Help America Vote Act Testimony

Presented to the California Help America Vote Act (HAVA) Advisory Board,
By Kim Alexander, President & Founder
of the California Voter Foundation

May 15, 2003

The California Voter Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan
organization dedicated to applying and promoting the responsible use of technology to improve the democratic process.

We are engaged in several issues that are relevant to the
implementation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in California: voter education, voting technology and voter privacy.

I. Voter Education

The California Voter Foundation (CVF) has been educating California voters via the Internet since 1994. Our web site,, provides reliable, nonpartisan information about California elections and politics, and is visited hundreds of thousands of times every year. Voters value nonpartisan election information, especially when it comes from government agencies. Research by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has found that voters value information from the government sector far more than the information they receive from campaigns, the media and nonprofit organizations.

PPIC research has also found that more than half of California's voters think voters are not receiving enough information to decide how to vote on citizen initiatives.

One particularly valuable source of election information is the
Secretary of State's Cal-Access campaign finance database. Through online disclosure of money in politics, voters can find out who is funding campaigns. But few counties have placed their local campaign finance data online, and researching data at the state level could be made much more user-friendly. Creating and maintaining informative and easy-to-use web sites takes dedicated resources. But government agencies typically have minimal resources available to dedicate to voter education projects of any kind. The California Voter Foundation urges you to dedicate some HAVA funds to improve voter education in California.

II. Voting Technology

It would be a shame if all the HAVA funds are taken up with the purchase of expensive new voting equipment, especially when a growing number of people are questioning the wisdom of deploying hundreds of thousands of new paperless, 100 percent computerized voting systems run on secret software. CVF has been engaged in voting technology issues over the past four years; currently I am serving as a member of the Secretary of State's Ad Hoc Touch Screen Voting Task Force.

It is the position of the California Voter Foundation that any voting system that does not require a voter to directly mark on the ballot must still create a verifiable audit trail of each ballot cast that can be viewed by the voter at the time the ballot is cast; given today's technology the only practical voter-verifiable audit trail is a paper ballot image.

Voting system stakeholders -- voters, candidates and political
parties -- must believe the voting system is secure and accurate if they are to have confidence in election outcomes. A fundamental component of voting system security is the ability to conduct a reliable audit of the election.

If election security is to be accepted by a wide variety of
stakeholders and the public is to maintain its confidence in
elections, then the audit process needs to be a reliable method that is widely understood. The most well-known and tested method for meeting these criteria is a paper-based audit system. Currently, paper is the most widely used and understood medium for protecting valuable documents and verifying important transactions, such as those dealing with money, property and legal matters. If the permanent ballot record exists in an electronic, rather than paper format, the electronic record can be easily altered after it has been cast and therefore is not permanent. No audit medium is tamper-proof, but a paper audit trail is more permanent and transparent than a digital audit trail that depends on software not readily apparent or understandable to stakeholders, particularly voters.

A voter's ballot is one of the most important documents that exists in a free society. To entrust this document to an entirely
computerized system run on secret software with no paper audit trail is to ask voters, candidates (winners and losers alike) and parties to exercise blind trust in the voting system.

The prudent thing to do while vendors improve their technology to provide an audit function is to limit the deployment of electronic voting machines to one per polling place to comply with the HAVA and state disability access requirements, and retain paper-based systems for other polling place voters and for absentee voters. This would be a far less expensive, more reliable and secure solution.

If we allow widespread deployment of touchscreens now, it will only be a matter of time before large numbers of voters lose confidence in the voting process. To minimize these losses, we must act now to ensure that we spend HAVA and state funds on voting equipment capable of producing a voter-verified paper audit trail. Otherwise we stand to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on equipment that voters will inevitably find to be insufficient.

III. Voter Privacy

HAVA requires all states to create and maintain standardized
statewide voter databases. It also imposes new identification requirements on first time voters, and mandates that states collect either voters' drivers licenses or the last four digits of their Social Security Number to use for voter identification purposes, thus requiring voters to provide even more sensitive data about themselves when they register to vote than they already do now. Though HAVA requires greater voter data gathering and centralization, the act does not mandate any new voter data protections

We have 15 million registered voters in California, and another 6.5 million Californians who are eligible to vote but not registered. Why? One barrier to voter registration may be the registration form itself. The California Voter Foundation has been conducting a nationwide, state-by-state survey for the past year examining voter registration data gathering and dissemination practices. Our report, " Voter Privacy in the Digital Age", will be released later this year.

From our research thus far, we've learned that a lot of data is being gathered on forms, much of it optional, with barely any notice to voters that this data is public record and will be made available to campaigns and other secondary users.

In recent years, campaigns have made a true art out of "voter
profiling", enhancing voter registration data with even more data that allows them to precisely target voters. The end result is voicemail spam and piles of mail for some voters while those less likely to turn out are never courted by campaigns at all. I believe voter profiling is having a chilling effect on voter participation. And, I suspect many people are not registering to vote because they are intimidated by the form -- particularly immigrant voters, many of whom come from countries whose governments aren't as trustworthy as ours.

The California Voter Foundation is not advocating outlawing voter profiling, but we do believe the government should be honest with voters about what happens to their data when they register to vote.

California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley authored an important voter privacy bill last year when he was a legislator that requires additional notice on California voter registration forms warning that commercial use of voter registration data is a misdemeanor. This is a step in the right direction, but we need to do more. We should add notice language to the forms stating that voter information is public record. We should provide notice stating that campaigns, scholars and the media have access to voter data.

We should clearly explain which fields on the form are optional and which ones are required. California's form used to designate optional fields within the fields themselves. It now designates optional fields in the instructions, sometimes with confusing language, such as: "No person shall be denied the right to register because of his or her failure to furnish a California driver's license or California identification card number. (Optional)." A similar notice for providing e-mail address is also included in the instructions. The two other optional fields on the California form, gender and phone number, have no similar notice accompanying their written instructions.

We need to better protect sensitive voter data and ensure that
personal information that can be used to harm voters is not publicly released. For example, several states disseminate a voter's birth year but not their entire birth date, thus enabling secondary users to determine voters' ages without providing information that can be useful for identity theft. We also need to develop better security procedures that insulate voter data from negligence, employee abuse and hackers. Strengthening and enforcing laws that prohibit commercial use and redistribution of data by secondary users would also help protect voter data.

Campaigns and parties that routinely share voter data flagrantly violate state law prohibiting redistribution of voter data without permission from the responsible government agency. We should also consider applying the Federal Trade Commission's "Fair Information Practices" principles to voter data: Notice, Choice, Access and Security. I've discussed Notice and Security already. The Choice principle enables a person to exercise a right to approve or withhold the secondary usage of personal information. The Access principle gives individuals the opportunity to have reasonable and appropriate access to information held about them, as well as a chance to amend or correct that information.

The Help America Vote Act is well-intentioned but the consequences of many of its provisions may take us in directions that ultimately suppress, rather than increase voter turnout. Through thoughtful consideration and careful implementation of these new federal requirements, California can ensure HAVA is implemented in our state in a manner that truly encourages voter participation.

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This page was first published on May 18, 2003 | Last updated on May 18, 2003
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