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In Good Company: Surveying the Landscape of Election Technology Projects

An Interview with IEEE Voting Systems Standards Committee's John Wack and Sarah Whitt


OE: Can you describe your current work with elections standards, who the collaborators are, and how this fits into the larger context of what the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) does?

JW: In the Voting Systems Standards Committee (VSSC), we are currently working to produce several standards and guidelines, including for election results reporting, for election management system export, for event log export, and hopefully soon for voter registration database export.  The collaborators include various election officials, voting system vendors, some people in industry, and others in academia. This fits quite naturally into IEEE's framework.

SW: I joined the IEEE VSSC as an election official interested in the elections technology standards that IEEE and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) were working on.  The VSSC is developing several standards related to elections: a standard for blank ballot distribution to military voters was published before I joined the team; and we are finishing up an Election Results Reporting standard, for which I am the working group chair.  The VSSC includes a wide range of participants, including election officials like myself, voting system vendors, academics, folks from NIST and the Elections Assistance Commission, election activists, media such as the AP, technologists, interested citizens, etc.  This is the first IEEE project I have been involved with, but it seems like a natural fit given the other technology standards that IEEE issues.

I have also been an active participant in the Pew-sponsored Voting Information Project (VIP), which works with states to provide election data such as polling places and sample ballots in a common data format for consumers like Google and Microsoft to use in their search engines and other tools to assist voters.

OE: How does this work relate to recent efforts to improve voting systems nationally?

JW: The IEEE was engaged in producing voting system standards prior to the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002.  The EEC and NIST then began producing voluntary voting system guidelines.  In recent years, though, the EAC has become somewhat inactive because of the absence of commissioners and thus, new voting system standards have not been approved.  NIST then began working with the IEEE as a pathway to developing needed voting system standards that can be adopted voluntarily by states.

SW: I have not been involved in national work related to voting systems, however Wisconsin and other states were involved in the voting system testing and approval process run by the National Association of State Election Directors prior to the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

OE: How did you both come to be doing this work?

JW: I had been managing some of the voting system standards development and wanted to work on common data format-related standards because I personally felt that it was important to build this sort of capability into voting systems and into voting system operations.  Transparency of data is very important for a number of reasons, including for testing, for security, and for public access of election data.  My role at NIST gave me the opportunity and freedom to work with IEEE and focus on this material.  It has been very gratifying in that I have become acquainted with a number of election officials and voting system vendors who are of the highest caliber and have contributed greatly to this overall project.

SW: I heard about the IEEE standards work through several elections IT colleagues I worked with on the VIP Project.  I help manage Wisconsin’s Statewide Voter Registration System so the mission of the VSSC to create interoperability between elections IT systems was very attractive to me.  Election officials today use multiple IT systems for various purposes, that don’t necessarily communicate with each other, so the ability to exchange data more easily between systems saves time and money, increases accuracy of the data in all systems, and allows synergy between systems for better analysis of data and ultimately better decision making.

OE: Can you describe your working group’s digital voting standards initiative, and how it will potentially impact voters, election organizers, and the people who design election systems?

JW: Having election data in a common format means that the format of the data is documented publicly and thus it is available, open to anyone.  The format is not proprietary, which frees small developers and election staff themselves to use commonly available tools such as web browsers to read the data.  When elections staff are designing new systems or attempting to cause systems to interoperate with each other, having the data in a publicly-documented format is a huge advantage.

SW: The VSSC is not working on digital voting standards per se, but we are working on standards for IT systems used in the Elections arena.  As I stated above, the first standard to come out of this group was for distributing blank ballots to military voters.  This standard will help states implement systems that deliver ballots to military and overseas voters electronically instead of on paper.

This reduces transit time and helps enfranchise America’s military and overseas civilians. The election results reporting standard we are finishing up will help the media and other groups that use election results.  Having results reported in a consistent way across states and jurisdictions will allow for easier aggregation of election results, which provides faster results reporting on election night as well as better analysis of election results after the election.

The standard also encourages reporting more data than is reported today.  Better analysis of election results data, and a more complete dataset, will help drive better policy.  There are many groups out there developing election administration tools that use common data formats (Open Source Election Technology, TurboVote, OpenElections, etc).  Today the only common data formats out there are really VIP and EML.  The VSSC is trying to create standards that fill the gaps where common data formats have not been available in the past.  These standards will also meet the needs of the diverse stakeholders involved in elections, which is truly the benefit we reap from having such diverse constituencies on the team.

OE: You have slightly different positions on the value and role of consistent and standardized  national voting administration systems vs a diverse and interoperable ecosystem of tools. Can you both talk about this, and why you hold the positions you do?

JW: I believe that it makes sense to have a national testing and certification program and a relatively high degree of uniformity among the states in the basic information technology.  This doesn't mean that every state has to do it the same way, but it does mean that, regardless of equipment manufacturer and state, the data is in a publicly-documented format and can be tested as such across all states and territories.

