Serving on the Technical Advisory Committee

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This post first appeared on the Voting Solutions for All People website on August 10, 2016. The Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk has generously allowed it to be re-published here.

I started working in election technology in 2010 and, since then, I’ve noticed that the landscape doesn’t change dramatically. There’s the occasional major upgrade or migration from one voting system to another, but the news largely consists of updates and tweaks due to policy changes, and regular maintenance. For a while, I wasn’t sure if anything would change. In 2013, Dean Logan asked me to serve on the Voting Systems Assessment Project (VSAP) Technical Advisory Committee (TAC). The more I read about what Los Angeles was doing, I finally saw something new in the landscape: how they were engaging the community, how they’d tapped IDEO and Digital Foundry to work with them, who they’d selected to serve on the committees, how the entire process was centered on the voter. VSAP envisioned the voting process with the voter at the center of the equation and using technology as a means of easing the path to casting a ballot. In fact, VSAP is the culmination of years of hope I’ve had for the elections community to own their own intellectual property, embrace open source, and focus on well-defined data standards.

Owning Your Own Intellectual Property

Government agencies of all sizes should own their intellectual property. There is an added liability and cost in doing so, but ownership allows election administrators the ability to modify a system to suit voters’ needs. VSAP allows Los Angeles to keep their knowledge base in-house and with the people who know more about the voters, election laws, and system than any outside entity. Los Angeles County will soon join the ranks of only a handful of jurisdictions that have directly developed the systems they use to run elections.

Embracing Open Source

Two people watch over the shoulder of a third person who is interacting with a voting system
Joe Hall and Jared Marcotte look over Henry Balta's shoulder as he tests out the VSAP prototype — Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk

In the public sector, open source software is still viewed with some skepticism. The private sector realized over the years that some of the issues they were trying to solve—internet security, for example—were problems that were necessary to solve in a collective, crowdsourced fashion. Though open source has been a building block for companies like Amazon Web Services, Netflix, Google, and countless others, open source has taken much longer to gain traction in the public sector. VSAP is looking at these technologies as a core part of the new system, which is a win for Los Angeles residents as these solutions make use of the best engineering of the private sector with no initial development cost to the taxpayer.

Well-Defined Data Standards

In addition to leveraging open source development, VSAP also gives back to the open source and election communities. There is so much unsung work being done on VSAP, largely because it exists on the periphery of the public consciousness. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), under the direction of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), started working groups to help establish standards for the various types of elections data and processes. While VSAP will rightfully focus on the needs of the voters, it has and will continue to participate in these standards efforts as collaboration benefits the entire elections community.

One of the most impressive artifacts that Los Angeles County has contributed to the standards effort is a collection of models of all the processes for which election administrators are responsible. These processes are activities such as handling absentee ballots, registering voters, and publishing election results, to name a few. It could be argued that this model should be the core of any standard, as it’s impossible to standardize what you have yet to fully understand.

A line of people sitting at a long table engaging in a meeting.
The VSAP Technical Advisory Committee engaging in design assessments of the proposed voting system. — Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk

Transition

As VSAP enters the final stage of the project, there are still challenges that lie ahead, but VSAP—embodied by the infinitely talented team at the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, the TAC, and the teams at IDEO and Digital Foundry—is more than capable to take on any obstacle. My hope is other states and jurisdictions see these three facets of the VSAP project at tenets to adopt.

It’s been humbling and an honor to serve as a member of the TAC. I’m excited to see where the journey leads and how it positively impacts the elections community.