspired and energized as we head into the stretch of the Presidential Election year. We will share substantive elections issues including crucial information from federal agencies to local election of cials sharing practical information for day to day election administration operations. This is the also the time to honor and celebrate the winners of the Election Center’s acclaimed Professional Practices Papers’ Program. You will not only hear the winning presentations but you will take home all of the innovative programs and ideas that were submitted by your colleagues in other jurisdictions around the country. When: Aug. 16-20. Where: Philadelphia. For more information and to register, click here.
X. Job Postings This Week
Customer Relations Manager, Dominion Voting Systems, San Leandro, California — Dominion Voting Systems is seeking a highly motivated and enthusiastic, Customer Relations Manager, to be based in our San Leandro, California office! This position will be responsible for supporting customers by partnering with the sales and operations teams to exceed customer needs and requirements; addressing and resolving customer concerns; and, identifying ways to implement preventive measures for continuous process improvement. Salary: Negotiable base + bonus target & benefits. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
Customer Relations Manager, New Jersey (Remote) — Dominion Voting Systems is seeking a highly motivated and enthusiastic Customer Relations Manager to work remotely and be based in New Jersey! This position will be responsible for supporting customers by partnering with the sales and operations teams to exceed customer needs and requirements; address and resolve customer concerns; and, identify ways to implement preventive measures for continuous process improvement. Salary: Negotiable base + bonus target & benefits. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
Deputy Registrar, Manassas, Virginia — conducts local, state and federal elections and performs the duties of the General Registrar in his or her absence. Executes and supervises the recruitment, appointment, oaths, official policies, training and payroll of election officials who work the polls. Processes voter registration applications and administers absentee voting both in person and by mail, email, and fax. Creates Voter Photo IDs; programs electronic poll books for precinct use and trains election officials on their operation. Produces reports and statistics as assigned; creates official advertisements for upcoming elections and registration deadlines; prepares City election results for news media and the public. Assists the General Registrar and Electoral Board in ascertaining election results. Salary: $55,574. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
Product Specialist, Denver, Colorado — Dominion Voting Systems is seeking a tech-savvy and passionate, Product Specialist, to be based in our downtown Denver, Colorado office. This role is responsible for responsible for the installation, operation, repair, and maintenance of all Dominion Voting Systems elections products; providing elections support services and customer training; and interfacing directly with customers, co-workers and election officials. Salary: Negotiable base + bonus target & benefits. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
Project Manager, Hart InterCivic — project managers at Hart InterCivic are highly motivated “self-starters” who are enthusiastic about providing exceptional customer service. Working with other members of the Professional Services and Operations teams, the project manager directs activity, solves problems and develops lasting and strong relationships with our customers. Hart InterCivic’s unique and industry known culture of innovation, transparency and customer-centric focus creates an environment where team members will continually grow and be challenged to develop their careers. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
Proposal Writer, Clear Ballot, Boston— newly created proposal writer position will be part of a dedicated team producing competitive responses to State and County government RFPs. Responsibilities and Tasks: Write engaging content about technical subjects; format final documents using the company style sheet; collaborate with a team of subject matter experts; edit proposal drafts; respond to deadlines and move quickly; contribute to a database of response text, figures and technical descriptions and benefit from professional growth opportunities. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
Senior Information Systems Analyst, Sacramento, California — Office of the Secretary of State is recruiting a permanent, full-time senior information systems analyst (specialist) to serve as a project lead with the Office of Voting Systems Technology Assessment. The department is willing to downgrade the position to Staff Information Systems Analyst for purposes of recruitment. Duties will be commensurate with the selected classification. Deadline: July 18. Application: For the complete job listing to and apply, click here.
Software Developer II, Denver, Colorado & Toronto, Ontario — Dominion Voting Systems is seeking a highly technical and passionate Software Developer II to be based in either our downtown Denver office or our downtown Toronto office! This position will be responsible for providing high-level technical expertise to design development, coding, testing and debugging of new voting system software and/or significant enhancements to existing software for our customers. This position will work on a team utilizing an Agile development environment. Salary: Negotiable base + bonus target & benefits. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
Technical Writer, Clear Ballot, Boston — our small and growing team of technical communicators has an immediate need for a new member with intermediate-to-senior experience. Documentation is key to success in the election systems domain. Deliverables include tasks and supporting information, and, highly scrutinized specifications and plans. All products and their documentation are certified by federal or state agencies; evaluation is performed by demanding government laboratories. Once products are certified, documentation supports the work of users under pressure whose skills range the technical spectrum. Key Responsibilities: Work collaboratively with fellow communicators and the Engineering, Quality Assurance, Technical Support, Compliance/Certification, Business Development, and Executive Management functions; develop deep understanding of the federal regulations governing voting systems, and, the ability to interpret issues raised by delegated federal and state reviewers in partnership with Compliance/Certification; meet governmental standards and write appropriately for target audiences: voters, poll workers, election officials and their technical staff, and voting system test laboratories; quickly grasp complex technical concepts and make them easily understandable through prose and graphics; deal gracefully with multitasking and constant change; create and modify single-sourced, conditionalized, reusable content in MadCap Flare; adhere and contribute to working styles and standards, information architecture, and documentation production process; and respond to documentation tickets. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.