ACM: Statewide Databases of Registered Voters Report

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Association for Computing Machinery

Advancing Computing as a Science & Profession

Statewide Databases of Registered Voters:

Study Of Accuracy, Privacy, Usability, Security, and Reliability Issues commissioned by

the U.S. Public Policy Committee of the Association for Computing Machinery

February 2006

Copyright © 2006 ACM. ISBN: 1-59593-344-1. Permission to make digital or hard copies of portions of this work for personal or classroom use is

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The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) is an educational and scientific

society uniting the world’s computing educators, researchers and professionals to inspire

dialogue, share resources and address the field's challenges. ACM strengthens the

profession's collective voice through strong leadership, promotion of the highest

standards, and recognition of technical excellence. As such, ACM cares deeply about the

dependability and reliability of computing technology. Voter registration systems

encompass not only the databases that house voter information, but also an entire

information technology infrastructure that must be carefully managed by election

officials. The U.S. Public Policy Committee of the ACM (USACM) commissioned this

study to provide objective technical information and expert recommendations to state and

local election officials, policy makers, and the public about these systems.

The USACM serves as the focal point for ACM’s interaction with U.S. government

organizations, the computing community, and the U.S. public in all matters of U.S. public

policy related to information technology.

Supported by ACM’s Washington, D.C., Office of Public Policy, USACM responds to

requests for information and technical expertise from U.S. government agencies and

departments, seeks to influence relevant U.S. government policies on behalf of the

computing community and the public, and provides information to ACM on relevant U.S.

government activities. USACM also identifies potentially significant technical and

public policy issues and brings them to the attention of ACM and the public.

More information about ACM may be found on the World Wide Web at, and information on USACM may be found at

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Table of Contents

Executive Summary ........................................................................................................4

Chapter Overviews and Recommendations......................................................................8

1. Introduction..............................................................................................................17

2. Accuracy..................................................................................................................21

3. Privacy.....................................................................................................................27

4. Usability...................................................................................................................33

5. Security....................................................................................................................39

6. Reliability ................................................................................................................50

Appendix A: Glossary..................................................................................................54

Appendix B: Biographies of Committee Members........................................................57

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Executive Summary

The voter registration process may seem simple to most voters. They give their names,

addresses, birth date, and in some cases party affiliations to election officials with the

expectation that they will be able to vote on Election Day. In reality, election officials

must oversee a complex system managing this process. They must ensure that the voters’

information is accurately recorded and maintained, that the system is transparent while

voter information is kept private and secure from unauthorized access, and that poll

workers can access this information on Election Day to determine whether or not any

given voter is eligible. A well-managed voter registration system is vital for ensuring

public confidence in elections.

State and local governments have managed voter registration using different

approaches among different jurisdictions. In 2002, Congress sought to make these

disparate efforts more uniform by passing the Help America Vote Act, which required

that each state have a computerized statewide voter registration database. In

implementing this mandate, state and local governments still have differing approaches,

but it is clear that information technology underpins each of their efforts. While

technology will help election officials manage this complex system, it also creates new

risks that must be addressed.

This study focuses on five areas that election officials should address when creating

statewide voter registration databases (VRDs): accuracy, privacy, usability, security, and

reliability. Each chapter contains detailed discussions and recommendations. The

following are some of the overarching goals for VRDs and selected recommendations for

achieving them.

1. The policies and practices of entire voting registration systems, including those

that govern VRDs, should be transparent both internally and externally.

VRDs control access to voting; therefore, they have a direct impact on the fairness of

elections, as well as the public’s perception of fairness. It must be possible to convince

voters, political parties, politicians, academics, the press, and others that VRDs are

correct and are operating appropriately. Internal procedures and interfaces also must be

clear to election workers in order to minimize errors. Transparency can be provided by

allowing voters to verify their voter registration status and data; publicly disclosing

outside data sources that officials use for verification; indefinitely keeping a secure write-

"An adequate and effective registration will go far toward assuring

honesty and fairness in the conduct of elections. Upon the honest and

faithful maintenance of the registration books depends the purity of the

ballot box. And upon the purity of the ballot box depends the success or

failure of our democratic form of government."

-- Registration of Voters in Louisiana, Alden

L. Powell and Emmett Asseff, Bureau of

Government Research, Louisiana State

University, 1951

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once VRD archive in electronic form to allow audits of previous elections; and using

independent experts to audit and review VRD security policies. Other goals such as

accountability, audits, and notification also support transparency and are discussed


2. Accountability should be apparent throughout each VRD.

It should be clear who is proposing, making, or approving changes to the data, the

system, or its policies. Security policies are an important tool for ensuring accountability.

For example, access control policies can be structured to restrict actions of certain groups

or individual users of the system. Further, users’ actions can be logged using audit trails

(discussed below). Accountability also should extend to external uses of VRD data. For

example, state and local officials should require recipients of data from VRDs to sign use

agreements consistent with the government’s official policies and procedures.

