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National Issues

What is a Public Mock Election? PDF  | Print |  Email
By Teresa Hommel, Where's The Paper   
July 04, 2006

A Public Mock Election (PME) is a start-to-end election procedure conducted in public with public participation by a State or County Board of Elections. Its purpose is to show that all parts of an election system can work, and that the system is understandable and manageable for people who will use it in real elections. Such people include elections staff who will have responsibility for conducting elections, poll workers, voters, and observers.

 

The legitimacy of elections depends on the ability of multi-partisan observers to witness all important election procedures and vouch for their propriety. The PME enables the Board, representatives of political parties, elected officials, potential candidates, and citizens to evaluate election procedures as they would be conducted with the PME system, and determine whether these procedures allow meaningful and sufficient observation.

 

If questions or doubts arise about the results of real elections conducted with the PME system, will they be able to be settled? Or will the Board be forced to refer questions to the vendor’s technical experts because ordinary non-technical people will be unable to vouch for the propriety of how the votes were recorded, handled, or counted?

 

In jurisdictions with bipartisan election administration, the PME enables bipartisan staff to evaluate pre- and post-election activities and determine whether the PME system allows meaningful and sufficient bipartisan oversight.

 

1. How many systems?

 

Some people recommend testing a large number of systems of the same type, such as 100. A very small PME might use as few as 4 systems.

 

2. Pre- and post-PME work

 

If a County Board conducts the PME, it uses its own staff to perform all pre- and post-election work which would be done by them for a real election. If a State Board conducts the PME, a county Board must be selected to perform the work.

 

Pre-and post-PME work is done before the public, however, during the PME. This means the vendor must provide full training to staff in preparation for the PME. The vendor's capability to train staff, and staff's capability to perform all tasks related to use of the PME system, can thus be evaluated.

 

Such training is costly in terms of materials and personnel time for the vendor and the County Board. This cost, however, is a normal part of a vendor’s sales effort as well as a buyer’s system evaluation. When any organization plans to spend money for a new system, it is appropriate for a portion to be spent on system evaluation.

 

State and federal certification do not involve start-to-end evaluation of the factors that a PME tests: system accuracy, understandability, manageability, and observability to staff, poll workers, voters, and observers.

 

Vendor technicians must serve in an advisory capacity only during the PME, and any need for their involvement indicates that staff was not fully or properly trained, or that the equipment is not suitably usable by its intended users.

 

3. Poll-workers

 

The County Board invites its existing pool of election day poll-workers to work in that capacity for the PME. Staff provides them with all training, training materials, and voting system documentation necessary to perform election-day tasks with the PME system.

 

Each team of poll-workers turns on their system at the beginning of the PME, facilitates voters, and performs end-of-election-day tasks that would normally be done by them for a real election, such as printing tally tapes, and extraction and transmission of results to the central tabulating location.

 

4. Voters and Observers

 

The County Board invites members of the public to submit their names for a random drawing to select voters and observers for the PME. It is desirable to have a team of 4 people -- two voters and two observers -- for each system to be voted on during the PME.

 

During the PME, poll-workers should provide voters with appropriate guidance and assistance. If the PME system is accessible to voters with disabilities and/or minority languages, people with those characteristics should be sought out and encouraged to participate as voters and observers in the PME.

 

Observers must personally witness the entry of votes, the voter-verifiable printout if the system has one, and ballot casting. One observer should use a camera recording device to make a permanent visual and auditory record of voters' work.

 

5. Voting

 

The County Board should select a ballot from a recent federal election for use in the PME, and set up the PME equipment for that ballot.

 

The State or County Board prepares a set of ballots (200 ballots is a desirable minimum) with votes pre-marked. The votes should be in as many combinations as possible. If the PME system uses an optical scanner, votes should marked with different kinds of pencils and pens. The set of pre-marked ballots should be duplicated to create a separate set for use with each system in the PME. For example, if 4 systems will be tested in the PME, four sets of pre-marked ballots are needed. Each set is shuffled, so that each system in the PME is tested with the same ballots but in different sequence.

