NCSL’s The Canvass


Image of data file. At election administration conferences, even the most dedicated election officials start to look at their phones when someone mentions the term “common data format,” or CDF. And when it is described as “a conceptual data abstraction for storing, manipulating, and accessing multidimensional data sets,” according to a planning document from the Library of Congress, eyes glaze over and, soon, the room empties.

Still, CDFs are important to election officials, elected officials and Democracy writ large. Here are the what, the who and the why of this arcane topic, without the techspeak.

1920's lever machine

What? In terms of elections, think back to refrigerator-sized lever machines used for voting last century.  These newfangled devices were the cat’s meow in 1920. They were mechanical, not electronic, and they did just one thing: record votes. Each was a solo operator and there was no thought of connecting them to anything else. They tabulated votes much like an odometer on a car and then a human retrieved the data by physically going to each machine and writing the accumulated results down on paper. That paper was probably hand-carried to the county seat, where those numbers were hand-entered into an adding machine.

The elections world, as everywhere else, has become more data-heavy and more device-driven. Gone are those lever machines. Now, a suite of voting technology includes not only the equipment where ballots are cast and tabulated, but also voter registration databases, ballot design software, electronic poll books, ballot-on-demand printers, ballot marking devices, and who knows what else in the coming years?

Different devices made by different manufacturers and used for different purposes all speak different languages. It’s akin to a United Nations without a translation service.

Common Data Formats for elections tech would go beyond a translation service. Instead, with CDFs, all devices would use the same parameters right from the get-go, with the goals of decreasing effort and increasing accuracy and speed. 

Who? CDFs for various aspects of the election process are being developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) with the help of public working groups. The working groups consist of state and local election officials and their staff, voting equipment manufacturers, and election experts from all over the country. Anyone can get involved—see NIST’S Voting System Interoperability Working Group page for information and for joining.

Why? Why does CDF matter for election officials, or for state legislators? For starters, efficiency.

The first CDF to be completed, in 2015, was a specification for election night reporting, arguably the most important part of election processes from an elected official’s standpoint because these systems deliver the news to election night watch parties. Election night reporting systems are basically webpages fed by election officials and used by the media and others to track election results. These systems are often managed at the state level, but the information is provided by dozens of local jurisdictions.

Without a CDF, these local jurisdictions often have to export results from their systems and translate them with software (or perhaps manually) before uploading the data. It’s not uncommon to have results typed out again—a process that introduces the potential for typos and stretches the wait for those watching the television. Having a CDF would allow results to be automatically downloaded from local jurisdictions and uploaded into statewide reporting systems, with no intermediate step. It would speed up results and reduce errors, which means that candidates, the media and the public get to see results faster and in a more accurate and uniform way.

Ohio integrated the use of NIST’s CDF in its election night reporting system in 2015 and found that both local and national media have relied on the system heavily. Results were refreshed every three to five minutes, giving close to real-time results as the night progressed. In November 2016, North Carolina used the election results CDF developed by NIST to send information to Google, which was then able to put it into a one-box Google search result (the highlighted first item to show up on a Google search) to reach a greater number of people.

Using a CDF reduces the administrative burden on local election officials—a huge boon. By avoiding manually entering or translating data for result reporting, their busiest night of the year gets better.  

And, because CDF makes data available in an accessible format, those who like to slice and dice election information love CDF. That includes the media, politicos and academics who thrive on consistent data across state lines.

Legislative staff may be enthusiasts too, in that the more data they can access, the better their research. If the question is, when do voters use early voting, CDF can make data automatically available about which days and hours voters show up. Then, legislators who might be thinking of altering early voting hours, have solid information to stand on.

Why else? If CDF gets a foothold, it has the potential to open up the market for election equipment. If every voting equipment vendor uses a different data format, it discourages competition. A recent study, The Business of Voting, looked at “what has prevented the election technology industry from enjoying the robust level of innovation seen in other technology sectors.” It contains a discussion of CDFs as a possible way for election officials to “acquire components that have been independently designed, implemented, and tested, allowing them to be integrated with other components into a complete voting system component set. Modularity and standards-based interoperability can create conditions for a larger set of more competitive players in the election technology market, with an expanded set of roles.”

For now, a jurisdiction that uses a certain vendor for one thing may choose to use that same vendor for everything else to avoid having to deal with translating data to a different vendor’s format. If there is a CDF, administrators can more easily integrate equipment from multiple vendors, or use commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products rather than proprietary equipment only available from election system vendors.