3. Audit trails should be employed throughout the VRD.

VRDs that can be independently verified, checked, and proven to be fair will increase

voter confidence and help avoid litigation. Audit trails are important for independent

verification, which, in turn, makes the system more transparent and provides a

mechanism for accountability. They should include records of data changes,

configuration changes, security policy changes, and database design changes. The trails

may be independent records for each part of the VRD, but they should include both who

made the change and who approved the change.

4. Privacy values should be a fundamental part of the VRD, not an afterthought.

Privacy policies for voter registration activities should be based on Fair Information

Practices (FIPs), which are a set of principles for addressing concerns about information

privacy. FIPs typically address collection limitation, data quality, purpose specification,

use limitation, security safeguards, openness, individual participation, and accountability.

There are many ways to implement good privacy policies. For example, we recommend

that government both limit collection to only the data required for proper registration and

explain why each piece of personal information is necessary. Further, privacy policies

should be published and widely distributed, and the public should be given an

opportunity to comment on any changes.

5. Registration systems should have strong notification policies.

Voters should be informed about their status, election information, privacy policies of the

government, and security issues. As with audit trails, notification procedures can

improve transparency; however, they are not always widely embraced. A recent survey

found that approximately two-thirds of surveyed states do not notify voters who have

been purged from election rolls. Voters should be notified by mail about their polling

places, any changes that may affect their ability to vote, or any security breaches that

expose private data.

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6. Election officials should rigorously test the usability, security and reliability of

VRDs while they are being designed and while they are in use.

Testing is a critical tool that can reveal that “real-world” poll workers find interfaces

confusing and unusable, expose security flaws in the system, or that the system is likely

to fail under the stress of Election Day. All of these issues, if caught before they are

problems through testing will reduce voter fraud and the disenfranchisement of legitimate

voters. We recommend many different ways to test various aspects of VRDs throughout

the report. Examples include, evaluation of VRD interfaces by laypersons and experts

for consistency, feedback, and error handling; testing interfaces with real-world users and

conditions, including extreme or sub-optimal conditions such as high processor load or

network congestion; and allowing thorough, independent evaluations of the security and

reliability of the VRD.

7. Election officials should develop strategies for coping with potential Election Day

failures of electronic registration databases.

VRDs are complex systems. It is likely that one or more aspects of the technology will

fail at some point. Different strategies can be employed to adjust for various failures.

For example, Election Day verifications can be done via any of the following: paper

systems, personal computers or hand-held devices with DVD-ROMs or other methods of

holding static copies of the voter list, or via personal computers or hand-held devices

connected by electronic communication links to central VRDs. Regardless of the method

used, a fallback process should be devised to deal with a VRD failure. When appropriate,

these processes should operate in tandem with provisional balloting and other measures

designed to protect the voters’ right to vote.

8. Election officials should develop special procedures and protections to handle

large-scale merges with and purges of the VRD.

One of HAVA’s main requirements is that VRDs be coordinated with other state

databases (such as motor vehicle records). Ensuring that voter records reflect up-to-date

information from other databases can improve the accuracy of VRD, but coordination can

introduce errors from the same databases, thereby undermining accuracy. Because largescale

merges and purges can render voters ineligible, the action should only be performed

by a senior election official with procedures that force some sort of manual review of the

changes. Further, if large-scale purges occur, they should be done well in advance of any

election, and anyone purged from the database should receive notification so that any

errors can be corrected.

Conclusion. State and local election officials face an ongoing and challenging task in

creating and implementing statewide voter registration databases. We hope that the

discussion and recommendations in this report will help inform officials and the public

on how to meet these challenges.

In issuing this report, we recognize that many states have been working diligently

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toward meeting the federal requirement to have an operational statewide VRD. Both

because many states will not meet this deadline, and because there will be ongoing

maintenance and changes to any such system, state and local governments will also face

the issues identified in this report well beyond the federal deadline. For this reason, we

offer our continued guidance to officials who may wish to discuss any of the topics raised

in this report.

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Chapter Overviews and Recommendations


Databases are only as good as the data they contain. Quality assurance is a challenge for

any database because data entry and necessary merges and purges of data within the

system can create errors. Maintaining accurate VRDs is even more difficult considering

the mobility of the U.S. population1 and the wide variety of information sources voting

officials must use to verify registration records. Further, voting officials must balance

between competing concerns of ensuring that each legally registered voter can cast his or

her vote and preventing ineligible voters from casting votes. Accuracy concerns often lie

at the center of these debates. An additional complication is that voter eligibility rules are

determined state-by-state, and VRD design and implementation are likely to differ stateby-


Accuracy Recommendations

Voter Verification

Voters should easily be able to determine if they are registered.

Voters should be able to verify that they are registered through the use of a computer

or handheld device located at any of the polling places in that state. Responses

should not include personally identifiable information about the potential voter.

Voters should be able to view the relevant contents of their voter registration

records to check for accuracy and should be provided with easy-to-use mechanisms

and contacts for correcting errors.