The common data format standards can be likened somewhat to electrical code.  Having a uniform electrical code doesn't necessarily mean that buildings need to look or feel the same – it just means that the electrical outlets and so forth are consistently uniform and licensed electricians can freely work on the electrical systems without having to understand proprietary information.  This is exactly the same with a common data format – voting systems can be different, they can be used differently across different states, they can be interconnected in different ways, they can have different user interfaces – but the underlying data formats are all publicly documented and uniform.  Anyone can write tools to operate on the data.

SW: America proudly carries on its tradition of a federated election system, which includes a national framework of laws to guide election administration across the country but also provides for states to set election policies that best meet the needs of their individual states.  A state’s ability to set its own laws for election administration is one of the great strengths of American democracy, but it does add complexity to the system.  The Help America Vote Act brought consistency and technology across states through mandatory statewide voter registration systems and accessible voting equipment.

In the post-HAVA world, state and local election offices have various technology systems to register voters, manage elections, facilitate voting, tabulate, report and certify election results, and track campaign finance information.  These systems come from various vendors or are home-grown.

Having some national baseline standards, and having common data formats for easy interchange allows for states and localities to purchase or build whatever systems best meet their needs, and allows those systems to interoperate.  If systems can interoperate regardless of who builds them, this allows for innovation in the marketplace, and can help reduce costs of individual systems.  But if standards are too burdensome or too literal, innovation is stifled and the vendor pool shrinks, offering states fewer choices at higher prices.  So there is really a sweet spot for standards where some integrity is assured, but election administrators have choices and systems are reasonably priced.

OE: What are the pros and cons of digital voting, and when is it more or less relevant and useful?

JW: I think in a perfect world, election day for both primaries and general elections would be national holidays – we would all vote on paper, election officials would have adequate time to make the instructions very clear, and election officials would have adequate time to carefully count all the paper, perform audits, and issue the results.  I could take this further, but of course we don't live in that perfect world.

Digital voting makes lots of sense for many reasons, including that computerized voting interfaces can help voters to vote more accurately and prevent them from making common mistakes.  Computerized voting makes it much easier for election officials to administer elections – and to administer them accurately.  Yes, there are issues when voting electronically and there is no paper audit trail – but this has to be balanced against other factors, such as those I've mentioned.

SW: As a person working in an election administration office, I don’t really have a comment on digital voting.  That is really an issue for legislatures to determine.  If digital voting is made law at the state of federal level, we will administer the law to the best of our ability.

OE: What is your time-frame for finalizing a new national election results reporting standard, and how will it improve on the way things function now?

JW: The timeframe I am working towards includes getting the election results reporting standard out for public review by end of June, 2014, and having the final standard ready for IEEE approval in late fall/early winter. I expect that we will receive a good number of comments from various states – and this will be good – but at the same time it will require a fair amount of work to respond to the comments and we will no doubt need time to make some changes and improvements in the standard and the XML schema.

SW: We are hoping to finish up the election results reporting standard yet this year.  Once we are finished with the draft standard, it goes through the IEEE balloting process before it is officially released, which takes some time, so we are trying to get the draft ready for balloting as soon as possible so we can get it released in 2014.

This standard will improve things in several critical ways.  1.  It provides a common format for reporting so that results can be more easily aggregated across jurisdictions.  This allows for faster results reporting, it allows more groups to be able to report results and not just the media, and it allows for better analysis of data  2.  It provides additional data elements that are not always reported with election results, which results in better analysis of the data, and easier auditing of results.  3.  It supports three use cases -- pre-election (i.e. election set-up information), election night reporting, and post election reporting (i.e. certified results or results for performing audits).

Supporting all three use cases allows for interoperability between election management systems, voting systems, results reporting systems and canvassing systems, which saves time and money in elections offices, as well as improving data accuracy.  So within an elections office, we can save time and money.  For people who consume election results, more groups will be able to consume results, they can get results faster, and do better analysis, which results in better policy. For voters, they find out winners sooner, and enjoy the benefits of better elections policy.

Standards may seem dry to some, but I think this is really exciting.  These are real, tangible benefits that will come out of this work.  I just feel grateful to be a part of it.

OE: What has the process of developing this standard been like? Who have been the stakeholders and has this been a new kind of collaboration in this space?

JW: Developing this particular standard was at first difficult.  We initially worked with a relatively large group of people, roughly 20 in size, and progress was very slow.  In particular, some people who had good intentions nonetheless impeded progress by focusing more on the process than on the need to get something done in a reasonable timeframe.  I convened a smaller group composed of election officials, vendors, and data modeling experts, and pushed for Sarah to be chair of the working group.

I feel very strongly that the work in IEEE should be managed by election officials, who above all understand elections and need the equipment to work well for them as well as for voters.  At the same time, vendors have a broad understanding of how elections are run across the United States, as well as organizations such as the Associated Press.  Working with a smaller group made things work much more smoothly and has resulted in a standard that, I believe, is much more applicable across all states.

