Monday, April 06, 2009

Should the Elections Assistance Commission be more like Wikipedia?

Blogger's Note: This posting is off topic for this blog, but our work in the RCV world has made us aware of this broader issue of much importance to elections in the US. The purpose of this posting is to inspire debate about regulatory philosophy of the EAC.


Part of the Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) has been charged with setting standards for elections software and hardware, licensing private certification companies to test such systems, and certifying these systems for use by the various county election departments around the country. The EAC approach to this process has driven up costs for both elections departments and systems providers. The EAC has stifled innovation by systems providers. The EAC has stifled competition amongst systems providers and prevented new firms from coming into the business. It is time for a change in the philosophy of how the EAC does its job. The EAC needs to consider being more like Wikipedia and other open source communities.

Current Situation

The EAC set standards in 2005 for elections systems to be certified and put them into effect in 2007. Thus far, no system has been certified under this set of standards. The elections systems of the US have stood still for years. Given the backwards state of elections systems in the US, this is an unacceptable level of progress for this industry.

The EAC procedures have driven the costs of getting an elections system certified up significantly. This has discouraged innovation by existing companies and prevented start-up companies from entering the business. This lack of robust competition has caused higher prices on existing systems and prevented the introduction of improved features which can help cut costs in implementation for elections departments throughout the country.

All of this is being done in an environment which is cloaked in secrecy and lacks transparency. The secrecy of the certification process inhibits public confidence in our elections systems and makes many wary of our existing systems. For example, the federal standards require that vendors document the capabilities of their systems in a technical data package, which is submitted to private testing labs as part of the certification process. The public does not have access to the technical packages, so the public doesn't know what the vendors claim their systems can and cannot do, nor does the public know the test protocols used to test the equipment or, even more importantly, the actual results of the tests of the systems.

New Paradigm

The EAC certification guidelines should be more results based and less prescriptive. Does the system generate data that allows members of the public to verify whether each ballot was counted correctly? In other words, the guidelines should promote systems that have intrinsic transparency, meaning they produce sufficient data for interested members of the public to independently verify whether or not every ballot was counted correctly.

The EAC should allow an open certification process along the lines of the open source community and/or the Wikipedia process. Companies willing to publish their software code on the Internet should be allowed to use the Internet community to test their systems rather than paying exorbitant amounts of money to private companies licensed by the EAC. Many people are concerned about the security and efficiency of our elections systems and would willingly test systems themselves and post their results on the Internet.

Openness and transparency will ultimately lead to systems with lower costs, higher levels of security and higher levels of trust by the voting public. For example, Sequoia Data Systems has software which produces a ballot image report for certain types of elections. This capability in a more open market would be standard for all elections types as it promotes openness and transparency for all. Indeed, through this capability, any one can "count" the votes. Such innovation has been stifled by the existing regime.

Other innovations such as Internet voting and ranked choice voting need more certified software to spread in use. These innovations have the possibility of improving our democracy and we need to facilitate their open and transparent implementation.


The EAC and the various Secretaries of State around the country need to change their paradigm in certifying elections systems to encourage innovation in technology, security and cost savings. The current system is like a hard copy Encyclopedia Brittanica...outdated. Wikipedia and open source is the future. We need to embrace the future...for our own good.



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