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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Comments by Diane Golden on the VVSG 2.0

August 15, 2017

By Diane Golden, Director of Programs and Technical Assistance, Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs

The version of the Principles and Guidelines that the Board of Advisors is reviewing today seems to be a version from a month or so ago and there have been significant consensus changes to much of the usability and accessibility text. What I believe to be the real final version has good accessibility principles and guidelines that will do a good job of ensuring accessibility provided they have the right Technical Requirements and Test Assertions under them and test labs who actually know what they are doing when they review voting systems for conformance to the requirements and test assertions.

And as always, the major issue continues to be the conflict between security and accessibility. Specifically the following Principles and associated Guidelines address accessibility. (Again these are from what I understand to be the actual final version).

Principle: Voters can mark, verify and cast their ballot privately and independently. This includes Guideline: Voters can mark, verify, and cast their ballot without assistance – which ensures independently is correctly interpreted.

Principle: Ballots are presented in a clear, understandable way and can be marked, verified and cast by all voters.

Principle: The election process and voting system provides a robust, safe, usable and accessible experience for all users.

The chronic problem of course is that under Auditability the Principle is “The voting system is auditable and enables evidence-based elections” and the first Guideline is “An undetected error or fault in the voting system’s software or hardware is not capable of causing an undetectable change in election results.” That is the definition of “software independence” and right now the only way realistically any election jurisdictions has of meeting that guideline is with a paper ballot that obviously creates lots of access barriers.

So while I think we’ve done a good job including the right accessibility Principles and Guidelines I believe the real danger is that those will again be “trumped” by the software independence guideline and the country will move even closer to most all hand-marked paper based voting with one poorly designed and very old ballot marking device in a corner of the polling place. Since there is no mandatory upgrade requirement in the VVSG, the ballot marking devices currently on the market (and currently certified to some version of VVSG even though they really never met those requirements appropriately) could conceivable be used by an election jurisdiction forever while they just keep using hand-marked paper ballots otherwise and only update/upgrade their precinct counters or central counters as needed.

Learning from the ADA there are a some requirements that would be helpful but unfortunately I doubt the EAC will see them as within the scope of the VVSG. One is a requirement for a reasonable number of voting systems with an electronic interface (those will be ballot marking devices if they produce a paper ballot) for a significant number of voters to use. This could be requirement similar to how many accessible parking places a building needs to have based on total number of parking places. Honestly, my guess is that at least half of all voters would prefer to use an electronic interface (some would need the access features and others would just prefer the quicker and more accurate interaction.) But you could start out with one percentage and increase it over time also. Unfortunately, like a mandatory upgrade timeline, I don’t think this is seen as within the scope of the VVSG or EAC authority.

The other requirement that would help is something that would prohibit that any “upgrade” or change in a voting system that decreases accessibility. And/or perhaps a stipulation that if a voting system meets the software independence requirement by using a paper ballot then ALL accessibility requirement MUST be met. You cannot move to or use a paper ballot to meet that requirement without ensuring accessibility. Unfortunately that is exactly what has been happening over the last decade and a half — as voting jurisdictions moved from full electronic interface voting (DRE’s with or without VVPAT) to paper ballots they satisfied the software independence requirement and ignored the accessibility requirements by using whatever the current ballot marking devices offered which was NOT full accessibility.