Electronic Election Day updates to registration records are risky and should be

implemented only after careful testing, if at all. Paper forms are a well-understood



Whenever a voter or potential voter is determined to be ineligible to vote, the reason

and source of information for the determination of ineligibility should be noted in the

VRD for the potential voter to review and contest, if appropriate.

Voters should be notified when their records change in any way that affects their

eligibility to vote.

Public notice of polling places should be provided well in advance of an election

(e.g., signs in neighborhoods, prominent notices on local web sites).

Each registered voter in the VRD should be mailed a postcard with his or her

assigned polling place and registration status in advance of the election.

1 A recent report of the Commission on Federal Election Reform found that “during the last decade, on

average, 41.5 million Americans moved each year.”

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Polling Place Lists

Polling place lists (whether paper or electronic) of all registered voters associated

with a particular polling place should be generated automatically by the VRD well

before Election Day.

Automatically generated lists should be carefully checked by at least two local

officials and far enough in advance of elections to allow time for corrections.


Ineligibility records should be retained in the VRD for at least twenty-two months

and possibly longer.

If for any reason it is determined that an individual is ineligible to vote, that

individual's record should be marked accordingly, not deleted.

When information is sufficiently old (we recommend at least 22 months), it should be

moved from the VRD into an offline archival database that is never purged and is

protected against unauthorized disclosure or access.

Other Databases

When other databases, such as driver registration databases, are used to check for

eligibility, those databases should be used for screening and not to automatically

enroll or de-enroll voters.

An automated check can be used to flag some voters for further scrutiny, but the final

determination of eligibility should be performed only by an appropriate election


Merges, Purges, and Batch Updates

Large-scale automated database merges are error-prone and should be avoided if


If purges are performed, they should be done well in advance of any election. People

whose names are purged from the VRD should receive notification in sufficient time

for them to be able to correct any errors.

A greater level of authority should be required to perform a batch update than is

required to make smaller changes.


There must be well-defined accountability for all changes to the VRD including to

source code, database schemas, database contents, and system configuration.

Changes should require approval or sign-off by an authorized individual.

It should be possible to identify a clear chain of responsibility for each change, and

the VRD should be designed to facilitate tracking of this information.

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A complete audit trail should log all modifications to the VRD.


The public is increasingly aware that personal information in electronic form can pose

new risks, such as identity theft, to personal privacy. As state and local governments

digitize, centralize, and share this data, the stakes are raised still higher. While VRDs

may pose threats to privacy, technology also opens up new opportunities to protect

privacy. As governments design and implement these systems, privacy values must be

considered a fundamental part of the design process, not simply applied as an


Privacy policies for voter registration activities should be based on Fair Information

Practices (FIPs), which are a set of principles for addressing concerns about information

privacy. FIPs typically address collection limitation, data quality, purpose specification,

use limitation, security safeguards, openness, individual participation, and accountability.

Privacy Recommendations

Openness (Transparency)

Publish on the main election board website a complete notice of policies and practices

describing the collection, maintenance, use, and disclosure of voter registration data.

The notice should include contact information for the office or the officials

responsible for voter registration data.

Publish a readable summary notice in other places, such as voter registration forms, at

polling places, on sample ballots, and elsewhere as appropriate.

Provide a copy of the complete notice to any person who requests it.

Publish any changes to the notice before the changes become effective, and accept

and consider public comments.

Place a date and version number on notices as they are published. Maintain, and

make publicly available, copies of all previous notices, including the periods of time

during which they were effective.

Data Collection Limitation

All data should be collected by lawful and fair means.

Data should be collected, where appropriate, with the knowledge or consent of the


Registrants and the public should be informed through the published notice of

policies and practices of the sources of all data obtained for voter registration


The types of data elements to be collected should be subject to public scrutiny.

Data collection should be limited to sources and procedures authorized by law and

properly described in the published notice.

Only the minimum information necessary for, and relevant to, voter registration

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purposes should be collected and maintained. The reason for collecting each type of

personal information should be explained, and the specific data elements collected

should be subject to public scrutiny.

Use and Disclosure Limits

Limit use and disclosure of voter registration data to activities directly related to the

election process or to other activities expressly authorized by law.

Describe all uses and disclosures in the published notice of information practices.

Identify publicly all recipients of voter registration data.

Provide public notice of and, if possible, a chance for public comment on all

disclosures of identifiable voter registration data for any activity not directly required

for voter registration purposes.

Restrict access to specific records, specific data elements, and specific classes of

voters (e.g., by location) to those election officials who have a need to use those

records, data elements, and classes in the performance of their duties.

For some or all uses by election officials or disclosures to external parties, maintain a

record of the date, nature, and recipient of all personal information and make the

record accessible to the data subject upon request.

Restrict disclosures to specific data elements permitted by law and necessary to

accomplish the purpose of the disclosure. Withhold data elements that are not

essential to accomplish the purpose of the disclosure or that would place data subjects

in excessive jeopardy to identity theft or other improper activities.

