ElectionlineWeekly’s Exit Interview with Verified Voting’s Pam Smith

[Image via votingnews]

It’s undeniable that June 2017 has been more intense than most “off-year” months in the election world. While most of that is definitely due to the rush of headlines in recent weeks, it’s also due to a series of key departures from the field by familiar faces well-known to many. The latest of these is Pam Smith of the Verified Voting Foundation, who stepped down at the end of June after 13 years with the organization including 10 years as President. She sat down this week with Mindy Moretti of electionlineWeekly for the latest in a series of “exit interviews”:

You are leaving the field at an interesting time, to say the least, why now?

Why, is something going on? Just kidding. Actually, I hope I’m not leaving altogether. I started out as an advocate before I came to Verified Voting, and I’ll likely stay one. And as anyone knows who works in elections, once it’s in you, you can’t ever really let it go!

But your point is a good one. Enormous progress has been made in moving toward getting the tools in place that enable officials around the country to demonstrate the correctness of election outcomes.

The work isn’t done yet. But what’s different today from when I started is that on major networks, in op-ed columns, in legislatures and around the coffee table, there’s awareness that we need to take steps to ensure our election systems are reliable. People are saying it out loud. It feels like the effort has a full head of steam now, and that was always one of my goals.

You didn’t start your career in the elections industry, so what not only attracted you to it, but drove you to become a leading figure in elections?

It’s true! I sort of came in the side door. My background included some policy analysis, some marketing, some understanding of technology–not as a technologist myself, but as an observer of how that gets translated to the lay audience. And I had been an election observer.

As any election geek will tell you, there is something so compelling, even moving, when you see individuals coming together to be heard, to stand up and be counted in this way. Elections show how democracy is both powerful and fragile. I found myself wanting to make sure that voters’ efforts would not be failed by shortcomings in the technology or processes, but rather honored, so they keep coming back. It’s an incredibly challenging and complex issue, which is always exciting to work on.

A lot has been made recently of the security of our elections system, do you believe it’s secure? If so why, If not, why not?

This isn’t a yes/no question, so much as a “where are we on the spectrum” question. Saying “this system is totally secure” is, in the security world, kind of an invitation to breach it, and most would agree there’s no such thing as “entirely secure”. There’s a lot of pressure on officials to know more, to be expert in such a cross-section of disciplines, and now cyber security has been thrown into that mix.  For some of the high-tech nature of the problem, though, there’s a fairly low-tech solution.

In many parts of the country, we have the necessary tools to conduct post-election audits of the votes to provide authoritative confirmation that the outcome was correct, even if an attempt was made to tamper or modify the software that captures and counts the votes, even if the software failed. And in some parts of the country, good audits of those ballots are being done regularly. But we don’t have that everywhere just yet, and won’t until jurisdictions can obtain recountable, auditable systems, and are doing audits everywhere. So there’s more to be done, but we are on the right track.

If you had one piece of advice to offer to elections officials, what would it be?

Keep reaching out. I’ve been blessed to work with brilliant and dedicated election officials who push to know more every day and who bring in a broad cross-section of stakeholders to help them in that effort. Let your stakeholders know what you need, and we can go to bat for you for funding or other resources. There are real living examples of this kind of effort in the state where I vote, California, with efforts like the Los Angeles County VSAP project and the Future of California Elections network, for example. It would be great to see that happen in every state.

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment in the elections industry and why?

I hope that it is building bridges. I’ve always felt that for advocates, technologists, election officials, lawmakers, et al. — finding the common ground and working from there would be the most expedient way to ensure lasting changes with the greatest buy-in from everyone involved. It’s what I’ve tried to do. I’m seeing more of that approach from all sides, so I’m hopeful it will continue.

Do you think we could ever get to the point in this country where we could have Internet voting? [you know we had to ask!]

Le sigh. Seriously, we actually have Internet voting in this country. That’s a big problem because it is most assuredly not ready for prime time. The Internet wasn’t built for security, it was built for open communications. In its current state, it’s fundamentally incompatible with a process that has the kinds of demands and constraints that voting requires: security, time dependency, anonymity, strong authentication, auditability, etc.

At Verified Voting I’ve worked with scientists day in and day out. There’s an assumption in science that you never say never, because someone may figure out something we haven’t thought of yet. But with what we know at present, it’s not feasible.

I think it’s important to note that there are many ways the Internet can be used for good in elections. But if 2016 taught us anything, it’s “don’t connect votes to the Internet”.

If you could create the perfect elections system, what would it look like?

It would look like what’s being designed in Los Angeles, I think. I’m inspired by the efforts of Dana DeBeauvoir in Travis County, Chris Jerdonek for San Francisco, and Dean Logan and his team in Los Angeles, and everyone else who works hard to ensure usability, strong auditability, and transparency in their vision for new voting systems. I anticipate there will be more such efforts in the near future.

What’s next for you?

I’m keeping my options open.

I’ve had many opportunities to work with Pam over the years – both on national issues as well as part of the Future of California Elections – so I’m sorry to see her go but heartened that she hasn’t yet decided what’s next. In a world where election security and technology issues have often seen bitter fights between election officials and advocates, I’ve always found Pam to be someone who is more interested in solving problems than being right. That’s unfortunately rarer than you’d think; hopefully more people on all sides of the issue will embrace that approach as the challenges in this area mount in coming months and years.

On top of that, she’s been fun for me to work with – especially as an enthusiastic promoter of Southern California living and endless source of trendy Etsy shops and doge memes (such wow)  … I’m sorry to see her go but hopeful that the lingering effects of the electiongeek bug will mean she’s back in the field in some capacity very soon.

Thanks to Pam for sharing her time and energies with the field – and thanks as always to Mindy and electionline for the exit interview concept. Take care out there – and stay tuned …

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