Make computer files open to public
Harvie Branscomb and Al Kolwicz
Special to The Aspen Times
Part of a bipartisan team of election integrity experts, we are working on ways to increase transparency and independent verification of elections. We believe that more transparency and independent verification yields more voter confidence.
This experience has taught us ways to improve and increase public confidence in the election system.
Aspen's May 5, 2009 election was unique in several important ways. It was Colorado's first instant runoff election (IRV). It was the first time that the computer-based TrueBallot vote interpretation and counting system was used in a Colorado public election. It was the first time that a Colorado election jurisdiction created a portable electronic file (TIF) containing the image of each ballot, and a separate portable file containing the interpretation of the ranking and vote on each ballot.
Aspen's data offers researchers a unique opportunity to analyze and report on ways to use increased transparency and independent verification in future elections. Areas of study will include post-election auditing, canvassing, and potential improvements in election statutes and rules.
Colorado law requires that ballots be anonymous. To achieve this standard, cast ballots must not contain marks that can be used by anybody to connect a ballot with a voter.
Anonymous ballots cannot be associated to the person who voted them by hackers or by insiders, including election officials. There simply is no way to link the voter to their ballot once it is cast.
The research being planned has absolutely no interest in, or way of learning, the identity of the voter who cast a particular ballot. In fact, we would not accept any data that would expose us to this knowledge. It would be a liability.
Arguments made by the city create a concern that Aspen's ballots are not anonymous. If this is true, it is a violation of the Colorado Constitution and its laws. If it is true, it is the responsibility of the city to explain exactly how and why Aspen's ballots are not anonymous.
We are seeking copies of existing computer files. To repeat, these files contain the digital pictures of the ballots and the records of how each vote was interpreted and counted. We want no data that shows who voted which ballot, even in the remote case that it exists.
We are not asking for access to the physical paper ballots. Others — including election officials, the post-election auditors and the Aspen Election Commission — will have or should have verified that each physical ballot was correctly recorded on the computer file. If image questions arise, we would ask the Election Commission to oversee the inspection of any physical ballots, if possible.
The city states that it is unaware of circumstances where the public has been permitted to inspect ballots or copies of ballots. In Aspen, citizens saw ballot images of most ballots in the public observation room, and some were shown on local TV. On May 7, the city invited the public to participate in reviewing the ballots and comparing them to their corresponding computerized data string. In Boulder County, large screens in the counting room enabled the public to see ballot images. In Humboldt County, Calif., the complete set of ballot images for a recent election is posted on the Internet. In Minnesota, the ballot images for recount ballots are published on the Internet by the Star Tribune. We hope that the city will no longer claim ignorance about the public release of ballot images.
The open records law does not permit the city to withhold copies of the computer files that we request. There is no statute that would be violated.
Since the release of anonymous scanned ballot image files represents no threat to voter privacy, no threat to the physical ballot materials, and is not prohibited by the law, “what harm might be done if digital images of anonymous cast ballots are released to the public?”
We believe that much good will be done when the computer files are made public.
El Jebel resident Harvie Branscomb collaborated with Boulder resident Al Kolwicz to write this piece. They are both trustees of the Colorado Voter Group (http://www.coloradovotergroup.org/.) Kolwicz is a Republican Canvass Board member in Boulder County and Branscomb is a Democratic Canvass Board Member in Eagle County.