 

During voting, ten percent of ballots should be entered using accessibility features, and ten percent using the minority languages if required by the county.

 

5.A. Optical Scan Systems

 

Poll-workers should provide voters with one pre-marked paper ballot from the prepared set at a time in a manner similar to a real election.

 

Each pre-marked ballot can be entered by voters directly into the scanner. To test accessible ballot-marking devices, one blank ballot and one pre-marked ballot to be copied must be given to the voter, and the voter can copy the prepared votes onto the fresh ballot, which is then inserted into the optical scanner. If privacy sleeves are to be used to transfer a paper ballot from the accessible ballot-marker to the optical scanner, they must be used during the PME after observers check the freshly-marked ballot to make sure that it contains the same votes as the prepared ballot (which should be marked as "copied," returned to the poll-worker, and not inserted into the scanner).

 

5.B. DRE Systems

 

Poll-workers provide voters with one voter access card (or equivalent item as needed by the DRE) at a time to enable the voter to enter and cast one ballot at a time in a manner similar to a real election. Because this is a PME, the poll-workers also provide voters with one pre-marked paper ballot from the prepared set with the votes to be entered.

 

Voters enter the votes by hand using the DRE touchscreen or pushbuttons, or by using the accessible ballot-marking attachments.

 

6. End-Of-Election Procedure

 

In the room where the PME is conducted, an area should be marked off and designated as the Central Reporting Location where the appropriate tabulating equipment can be located.

 

After all voting is finished, "End of Voting" should be announced. Poll-workers must then print tally sheets from all voting machines or optical scanners, extract the memory devices with tallies and other election data, and transmit the memory devices to the Central Reporting Location in a manner similar to a real election. For example, if telephone lines will be used in real elections, then telephone lines should be used during the PME. If hand-delivery will be used in real elections, then hand-delivery should be used during the PME.

 

A full canvass of votes should be performed. Tallies from the central tabulator should be compared to a manual canvass of the tally sheets, as well as pre-PME tallies for the pre-marked ballots and the notes of voters and observers.

 

The system logs should be displayed via a projector onto a screen, so that all participants and the public can watch the comparison of system logs to the notes of voters and observers. This is to ensure that event logging in the voting system is accurate and will be easy to use to determine the source of discrepancies if they should occur in a real election.

 

7. Criteria for Evaluation

 

Prior to the PME the State or County Board must decide upon and publish criteria for evaluation of systems. The public knows that systems have crashed or otherwise malfunctioned during tests and passed anyway. This is one basis for distrust of all computerized voting systems.

 

Suggestions are:

 

a.       The voter-verified paper record and tallies are 100% accurate.

b.      The voting system's election day activity log is 100% accurate.

c.       Each machine in the test worked with no errors or failures.

d.      Staff was able to perform all pre- and post -election activities.

e.       Poll-workers were able to perform all activities to facilitate voting.

f.        Voters were able to vote without undue difficulty using every method provided by the voting system including use of accessibility attachments and minority language interfaces.

 

8. Conclusion – Limitations of Testing

 

Many members of the public distrust electronic voting systems. If the systems can work, the public should see this before distrust lowers voter turnout.

 

Alternatively, if the systems are going to fail, or are unusable by the kind of people who will use them, or cannot serve the requirements of election legitimacy, it is better for Boards of Election to discover this at a time other than a real election so that remedial steps can be taken. If the PME system has not yet been purchased, changes to systems can be required prior to purchase.

 

The meaning of computer testing is limited. If a system works during its PME, that means it might work during a real election. If it does not work during the PME, that means that it probably won't work during a real election.

 

But no successful test, not even a PME, can guarantee that a complex computer system will actually work, or be secure, at a later time. Unlike systems in professional Information Technology installations that are physically secure and continuously monitored, voting systems are subject to unmonitored interaction with many people -- in the warehouse, in transit, and in the poll site, as well as via unmonitored communications capability. This is why 100% auditing, not merely spot-checks of a small percentage of systems, voter-verified paper printouts or ballots, should be done after every election.

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