An IEEE Standards Group Wants All Election Computer Systems To Speak The Same Language

Whether you vote Tuesday on a touch-screen voting machine or use a paper ballot, a host of computer systems are making it possible to collect and count your vote. These systems maintain registration databases, manage the information that goes on ballots and enable them to be printed, scan paper ballots, capture votes electronically, and collect and count scanned and electronic votes. And, for the most part, these different pieces of technology that together make up the U.S. voting process are made by a wide variety of vendors and handle data in diverse ways.

“In any one state, it could be a hodgepodge,” says John Wack, manager of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) common data format project and Vice Chair of IEEE Standards Project 1622 (more on that project in a moment).

“Because there is no common data format,” Wack says, “a state may have databases exporting in one format, being input by systems in another format, and exporting again in yet another format. A lot of proprietary software is being written in individual states to get these systems to talk to each other.”

IEEE Standards Project 1622 is working on electronic data interchange for voting systems. The plan is to create a common format, based on the Election Markup Language (EML) already recommended for use in Europe. This is a subset of the popular XML (eXtensible Markup Language) that specifies particular fields and data structures for use in voting.

The IEEE effort first started back in 2002, stalled, and then got going again in February of 2011. In January this year, the group published a standard for electronic distribution of blank ballots, and now is readying a draft of a standard for election results reporting.

“Election results reporting is very complicated,” Wack explained. “States look at how many ballots are cast, how many were overvotes [voting twice in a single contest], how many were undervotes [failing to vote on a specific contest], how many were cast absentee—they don’t just look at the winners. We are giving them a format that should ease life for them.”

Why is getting this standard adopted important? Wack says not having a standard format means it’s tough for states to switch voting systems vendors, and it’s tough for smaller companies to break into the market. The lack of a standard also slows the adaption of new innovations, such as online blank ballot distribution systems now being tested in several states, and use of iPads, being tested in Oregon.

“People developing these kinds of new technologies want a format for the ballot data; they’d rather not have to invent one,” Wack says.

While the standard is not complete, it will be introduced this year in one region of the country. “The D.C. Board of Elections was contacted by technologists at the Washington Post, who were looking for a way of simplifying the collection of election results from the various jurisdictions on which it reports,” said Paul Stenbjorn, the board's chief technology officer. Working with colleagues in Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia, Stenbjorn settled on the same subset of the European EML being developed into the IEEE 1622 standard, and will use it to deliver election results in real time where possible on Tuesday evening.

Diagram: IEEE Project 1622 lays out the scope of its effort to create a CDF—Common Data Format—for election systems.

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