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National Issues

U.S. Elections -- It Takes a Village PDF Print Email
By Kim Zetter   
November 15, 2008
This article was posted to Wired.com's Threat Level Blog and is reposted here with permission of the author.

For years the U.S. has been sending observers oversees to monitor foreign election processes and help assure that democratic principles are followed abroad.

But given the problematic elections that took place at home in 2000 in Florida and in 2004 in Ohio, it has seemed the height of irony to send poll watchers abroad when the entity that seemed most in need of an army of observers was the U.S. election system itself.

This year the country got exactly that in the form of a national hotline staffed with thousands of volunteer legal experts and poll watchers who answered questions, advocated voter rights and documented how the world's leading democracy functioned or malfunctioned on November 4th, accomplishing something that no government entity seemed either interested or capable of doing before now.

The Election Protection Coalition, a network of more than 100 legal, voting rights and civil liberties groups was the force behind the 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline, which provided legal experts to answer nearly 87,000 calls that came in over 750 phone lines on Election Day and dispatched experts to address problems in the field as they arose.

All of this was aided by a back-end system and web site, OurVoteLive, created and operated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which logged calls that came in to the hotline and displayed problem reports in near real time for the media and watchdog groups to observe. It was largely due to this hotline that the public learned about Election-Day problems in Florida, Virginia and elsewhere, and the site now offers the largest database of records documenting election problems and inquiries in the country. The database can be downloaded in its entirety or in report form from the search reports page.

The idea for a real-time monitoring system was launched in 2004 when Verified Voting, spurred by the 2000 election meltdown in Florida, built an open-source system and coordinated with the Election Protection Coalition to track reports that were coming in from the field about election-day problems that year.


In 2006, the Election Protection Coalition decided it wanted more control over how the system worked and hired a consulting firm to design a new one, but the functionality of that system was also limited and, within an hour or so of the polls opening on Election Day, was experiencing problems.

Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, saw an opportunity for his organization to provide a real-time service in 2008 that would expand on those efforts and serve not only voters, volunteers, and Election Protection's legal experts but also the media, academics and others looking to document areas that needed election reform.

"In previous iterations of this stuff, it had all been done on paper and all this stuff ended up in desk drawers and was never looked at," said Zimmerman, who also leads EFF's e-voting litigation efforts. "We thought that seemed to be a bad idea."

Zimmerman began work on the project in earnest in late 2007 when Tim Jones joined EFF as its activism and technology manager. Jones had been part of the internet team for the Howard Dean campaign in 2003 and the two went to work on the project with another EFF staff member and an outside contractor.

Their initial aim was to have a beta system ready for the Super Tuesday primary elections last February. They met the goal with a scaled-down version of the system that had no public interface, just a backend network for operators to take calls. The system handled about 5,500 calls over the entire primary season.

For the general election, they added two more people to the team and more ambitious aims.

They wanted a back-end, nonpublic system with fields for collecting contact information from callers and for flagging calls that needed immediate attention and follow-up. They also wanted to give hot line operators the ability to quickly provide voters with practical information they were having trouble finding on their own, such as their polling location, information about their voter registration status and legal guidance for common questions, such as what do do if a poll opened early or closed late. Over half the 87,000 calls that came in to the hotline were from voters seeking information rather than reporting complaints.

But just as important, for transparency purposes, they wanted a public interface with strong data-analysis capability, such as the ability to filter and search data and download spreadsheets.

Surprisingly, it all seemed to work. On Election Day, operators from about two dozen call centers around the country tapped into the system throughout the day.

They dispensed information and advice, dispatched legal experts to polling places and in general gave voters a sense that someone was awake at the wheel monitoring a system that had long been neglected by the federal government and, in some cases, state and county election officials.

As reports came in, they were logged to a central database then posted to the OurVoteLive web site in a scrolling ticker-tape widget and dispensed through RSS feeds.

Visitors could search the database for calls based on state, the date of the report, the type of problem reported or keywords, gathering all reports, for example, on voter intimidation incidents in Indiana or machine malfunctions in Virginia.

The system allowed Election Protection to quickly see where hotspots were forming while there was still time to address them.

In Virginia, for example, where machines were failing in the early morning hours, Election Protection dispatched lawyers to urge election officials to provide emergency paper ballots to voters and to address long lines that were forming.

The one problem spot was the OurVoteLive web site, which received more traffic than anticipated. More than 60,000 visited the site on November 4th and by mid-day, the system was overwhelmed with traffic, causing the backend network that phone operators were using to slow to a crawl.

"With most web sites or web applications you can launch it and see how it holds up and adjust it accordingly," Jones said. "But we had such a compressed time period. There was effectively 10 to 12 hours where all the traffic it was going to get over the course of the entire project was going to hit it all at once. It was just hard to predict what was going to happen. We still think it did a far sight better than any previous iteration of the project. But it definitely left some room for improvement."

The site was running on two servers so to address the traffic issues, EFF added two more servers and temporarily disabled the search function on the public interface to lighten the load. Zimmerman said they were able to respond to the problem pretty quickly and restore the site to a normal speed within 20 minutes.

Both Jones and Zimmerman said they were proud of the way the system worked but saw areas where it could be improved next time.

They'd like to find ways to "slice and dice" the data more robustly and display in maps, time graphs and pie charts. They also want a comprehensive back-end management system that allows call centers operators to send text messages instantly to volunteers on the ground to address problems in the field. The current system allowed volunteers to leave notes for someone to follow-up on a report, but required volunteers to periodically check the database for flagged reports.

Zimmerman said the fact that volunteers had to do the kind of monitoring that normally the government should be doing was a bit frustrating, but he said he was glad that EFF was able to contribute in the way that it did.

"There's no government entity that has really made a commitment to reviewing this stuff in a comprehensive way," he told Threat Level. "There's a lot of emphasis trying to defend government entities' actions and saying everything is working out okay. So in that sense I think it is important to have a third party or an independent, nonpartisan voice or some kind of coalition that's doing some kind of election monitoring.

"I don't see this as a bad thing that we have to do. I think it's a necessary thing. And I'm glad we were able to make a pretty strong contribution to that effort this time."

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