Prevent recipients of data from using or redisclosing the data in ways not specifically

authorized by law. Asking recipients to sign data use agreements is one way to

accomplish this purpose.

Allow some non-essential uses and disclosures only with the affirmative consent (optin)

or negative consent (opt-out) of the data subject.

For some data subjects at risk (e.g., victims of spousal abuse, jurors, some public

officials), it may be appropriate to further limit disclosures.

Even the best use and disclosure policies may be violated by people and software

within the election process. Therefore, limit access by each person and each system


Provide access for every voter to a personalized list of those third parties who have

been given or purchased access to his or her voter registration data.


VRDs will be used in many ways by a wide variety of people. Ensuring that well-trained

election officials, minimally trained volunteer poll workers, and voters with little to no

technical skills can all use different and appropriate aspects of VRDs is a key challenge

for designers of these systems. Poorly designed user interfaces might confuse users or,

worse yet, disenfranchise voters. This can create the reality or the perception of an

unreliable system, thereby undermining the entire process.

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Usability Recommendations

General Usability

Consider the various types of users, tasks, and environments in which the voter

registration database will be used. Design user interfaces that address all of these

factors, providing different interfaces for different combinations as necessary.

Use accepted user interface design techniques to build data entry forms and data

retrieval components that are clear, usable, and interpretable.

Design and Features

Involve a wide range of test users of different backgrounds, skills, literacy levels,

ages, and roles (county official, election volunteer, voters, etc.) in all stages of user

interface design, including gathering of usability requirements, design of user

interfaces, and testing and evaluation.

Treat user interface design as an iterative process: use evaluations of user interface

designs to guide revisions that themselves can be evaluated in turn.

Provide informative feedback (i.e., provide users with detail sufficient for

understanding the impact of their actions, results of queries, and characteristics of the

current operating environment).

Eliminate unnecessary functionality and data output in favor of simple, minimal user


Provide online tutorials and help systems for all voter registration database user

interfaces. For critical applications such as voter verification on Election Day,

appropriate experts should be available to help address any concerns.

Ensure that public-facing interfaces (e.g., World Wide Web based services) are

vendor-neutral and are designed to meet widely accepted technical standards.

Evaluation and Testing

Use a variety of user interface evaluation techniques, including heuristic evaluation

by usability experts, “think-aloud” sessions, and user studies.

Test interfaces thoroughly with representative users performing tasks under situations

that approximate those likely to be found in real use.

Test user interfaces under extreme or suboptimal conditions, including high processor

load, network congestion, and noisy or extreme environments.

Test web-based user interfaces for use by the public on as wide a range of browsers as

possible, including multiple older (and pre-release) versions of popular browsers and

screen-reader systems for people with visual impairments.

Evaluate user interfaces, particularly web-based interfaces, to determine their impact

on other system goals such as reliability, security, accuracy, and privacy.


Security underpins each of the issues discussed in this report. Maintaining accurate and

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private information is impossible if a VRD is vulnerable to malicious attack. Further, the

validity of data within the VRD may be called into question if the system is easily

compromised or lax security policies are established. Ultimately, an unsecured VRD

could undermine elections. Good security policies address many different factors.

Election officials should establish detailed access controls for each user accessing the

VRD, procedures to harden VRDs from attack, and mechanisms to deal with and recover

from security failures.

Security Recommendations

Designing & Implementing Access Control Policies

Federal, state, and local election officials should work together to establish a common

framework for access control policies, such as common roles and responsibilities of

users and their levels of access, as well as who would be responsible for ultimately

implementing and enforcing access control policies.

Access control policies should not grant the same privileges to all users; rather the

policies should group people by established roles and geographic areas. For example,

the security policy might give the same level of privileges to all data entry officials

for a particular county, but privileges should be different for VRD administrators.

Access control policies should minimize the number of people who receive privileges

both to access each piece of information and to grant access to others.

Access control policies should ensure that each person is granted only the minimal set

of privileges needed to do his or her job.

Access control policy should cover all records stored in the VRD including records

on both voters and non-voters.

VRDs should use access control mechanisms provided in the database management

systems provided; trying to implement access control entirely at the application level

leaves greater opportunity for security mechanisms to be bypassed or compromised.

VRDs should create public logs of all changes to the list of authorized users and their

access rights, and any changes to either of these should require authorization from

two different persons.

Authorized users of the system should receive security training, including how to

protect passwords and how to resist social engineering attacks (attempts to deceive

someone into performing certain actions), and the importance of never sharing


Older versions of access control policies should be retained, along with their dates of

applicability, and possibly made available to the public to increase the transparency

of the system.

Administrative Privileges and Emergencies

The number of people with administrative privileges for the VRD should be limited;

very few users should have the ability to grant access to others.

People with administrative access should not be allowed to grant themselves new

access privileges unilaterally; rather, such a change should require the consent of

another administrator.