What’s next? The NIST working groups continue to discuss the development of CDFs for other aspects of the election process. The Election Night Reporting CDF, version one, is being used and tested by various states; results will inform version two, which is in the works. A CDF for Election Log Exports and Cast Vote Records should be published soon. And a CDF for Voter Records Interchange is currently being reviewed by voter registration database vendors. When this is complete, it would facilitate a more efficient sharing of data between statewide voter registration databases, online voter registration systems, agencies that assist with voter registration, and interstate crosschecks of voter data.

While NIST is busy developing more CDFs, states can do their part to encourage the use of them. As states look at replacing aging voting equipment, they can include in any RFPs for new equipment or new voter registration systems requirements, a requirement that proposals include the use of any and all CDFs that are published. 

Online Resources From NCSL's Legislative Summit

The NCSL Legislative Summit logo: boston skylineIn case you missed NCSL’s annual shindig in Boston, where legislators, secretaries of state, election administrators, academics and others shared their expertise on elections, below are the highlights relating to elections. Links to all session notes, presentations and handouts for the entire program are here (if you don’t see what you’re looking for, just ask).

International panelists on stage. International Perspectives on Elections Systems. Speakers Angela Freimuth (State Parliament, Germany), Mathieu Lemay (National Assembly, Quebec) and Emilio Rabasa (Consulate of Mexico) provided a “compare and contrast” session on how their respective countries run elections. For example, on the subject of voter ID, we learned that Mexico has an “electoral credential,” or a federally issued voting card, whereas Canada accepts any card with a name, photo and current address (and if that’s not available, a friend or neighbor can attest to your address). Germany will allow you to vote with a passport or identity card, although voting is still possible in the absence of either. Other topics covered: how to get registered and where to vote. On that last front, Germany uses pubs. See images from around the world of people voting.

Jennifer Jackson, Wayne Williams and Tom Hicks discussing elections policy at the SummitWhat’s Cooking in the States in Terms of Elections Policy? Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, Commissioner Tom Hicks from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), and Jennifer Jackson, nonpartisan staff for the Texas Legislature, discussed where states are on several key election policies, such as voter ID. Not surprisingly, Williams is proud of Colorado’s efforts to boost voter registration and keep the rolls clean. He believes his state’s slick online and phone-friendly registration system contributed to the state’s No. 4 ranking for turnout during the 2016 presidential election. We also learned more about resources for states housed by the EAC, including information on elections infrastructure and cybersecurity as well as working to ensure access to all voters, including those with disabilities. The Braille voting rights card was a hit. See these slides for a few key facts.

Charles Stewart presenting at NCSL's Summit. Data Delivers for Elections. Charles Stewart III, from MIT, was our keynote speaker. His visually interesting presentation outlined what we know about how people vote (early, on Election Day or by mail or absentee ballots), why a hefty portion of the electorate don’t vote, and problems that cropped up at polling places on Election Day, 2016.  

Primary Permutations and Politics. In case you haven’t noticed, primaries are fodder for lawsuits. Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto (D-NM) kicked off the conversation with a rundown on key cases—know these, and you’ll stay out of trouble. Elaine Kamarck from the Brookings Institution shared the history of primaries. If you believe the past is prologue, her insights illuminated the current state of play on when primaries are held and who gets to vote in them. John Opdycke, from Open Primaries, made the case for letting more people participate in primaries. Representative Mark Pody (R-TN) made the case that members of parties should be the deciders, not outsiders. Dr. Charles Bullock from the University of Georgia shared his recent research on the effect primary runoffs have on runoff success rates, incumbent legislator re-nomination rates, and changes in turnout between primaries and primary runoffs. We've captured some thoughts about primaries here.

Voter Confidence. Moderator David Becker, from the Center for Election Innovation & Research, outlined current issues surrounding voter confidence in the US. Tennessee’s Secretary of State Tre Hargett, Election Assistance Commissioner Christy McCormick, and Robby Mook from Harvard’s new Defending Digital Democracy program, attested to tangible solutions such as clean voter rolls, secure ballots, and post-election audits that can help to ensure elections run reliably and instill confidence in voters. The takeaway from Mook: we need to rank order our election problems; right now we don’t have the requisites to defend against cyber intrusions — and this problem is growing every day. 

Summit sessions also covered redistricting (including a session on how Supreme Court cases will impact states' redistricting efforts in the 2020 cycle) and how states are preparing for the decennial census. See these and much more here.

