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How the Open Source Election Technology Foundation is Remaking the Voter Experience

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, August 12 2014

VoteStream prototype

In its report released earlier this January, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration noted how an online registration tool developed by the Open Source Election Technology (OSET) Foundation that is being used by Virginia and groups like Rock the Vote "highlights the way that voter information can be entered by a user in one setting and, through a simple platform, seamlessly integrated with a state’s registration list."

Now, ahead of the 2014 midterms and with an eye to 2016, OSET''s Trust the Vote Project is stepping up its efforts to expand that functionality and other election innovations across the country, at the same time that the Bipartisan Policy Center has taken up the task of more broadly implementing the commission's recommendations as a whole throughout the states.

As techPresident wrote at the time, the commission's report highlighted how it had identified technology and data problems at the root of the "long lines" that President Obama had directed the commission to address.

"We have been working on various pieces of what I call the overall ecosystem...of election administration," Gregory Miller, co-founder and chief development officer of OSET said in a recent interview. "We've been looking at the pieces that do not require federal certification since the federal certification model is so broken."

While OSET has also been involved in discussions about changing the certification model, the more immediate focus of the initiative, he said, has been improving the voter experience rather than ballot transactions.

The Virginia platform that is already in place aims to make the registration process as easy as buying a plane ticket, Miller said, and allows users to check if they are properly registered, look at their ballot in advance and know where their voting place so as not end up with a provisional ballot.

OSET has also been the technology provider behind the voter registration tools used by many third party groups including Rock the Vote, Voto Latino, the NAACP and the League of the Women Voters. Those groups have recently begun adopting a function of the service that lets the groups add a bar code to voter registration forms filled out through Rock the Vote that includes all the data a user has entered aside from their signature. When the form goes through a scanner "not only do they capture a signature for rapid reconciliation with DMV but they now get all that data instantly," Miller said. "That innovation alone has reduced by a factor of tenfold the time it takes to get voters registered."

Los Angeles County is interested in adopting the same platform as Virginia, Miller said, and OSET is also helping to integrate Rock the Vote capabilities with California's online voter registration system, adding that a dozen or more states could add that functionality after an August meeting of the National Association of State Election Directors. That better integration with state databases in California and other states could help "reduce that crunch when those boxes of registration forms darken the doorstep of the registrar with ten days to go," he said, citing stories of boxes "left sitting in hallways because they just ran out of time to process them by the deadline."

Waze for Voting?
Trust the Vote is also working on other tools that could see early test runs during the 2014 midterms. One of them is a Ballot Design Studio that would let ballot designers lay out and print ballots on demand. Another is an electronic poll book that unlike the ones from existing vendors, costs less and uses open-source software with a better user experience and is in testing in Minnesota and possibly additional places. TrustTheVote envisions another tool called BusyBooth, developed by an OSET engineer from MIT, as a tool similar to travel time and traffic application Waze but "[mashed] up with election administration data to create an app that can allow a voter to know in advance the average time it takes in the line at the polling place," Miller said. By having voters check in and out, it is possible to determine information about "what is the optimal time for people to get to their polling place and get their ballot cast and avoid those long lines."

Another project under testing in Minnesota, Virginia, Los Angeles County and Travis County, Tex., is VoteStream, which aims to reimagine the election reporting process and deliver "not just faster election results but produce two new types of data that haven't been easily available to the public rather than 'party bosses'... performance and participation," he said. He suggested the data would help officials identify bottlenecks and hotspots as or before they occur and determine whether there were enough voting machines. That data, now generally obtained by the political parties, could include information on how many people voted, the demographics of cast ballots, how many were deemed provisional or were rejected, how many people were at a polling place at a given time or abandoned the voting process, and how many voters were voting by mail or from overseas. Access to that data could, for example, provide answers about whether ballot design is disenfranchising voters over 65 who might have visual problems, he suggested.

Currently that data is only available in raw and difficult PDF formats that require analysis by professional data scientists, he said. "Requesting it can be a nightmare, it's like a FOIA exercise," he said. With VoteStream, the idea is to make the data available and begin to do that analysis "mixing that data with other data about the area and [to] learn things about the demographics of an election [and] making it available through a stream with an API so it's available to anyone or they can write an application incorporating it," he said.