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Officials should create rules that allow trusted election officials to increase

temporarily the privileges available to others during emergencies in a controlled and

fully audited manner.

Emergency overrides should require two-person authorization and generation of

detailed audit logs.

Security Metrics

Those responsible for managing VRDs should measure how effectively they have

limited VRD users' privileges by determining how many people have access to how

much data and by tracking effectiveness over time using these metrics.

The EAC or some other appropriate organization should help develop and identify

appropriate metrics.

Protecting Against Attack

All communication channels used by the system should be secured. Anything

transmitted over open communication networks, such as any wireless connection, the

Internet, or the phone system, should be protected using end-to-end cryptography.

Firewalls should be used to severely limit connectivity between internal and external


Mechanisms should be deployed to detect any penetration of system defenses or any

insider misuse.

Dealing with Security Failure

It must be possible to recover from security failures (e.g., retaining historical copies

as well as the latest, regular backups with offsite storage, etc.)

Officials should obtain independent security reviews of the VRD before system

deployment and periodically thereafter.

Individuals should be notified if an inappropriate person may have obtained their



Because VRDs control access to voting, they must meet a very high standard for

reliability. If the system fails, it may disenfranchise voters and undermine public

confidence in elections. VRDs should be designed to be reliable both during the nonpeak

times before and after an election, and for high-activity times such as Election Day.

While reliability issues are often considered in terms of “always on” electronic systems,

registration systems may be economically designed to employ both online VRD and

offline solutions, such as distributing DVD-ROMs of registration data to polling places

for use on Election Day. State and local governments should assess the entire scope of

reliability issues and design systems that have built in redundancy, replication, and

distribution, but also incorporate mechanisms that allow the voting process to proceed

should the VRD fail. States may choose to implement the VRD by centralizing the

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database at the state level or decentralizing it and spreading responsibility among the

different local jurisdictions; officials must recognize that reliability issues differ

depending on the chosen implementation.

Reliability Recommendations


Use redundancy to alleviate failures affecting time-critical operations.

Ensure that redundancy actually increases reliability by conducting system failure


Replicated Data

There should be multiple copies of the database.

Copies should be physically separated to protect against physical damage.

Copies should be logically separated (i.e., in different forms/types of systems) to

protect against software failure and attacks.

The data on physically separate copies (such as DVD-ROMs) should be encrypted.

Encryption and decryption mechanisms should be tested.

Different channels, including alternate network providers and routes, physical media,

and printed copies to access different replicas should be provided.


Evaluate the ability of individual databases to function when other parts of the system


Evaluate distributed database solutions with respect to their ability to meet the

HAVA-mandated goal of a single, uniform, official, centralized, interactive

computerized statewide voter registration list.


Evaluate the ability of the system as a whole to respond to the unavailability of one or

more copies of the centralized database.


All changes to the database that affect the ability of an individual to vote must be

logged and archived.

Archival media, including audit logs and backups, must be write-once or otherwise

protected to ensure that accurate records of changes to the VRD have been


Election-Day Fallback Processes

Develop fallback processes for registration verification so that elections can proceed

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even in the face of system failures.

Ensure that fallback processes will withstand any failure that would not otherwise

prevent voting. If a power failure at a polling place does not prevent use of voting

machines, then it should not prevent voter registration checks to be performed.

Provisions for Delayed Entry of Registration Information

Develop processes supporting delayed entry of registrations.

Analyze the impact of near-deadline registration and early/absentee ballots on the



A defined and empowered quality assurance group should be in place from the

beginning of the project. The group should develop functionality, usability, and

reliability tests.

Periods of peak stress (e.g., immediately before registration deadlines, during

elections, and registration verification) should be identified for reliability testing, as

should the activity mix during periods of peak stress. Consider questions such as how

many simultaneous users or operations are expected, and identify all potential

component failures. Testing should check whether system performance will be

adequate even when some system components have failed.

Tests for security against likely attacks (e.g., denial-of-service attacks) should be


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1. Introduction

The Help America Vote Act of 20022 (HAVA) mandates that each state create a single,

uniform, official, centralized, and interactive computerized statewide voter registration

list by 2006. The requirement that the list be both interactive and computerized implies

that the only compliant implementation will be as a database. While the goal of

mandating the use of databases is to improve and streamline aspects of voter registration,

inappropriately designed or implemented databases will have serious negative impacts on

the accuracy of elections and on public perception.

In this report, we describe the characteristics that centralized voter registration

databases should possess. While some recommendations might not be relevant to some

systems, most of our recommendations should be implemented if systems are to be

accurate, usable, secure, reliable, and appropriately protective of voters’ privacy. In

those cases in which systems have already been designed or built, election officials

should consider modifications if our recommendations have not yet been included.

We start with an overview of voter registration databases and the Help America Vote

Act and then provide technical recommendations.