Next up: NCSL's Capitol Forum, December 10-13 at the Hotel Del Coronado near San Diego, Calif. Agenda-planning is underway, so if you have a good idea, now’s the time to share it.  

Bookmark This

Image of the cover of the US Election Assistance Commission Report, 2016Politico’s recent article on election cybersecurity issues highlights a problem that many in the election sphere have been discussing for some time—the pressure on state and local election officials to secure their systems against increasing cyberthreats, and no new funding to do so. Check out the maps—many were made with NCSL data.

Politico interviewed dozens of state election officials, federal lawmakers, current and former Department of Homeland Security staffers and leading election security experts and found that, “These people agree that digital meddlers threaten the public’s confidence in America’s democratic process. And nearly everyone believes that the danger calls for collective action—from replacing the voting equipment at tens of thousands of polling places to strengthening state voter databases, training election workers and systematically conducting post-election audits.”

There’s the rub, though. Measures to increase security cost money, which so far has not been provided by Congress or most legislatures. Politico’s analysis included a survey of states where election officials requested additional funds for cybersecurity at their election agencies and found that only six states received additional funds (or expect to in the near future).

Though many interviewees thought it would be nice to receive federal funding to help replace aging equipment or improve cybersecurity, others were in favor of leaving it up to states to devise a solution. Most states surveyed in the article had not received funding from state coffers, and only about one-fifth have a funding plan in place to replace aging voting equipment. Most have also used the money provided after the Help America Vote Act in 2002. See the handy graphic in the article to see where your state lies.

Politico also discussed the diffused nature of US elections, and that there are multiple ways (or vectors, to use hacker-speak) for bad actors to impact the voting system. While links from state and local election offices could be one way, the article also contains links to other Politico articles discussing vulnerabilities for political parties or organizations, third-party political advocacy groups, voter registration databases, online voting and voting machines.

The article’s wide coverage of many important and of-the-moment issues makes it worth a read and a bookmark!

From the Chair

Image of Representative Mike Foote Representative Mike Foote is chair of Colorado’s House Committee on State, Military and Veterans Affairs, which handles elections bills. He represents parts of Boulder County. He was first elected in 2012.

The Canvass spoke with Representative Foote on Sept. 11.

Q: What have you learned since delving deeply into elections policy?

I’ve been on the State Affairs Committee since I was elected to the legislature, and was selected to be chair in my fifth session. The main thing I’ve learned about election legislation is how complicated it is. When you’re trying to look at one angle of the law it always brings up other issues.

Q: How do you approach your work on elections?

My main concern is to make sure as many people are voting as possible. We have a good system in Colorado, especially after the 2013 reforms moving the state to all-mail ballot elections. Colorado has some of the best voter turnout in the country, and I’d like to make sure that continues.

Q: What’s next for you and the committee?

There’s certainly nothing as big as the 2013 reforms on the horizon. But there are things that come up through Colorado’s robust initiative system. For example, in 2016 there was a voter-approved ballot initiative to permit unaffiliated voters to vote in party primaries. The committee spent time this year trying to implement what voters had passed. There are a number of potential ballot measures on redistricting and reapportionment that may appear next year, so the committee may need to work on bills prior to that to head off the ballot measures, or to implement them if they pass. Going into a new legislative session there are always some surprises in what voters approve via ballot measures, and what to do in response.

Q: Do you work with your local election officials?

Definitely. The county clerks are outstanding. They do a good job in their counties and give invaluable technical advice on potential legislation. I try to work with county clerks as much as possible.

Q: Anything else you think your peers in other states might find interesting?

Colorado is very proud of the 2013 reforms establishing all-mail ballot elections. There was some opposition to the idea in 2013 amid concerns that there would be potential voter fraud in mail ballot elections. But now there have been two General Elections and two off-year elections, we’ve found all-mail ballot elections to be a good way to increase voter participation, and have not seen an increase in instances of voter fraud at all. Elections have stayed safe and secure.

I think that voting by mail is something that other states should consider. If they do, they should look at the states that have already implemented it for guidance, and talk to state and local election officials about how they’ve implemented it. 

The Elections Administrator's Perspective

Headshot of Brian Sleeth

Brian Sleeth is the director of elections for Warren County, Ohio. He and his staff take care of 148,000 registered voters. With tourism as the leading economic sector, Warren County is known as Ohio’s Largest Playground.

The Canvass spoke with Mr. Sleeth in August.

Q: How did you get into the business of elections?

A: I started almost 10 years ago at the bottom and worked my way up. I like my job. It’s the adrenalin rush on Election Day, and I like dealing with the public.

