A call for electronic election data standards

Political scientist: Risk is not hackers but out-of-date records.

With the election looming, a question remains whether federal standards for the electronic registration databases are maintained well enough to keep voters from getting purged from the rolls, reports Technology Review

According to Thad Hall, a political scientist at the University of Utah and an elections expert, the greatest risk to voting is not someone hacking into an electronic voting machine but whether a voter is on the books at all. In a report for the IBM Center for Business and Government, Hall wrote that voter registration databases are difficult to maintain because there are no electronic standards for creating them. Election officials can't compare their databases with motor-vehicle registries and prison records much less other states' elections records.

Hall, coauthor of Point, Click, and Vote: The Future of Internet Voting feels that the federal government ought to develop guidelines that would allow it to enforce electronic elections standards.

In an interview with TR, Hall calls for electronic data standards for elections.

A number of people registered to vote in California, for example, are considered to be inactive, likely because they've moved to another state. California has a very high mobility rate. You want the ability for two states to match records so they can keep their databases up to date. You can't do these matches very easily, because it's difficult to match their names. You want to match on a number of factors, but if you don't have a common format for how to handle simple things like names and addresses, it becomes very complicated to match people. You have to have a widget to take the data from format A to format B, and that's costly and difficult.

[Lack of standards prevents] interoperability of voting systems. Imagine you're a county elections official and you want to buy a voting system. You like the machines that one company has, but you don't like their tabulation or ballot-design software. And another company has terrible machines but they have great software. As an election official you can't mix and match those, there's no plug-and-play. It would be like if you couldn't buy a Dell computer with an HP printer--you'd have to buy a Dell computer and a Dell printer, or an HP computer and an HP printer. Because these things are proprietary and they don't have interoperability, it puts election officials in a position of being very dependent upon vendors. You don't want election officials to be totally at the mercy of vendors.

The problem that you run into about any kind of federal standards is that the Help America Vote Act explicitly does not give the Election Assistance Commission [the four-year-old national clearinghouse for federal elections] the power to enforce federal standards. Any standard could be made voluntary by the commission, but for it to have any force of law it'd have to be enacted by Congress, and I don't think they're going to open that can of worms any time soon.

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