SW: When I joined the VSSC (at that time it was just Project 1622) I was invited by colleagues in other election offices because they noticed there weren’t a lot of folks who actually work in elections administration on the team.  I since invited other election officials to join as well to help balance the group out.  The team we have right now working on Election Results reporting is really kind of a dream team -- we have both major voting system vendors (Dominion and ES&S), the Associated Press, folks from state elections offices (WI, OH, WV), industry experts like Kim Brace and the folks at NIST, and interested parties in academics and the audit communities.  The kind of expertise that this broad stakeholder base has brought really improved the standard.  We applied a use-case approach to the standard so we could walk through real world scenarios for how this data is produced -- what systems it comes from, what government level, at what time in the process, etc.  I think that’s how we were able to have it be so comprehensive.

We looked at the total election results reporting picture from the angles of the elections office producing the files, the vendors of the systems they will be using, and the consumers who will be using the data.  I think this represents a different type of collaboration than I have seen in the past.  We also used an inclusive approach to membership instead of exclusive -- if you are interested in this standard or have opinions on how you think it should be done, join the team!

Anyone can sit at the table if they want to, and everyone at the table gets a voice.  We have a leadership structure through the working group chair and the standards editor to help filter through the comments, and we put a lot of things up for vote. So it’s a very democratic system.  This prevents the group from ignoring interested constituencies, and helps balance views from very different communities.

OE: What do you think of the recent presidential commission on elections administration? Will it affect how your work in any way?

JW: I can't comment much on the presidential commission.  I do think that their report is imperfect – I wish they had gone into much greater detail and provided more specific recommendations in a number of areas.  However, they had a lot of work to do and there were many stakeholders besides me.  All in all, I have the belief that they worked hard and tried to do the right thing and mostly produced a good report that should be paid attention to – I was particularly gratified that they didn't find much evidence of voter fraud to warrant voter ID laws that will result in needless litigation and state taxes spent on lawsuits.  They did end up validating our work

SW: I am very excited about the Presidential Commission's report.  The bipartisan nature of the commission and the report takes a lot of the controversy out of the recommendations and gives election officials solid choices for how to improve their processes.  The commission report likely won’t impact our common data formats work very much, but as an IT person in an elections office, it was great for me to see the focus on improving elections technology in the report.  Some recommendations may require legislative changes in some states, and not all recommendations are a good fit for all localities, but the scope of the recommendations are broad enough that I feel like there is something in there for everyone.

I personally think these kinds of bipartisan efforts that focus on research and provide options are a great way for the federal government to drive policy in a way that is not as heavy handed.  The report itself appeared to be very well researched, well written, and overall of excellent quality.  As a taxpayer, I appreciate the quality of work this team did.

OE: What do you think is the best way forward to continue to innovate in this space? What kinds of relationships and models? And do you see any particularly pressing needs currently?

JW: The election results reporting standard was produced by first creating a UML model.  The advantages to producing a model include that one can focus on the data definitions and relationships as opposed to the format, e.g., XML.  Now, I believe that the data model should be abstracted upwards so that a higher level model can be created of election data in general.  This would help to provide a foundation for producing common data formats for various applications.  While the applications could be quite different, the format could be consistent and, as a result, systems will still interoperate.

Some of the more important areas to work in are, I believe, tablets and pure electronic devices.  While I am personally not a fan of Internet voting for the general public, I do believe that Internet voting for overseas military and individuals with disabilities is acceptable and that common data formats for ballot data should be developed to make systems more transparent and auditable.

SW: I completely concur with John on the need for an overall model of election systems.  While states run elections differently, we all have common sets of data that flow between common IT systems.  This type of high level modeling is critical to move towards better interoperability between elections IT systems.  Having a common understanding of election systems and data makes it easier for vendors (and homegrown state systems) to build interoperability into the next generation of systems -- whether voting systems, statewide voter registration systems, voter information portals, online ballot delivery systems, e-poll books, election results reporting systems, campaign finance systems, the list goes on and on.  Ultimately with a common data model, we can also move towards more common formats for reporting data to the public.


John P. Wack is a researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the area of elections standards. He chairs several standards groups within IEEE and is managing the standardization of a common data format for election systems, working in conjunction with election officials, manufacturers, and others in the community. He is also an assessor for the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program and visits voting system test laboratories regularly to check compliance with requirements and standards. With the EAC’s TGDC, he has managed the development of the 2007 VVSG Recommendations to the EAC and the 2005 VVSG. Prior to working in elections, he authored and managed a variety of IT and network security guidance and assistance activities for NIST. His goals in the elections area are to make voting systems easier to manage by election officials, easier to use accurately by voters, and more transparent to test by election officials and testing labs.

Sarah Whitt is an IT professional with the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, the state’s chief election agency.  She joined the agency in 2003 to help establish Wisconsin’s first statewide voter registration system, and is currently overseeing the modernization of that system.   She is chair of the IEEE Voting System Standards Committee’s Election Results Reporting working group, who is working on a common data format for publishing election results and election definition information. Through her experiences with elections and IT, she has learned that technology is of no use unless it is harnessed for good public policy.  She serves as a bridge between IT staff and policy makers to help ensure the public's work is done effectively and efficiently.