Q: What are the issues your county faces?

A: A lot of candidates run unopposed, usually in the smaller townships and villages. It’s more interesting on our end when there is at least competition. For my own job, it makes it all worthwhile.

Q: Does “voter confidence” or “election security” come up for you now more than previously?

A: Definitely. During the last presidential election we coordinated for the first time with all police agencies. They did routine drive-bys of all polling stations to make their presence known. It worked out well, and with 72 polling locations we had no problems at all. We get cybersecurity reports from the FBI and we coordinate with the county’s IT department to safeguard our firewalls. We’ve had no problems so far, except that a squirrel chewed through a transformer and power went out in our office on Election Day for an hour.

Q: What do you wish legislators knew about your work?

A: Funding is the big thing. The state is trying to purchase new voting machines. The Help America Vote Act helped buy the current machines in 2005, and I wish legislators had a better understanding of the need to replace that voting equipment now. We in Warren County started an elections revenue fund four years ago, to save up money from year to year. We charge to run elections for political divisions, and rather than just returning that money to county general funds, it goes into the elections revenue fund.

Q: Do you have a wish list for legislators?

A: It is really hard to find polling locations. We really want schools to be closed for Election Day statewide so we can use them. We’ve been asked to leave schools for security concerns. Polling places have to be ADA compliant. We use government buildings where possible, and school gymnasiums and sometimes we pay rental fees for private buildings. And, we have online voter registration which was enacted last year and started this year. We would like to see some type of ongoing request system for absentee voters. We are asked by voters every election for absentee ballots by a paper form, and this would be more user-friendly. If online voter registration is secure, then that should open the door to other things.

Worth Noting

You ain't from around here, are you? New Hampshire passed legislation this year requiring aspiring Granite State voters to demonstrate their intent to make New Hampshire their domicile within 30 days of relocating to the state. State Democratic lawmakers sued in late August to block the law from going into effect, claiming it would suppress minority turnout and is unnecessary. 

Virginia decides against DRE voting machines. Only two month’s out from its gubernatorial and legislative elections, Virginia’s Board of Elections voted unanimously to decertify its electronic touchscreen voting machines. This move was based on uncertainties about potential hacking and manipulation—the machines do not have a paper ballot or paper trail. The decertified machines were successfully hacked at the DefCon hacking conference. 

Automatic voter registration marches onward. Late last month, Illinois became the 9th state (plus the District of Columbia) to enact a form of automatic voter registration when the governor signed SB 1933, which passed with bipartisan support. While the new system will be implemented in stages, the majority of its provisions will be in place prior to the 2018 elections. 

Bombs, bullets, ballots? Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN.) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have introduced a bipartisan amendment to the Senate's defense authorization bill that would set aside money for "election technology improvement grants." It has received bipartisan praise from security experts, although some commentators suggest the measure falls short of tackling the problem of election cybersecurity. 

Breached defenses. A bombshell report by The New York Times on Sept. 1 claims that hackers linked to the Russian government infiltrated voter roll software in several states, to a far greater extent than had previously been reported. There is still no indication that the actual voter rolls themselves were altered prior to or on Election Day 2016. 

"Cash-strapped' States Brace for Russian Hacking Fight." That’s the attention-grabbing headline for a Politico story that describes state efforts to replace elections equipment. NCSL data were used throughout.

Cloudy forecast for election security. The Chicago Tribune reported in late August that information on 1.8 million Chicago voters was publicly available on the cloud for an unknown period of time. It was only discovered that the information was searchable when a researcher stumbled on the data while browsing Amazon's cloud-storage service. The data has since been removed, and it is unknown if other voter information has been compromised. 

Verified Voting’s news. Where do you get your news? Electionline, the Election Academy and the Election Law Blog are all excellent. If you can add a fourth, choose the news feed from Verified Voting.

From NCSL'S Elections Team

A graphic that reads "From NCSL Elections Team"The census isn’t usually a concern of The Canvass. Using editor’s privilege, I’ll mention that it was the star of NCSL’s Summit (from my point of view). I learned that the top 16 federal programs that are divvied up in accordance with census data account for $589 billion in distributions to the 50 states and District of Columbia. Government officials can do a lot to encourage a complete count, which pays back with those funds. States and local governments, for instance, can take part in the “Local Update of Census Addresses” (LUCA) program to make sure everyone is counted. Coming soon: a blog post series covering all things census.

Now, back to elections. Keep your questions coming.

—Wendy Underhill