Voter Registration Databases (VRDs). VRDs are statewide databases of registered

voters. With the exception of North Dakota, which is the only state that does not have

voter registration, voter registration rules are created at the state level.3 Prior to the Help

America Vote Act, local jurisdictions maintained lists of voters, with list formats and

uses varying from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In general, the lists can consist of the


full legal name,

date of birth,

last four digits of the social security number,

driver’s license number,

address of residence (to assign the precinct),

mailing address,

phone number,

place of birth,

party affiliation (so the correct election materials can be sent before primaries, and

correct ballots can be given at primaries), and

validity status, noting whether the record is for a valid voter, or if the registrant is not

currently allowed to vote.

Some jurisdictions may request the full social security number and a digital image of

the individual’s signature for visual verification of mail-in ballots and initiatives.

Jurisdictions may also retain voting history of registered voters and remove invalid

2 Public Law No. 107-252, 116 Stat. 1666 (codified at 42 U.S.C. §§ 15301-15545), available

online at

3 For more information about state voter registration deadlines, see

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registrations from the voting rolls. Invalid voter registrations can occur if a voter has not

voted in several elections, has died, or has moved outside of the jurisdiction. If a record

indicates that someone is not currently a valid voter, that individual must reregister.

Some jurisdictions also include an indicator on a voter’s record as to whether or not the

address and phone number are to be given to outside organizations.

Election officials mail election materials, such as mail-in ballots and polling place

addresses, to the voters listed in the VRD. Polling books or voter rolls derived from the

VRD enable local officials to verify that a voter is registered in the precinct served by a

particular polling place and that the voter has not previously voted in the election via a

mail-in ballot or early voting. Polling books can be printed on paper or they can be

digitized and put on personal computers or electronic handheld devices, often called

electronic polling books. While these devices may differ in design, in general they

connect either by phone lines or a wireless link to a master location that has the polling

information, or they are stand-alone and contain copies of polling information. VRDs

also may be used to produce lists of voters, including names, addresses, and party

affiliations. Such lists frequently are used by outside groups to send voters electionrelated

materials and to call voters in get-out-the-vote campaigns. VRDs typically are the

basis for Internet-based voter information applications that enable people to determine if

they are registered and where their polling places are located.

Standards. In light of recent events and legislation that have underscored the core

importance of voting and of public confidence in our electoral system, one might

conclude that all VRDs should be built and operated to the highest possible standards.

While the highest standards of reliability, privacy, accountability, usability, and security

are desirable, they may at times be impractical because of resulting expense or system

response. Nonetheless, where practical and reasonable, the highest standards should be


Standards for reliability, privacy, accountability, usability, and security allow for a

wide range of applications and choices. Conventional commercial products and normal

practices, which may be suitable for business or governmental applications, might not

satisfy the difficult political and operational demands of voter registration systems. The

cost of failure for a VRD, which may include a major loss of confidence in our political

system and institutions, must be considered in the standards-setting process along with

the other traditional costs that are the normal subject of evaluation.

This report discusses some standards that exceed the average commercial application

for database software. While a higher standard may be recommended or included in a list

of options for consideration, the ultimate decisions about standards obviously are not ours

to make. We hope that those decisions will be made with an awareness of and sensitivity

to the requirements essential to maintaining a high degree of public confidence in our

electoral system.

The Administration of HAVA. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC),

created by HAVA, is charged with, among other things, assisting states in the

administration of Federal elections and establishing minimum election administration

standards. It also provides states federal grants to replace punch card voting systems and

19 19

to establish and maintain statewide voter registration lists.4 The cost of developing and

maintaining voter registration lists could be more than half the overall cost of

administering elections.5

Prior to HAVA, voter registration records often were maintained on a county or other

local level; these records frequently were not coordinated across counties. What is new

with HAVA is the aggregation of all records statewide under a central administration and

in electronic form, thereby creating new challenges, risks, and opportunities.

We address a variety of issues in this report with the understanding that many states

are nearing the completion of the HAVA-mandated implementation.6 As computer

systems are rarely finished, it is likely that the VRD implementations will continue to be

developed and enhanced and that our recommendations will be relevant well beyond the

initial implementations.

Other Studies. This report focuses on the technology aspects of VRDs. There are

several other studies that discuss different aspects of VRDs. For example, “Balancing

Access and Integrity, The Report of the Century Foundation Working Group on State

Implementation of Election Reform”7 has an excellent chapter on VRDs. This study,

while not as detailed as ours, includes more policy-related issues.

The California Voter Foundation has an outstanding study, “Voter Privacy in the

Digital Age,”8 that details how information on voter registration lists is gathered and

used. “Assorted Rolls, Statewide Voter Registration Databases Under HAVA” by, is a complete snapshot of the States’ different plans and

implementations of HAVA-mandated statewide VRDs. The Appleseed Foundation, in a

joint effort with Latham & Watkins and the Brennan Center for Justice, released a best

practices guide in 2005 offering guidance to states in developing their VRDs.9

Scope. We make some assumptions to narrow the scope of our report to the kinds of

VRDs that are actually being used by the states.10 For example, we assume that the VRD

is implemented as an application using a commercial off-the-shelf database system.