This cycle, VoteStream will only be receiving data as a client, like media outlets do, and displaying it. "We will be testing that faucet and our aspiration is that VoteStream will become the spigot of choice by 2016 because of the way it captures and expresses that data and the fact that it is an open source method...it is far far less expensive than the reporting mechanisms in place today," Miller said. VoteStream received a $50,000 Knight Prototype Fund grant last year and Miller said discussions are underway about Knight increasing that grant five-fold to help scale and implement the effort more broadly. Like other Trust the Vote projects, Miller said VoteStream would be attractive to election officials because it "does not require paying software licenses, but only integration costs and it runs on off-the shelf-hardware."

Among those expressing interest, especially in VoteStream, are New York City and New York state election officials, after they saw a presentation Miller gave at a Manhattan panel discussion in June, he said.

While Miller said he anticipated problems in 2014 relating to disenfranchisement, redistricting and managing the polling place experience including long lines, he predicted more difficult challenges in other areas in 2016 with the first election since 2000 without an incumbent, "when the question will shift from how do you process the line to how do you process the ballot."

"We will not have seen the stress and scrutiny and pressure applied to an outdated creaky bandaided system as we have since then," he said, echoing the alarm of the Presidential Election Commission, which could lead to renewed problems with recounts and ballot issues. The Help America Vote Act in 2002 was intended to replace lever machines and punch cards with computers, he said. "The very thing that was supposed to lead us way from the hanging chads did anything but....now 12 to 14 years later all those computers we thought were going to solve problems in 2002 are completely obsolete ... now they are going to suffer the very same stresses and pains and breakdowns that the lever machines and punch cards did in 2000. ...we could see a complete replay of what we saw in 2000 with an ultra-close election and every party boss and every army of lawyers fighting vociferously for every last ballot...that's going to have nothing to do with long lines."

In May, former White House CTO Aneesh Chopra and former Facebook General Counsel Chris Kelly joined the Strategic Advisory Board of OSET, which officially gained non-profit status last year after a lengthy IRS process, seven years after a group of technologists founded it in 2006 with a road-map to roll-out an open-source elections platform in 2016.

"This is critical democracy infrastructure, it's not something you can afford to privatize any longer," Miller said. While often there is a lot of buzz around expressing election results in visualizations and cool websites, much of OSET's work is about "working on the machinery of elections that has nothing to do with websites," he said.

"Beyond civic/voter engagement, if you don't fix the problems that are persistent in the polling place and the process of elections then all that civic engagement effort goes for nothing," Miller stated. "If ultimately getting all those people on board to go vote and all excited about the issues results in them going to a polling place experience that's so horrible that they'll never return than you've won the battle and lost the war...while millions are being poured into improving voter and civic engagement some money has to go into...providing insurance that when those eager, excited voters actually get to the polling place, the process of casting the ballot is as easy and convenient and engaging as the process of registering in the first place."

Those issues will also be on the mind of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which officially announced last week that it will lead an effort to help states implement the Presidential Commission's recommendations.

Co-chair of the Commission Ben Ginsberg, a former counsel to the Romney campaign, had first noted the update in House committee testimony at the end of July. Ginsberg and the other co-chair, Robert Bauer, a former counsel for the Obama campaign, said they and other commissioners also intended to help states draft and enact relevant legislation.

As part of realizing that goal, Tammy Patrick, a former member of the Commission and former Maricopa County election official, and Don Palmer, Secretary of the Virginia Board of Elections, are joining the center's Democracy Project to help lead the effort.

"The commissioners and others don't want the recommendations to just sit on the shelf but to get these recommendations into the states to move them along, " John Fortier, director of the Democracy Project, said in an interview with techPresident last week.

Fortier noted that the commission saw its charge as not to make recommendations about federal laws, but to focus on recommendations that states could put into practice.

Ahead of the 2014 midterms Fortier said the center's initiative would prioritize the commission's' recommendations on online voter registration, data sharing between states and modernization of the DMV voter registration process, work toward redrafting the voting certification process regarding voting machines to allow more off-the-shelf technology and work with counties to explore ways that election officials can measure and get information about lines at polling stations.