New NCSL Canvass Looks at Common Data Format for Elections

[Image via NCSL]

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL)’s new election newsletter, The Canvass, is out and it has a great primer on new election common data formats – a topic that it admits can make peoples’ “eyes glaze over” but one that has tremendous promise for the future of election administration in the United States:

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.

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. 

Whether or not you know, in any level of detail, what’s in the new CDF or how exactly they work, it’s crucial to understand how they are helping to streamline election administration both within and across jurisdictions – and why they’re such an important part of nation standards efforts going forward. Thanks to Wendy Underhill and the whole NCSL Elections team for sharing this piece – it will be exciting to see how CDFs become less intimidating and more widely adopted in the months and years to come! Stay tuned …

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