Commercial database management systems (DBMSs) are reliable, affordable, and have

many features that are needed for the VRD application. However, the use of a

commercial DBMS is only part of the implementation. Applications built on top of a

4 42 U.S.C. § 15322.

5 Ace Project, Voter Registration Overview web page,

6, 2005, “Assorted Rolls: Statewide Voter Registration Databases Under

HAVA,” Election Reform Briefing 11, June, available online at

7 Century Foundation Working Group on State Implementation of Election Reform, 2005,

“Balancing Access and Integrity,” available online at

8 California Voter Foundation, 2004, “Voter Privacy in the Digital Age,” available online at

9 Appleseed, 2005, “The Database Dilemma: Implementation of HAVA's Statewide Voter

Registration Database Requirement,” available online at

10, op. cit.

20 20

DBMS include user interfaces, system design, and the implementation of various security

and reliability policies.

Commercial DBMSs have features that are necessary for the VRD application such as

transaction logs and audit logs that maintain records of changes to the data and database

design. The systems also provide mechanisms to backup the database. A backup is a

complete copy of the database at a known point in time. Transaction logs are used

together with backups to rebuild the system if there is a problem, restoring the data to its

state at the time of the backup. Audit logs are used to determine if suspicious updates

have occurred. Commercial DBMSs also provide access protections, so that only users

with the correct authorizations can access given data.

VRDs may be top-down, bottom-up, or some combination of the two.11 In a top-down

approach, state officials administer a single master computer server; all voter records are

stored on that central server, and all requests to view or modify voter records are

executed on the central server. In a bottom-up approach, each county may keep its own

database of records for voters within the county, and the county’s records may be

reconciled with a database run by the state on a periodic basis.12 Although these two

approaches have some different properties, most of the issues that we discuss apply

independent of whether the VRD is top-down or bottom-up. Therefore, when we refer to

the VRD, it is worth keeping in mind that this database may in fact be implemented by a

collection of computer systems working cooperatively to store and maintain voter

registration records.

Software Development. Sound principles of project management must be followed

when developing software. The knowledge of the people currently working in the local

offices, who may be experts in voter registration, should be assessed. A single person

should manage the software development project and also bear responsibility for its


Those working on the development of the VRD must be trained professionals who

have implemented database systems, preferably with the development tools of the chosen

vendor. In addition, from the beginning there must be a trained quality assurance group

that is continuously testing the design and ultimately the implementation to make sure

that the application is reliable and accurate.

11 The briefing cited above contains an excellent discussion of the distinction

between the two and why both can be considered HAVA-compliant.

12 42 U.S.C. § 15483(a)(1)(A)(vi) (“All voter registration information obtained by any local

election official in the State shall be electronically entered into the computerized list on an

expedited basis at the time the information is provided to the local official.”) The EAC Voluntary

Guidance has interpreted “expedited” as meaning “at least every 24 hours.”

21 21

2. Accuracy

Maintaining the accuracy of VRDs requires balancing two opposing concerns. The first

concern is that a VRD needs to be inclusive to avoid disenfranchising legitimate voters.

The names of all people who have registered and are duly eligible to vote must be

included in the VRD; any omissions will exclude eligible voters from voting. The

second, somewhat contrary concern is that the VRD must not be overly inclusive. To

prevent fraud, only legally registered persons should be listed in the VRD as eligible to

vote. We will address both of these concerns.

Not only must VRDs be accurate, the public must also believe that they are accurate.

Because VRDs control access to voting, transparency is critical. It must be possible to

convince those with interests in elections—including voters, political parties, politicians,

academics, and the press—of the correctness of the VRDs. To provide transparency,

policies should minimize the possibility of error and facilitate the correction of errors.

Election officials must also take responsibility for ensuring adherence to these policies.

Data Entry and Errors. Most errors in individual database records occur during data

entry. Errors include misspelling of names and addresses, incorrect recording of unique

IDs, misidentification of people to whom access to the system should be allowed or

denied, and misdirecting voters to the wrong polling place.

Data is entered into the VRD using one of two methods: manual entry or via

automatic scanning devices. An automatic scanning device is a machine that looks like a

copier and is used to scan a document into a computer system. Once the document is

scanned in, software that can recognize characters transfers the data from the printed

form into the VRD, while providing a clerk with the opportunity to correct mistakes. For

either manual entry or automatic scanning, a well-designed user interface for the clerk

will reduce errors. (Chapter 4 on usability contains further discussion of user interfaces.)

While quality control systems and appropriate supervision of data entry may reduce

data entry errors, some errors will inevitably occur. Problems can arise because of

variations of name spellings (Stevens or Stephens), first and last names that use accent

marks or more than one capital letter (McMullen), and names that have no vowels (Ng).

Incorrect or incomplete spellings of street names are additional potential sources of

errors. Changes that are primarily entered in other state databases—such as changes in

marital status and court approved name changes—also compound the challenge to


Voter Verification and Notice. To minimize the impact of errors in the VRD, voters

should be provided with (1) opportunities and methods to view and verify their data, and

(2) notices about changes to their records. For example, the system might provide an

Internet website or automated telephone service where voters can examine parts of their

records, check their registration status, and determine their assigned polling places.

Whenever a voter or potential voter is determined to be ineligible to vote, the reason

and source of information for the determination of ineligibility should be included in the

VRD. This information should be retained so that someone who has been inappropriately

labeled as ineligible can easily challenge the decision and demonstrate that an error has


22 22

Finally, election officials should mail each registered voter in the VRD a postcard with

his or her registration information and information necessary for voting, such as polling

place location or instruction for voting by mail. Voters also should be notified when their

registration status changes. A voter removed from the rolls or reassigned to a new

polling place should be notified by mail of the change and be provided an opportunity to

seek correction if the change is an error. A voter recorded as having moved should be

notified by mail sent to both the new address and the old address (similar to the method

the United States Postal Service uses with respect to change of address forms).

To help correct errors in voting records, contact information for the person or office

responsible for complaints and questions should be provided to voters. Further, voters

and system administrators should understand how complaints and errors are addressed,

and voters should receive feedback explaining the reasons for a final determination.

One recent survey found that approximately two-thirds of surveyed states do not

notify voters who have been purged from the election rolls.13 Advance notice, which can

be facilitated by the VRD, would provide voters with an opportunity to identify mistakes

prior to an election. Care must be taken in designing such systems so that violations of

privacy and security do not occur.

Notification processes are not always foolproof. For example, in 2004, 8,800

Maricopa County, Arizona, residents received election notification cards listing the

wrong polling places in the wrong cities.14

To help minimize the impact of incorrect notification, we recommend that public

notice be provided well in advance of an election. That notice should include the polling

place’s geographic location and official name (school, church, library name), a

description of the exterior of the polling place to assist voters in locating the entrance,

times of poll operation, residential boundary lines, and corresponding zip codes.

Some states allow voters to verify that they are registered through an Internet web site

or by phone. For states that use Internet verification the user interface should protect

voters’ privacy by requiring the voter to provide his or her name and address and limiting

the response to “yes, you are registered to vote and here is where you go” or “no, you are

not registered to vote.” The response should not include personally identifiable

information about the potential voter.

Some provision needs to be made to deal with corrections on Election Day because

not all errors can be corrected in advance. Poll workers are likely to be preoccupied with

running an election and should not be allowed to make changes to the VRD. Under the

right circumstances, after extensive testing for accuracy and usability, it might be

possible to allow poll workers to send electronic reports of needed changes to election

workers. If such a system is implemented, the updates would need to satisfy the auditing

and authorization requirements discussed elsewhere in this report.

A simple alternative is to provide paper forms that are filled out at the polling place

and submitted to election workers after the close of the election.

Generating the List of Registered Voters. A printed voter registration list for those

precincts served by a polling place is typically used to verify registered voters. While

13, op. cit.

14 Dennis Wagner, 2004, “8,800 Voting Cards Have Wrong Poll Address,” The Arizona Republic,

October 27, p. B5.

23 23

these printed lists are convenient and easy to control, sometimes the wrong list is

provided to a polling place. To minimize the chance of the delivery of an incorrect list,

we recommend that automated generation of polling place lists be used as much as

possible and that the lists be carefully checked by at least two people. Local officials can

conduct these checks, but they need to be made far enough in advance of elections to

allow time for corrections.

Incorrect voter lists could be delivered to polling places independent of whether the

data are provided on paper, DVD-ROMs, in a PC, or in a handheld device. In all of these

cases, a computer operator might provide incorrect directions to the computer, resulting

in the wrong electronic list going to the polling place. As with paper printouts, we

recommend that electronic versions of voter lists be checked by at least two people well

in advance of elections to allow time for corrections.

Information Deletion and Retention. In addition to being a list of currently registered

voters, a VRD is a comprehensive set of records reflecting voter registration activity and

administration. Consequently, we recommend that after records appear to be no longer

relevant, they be retained in the VRD at least for the next two Federal elections or for the

statutorily-mandated minimum of twenty-two months.15 The retained record should

include a dated annotation stating that the voter is not eligible to vote, along with the

reason for ineligibility. Thus, a VRD might contain information about those who have

applied, been approved, been questioned, died, moved, or been denied the right to vote,

as well as those who currently are eligible to vote.

When records were stored on paper, retaining old records imposed a non-trivial

administrative burden. Electronic databases have made the cost of retention negligible,

so old information can be retained relatively easily and inexpensively. When information

is sufficiently old, it should be moved from the VRD into an offline archival database that

is never purged. Retention of such information will enhance transparency and facilitate

the correction of errors such as those that can occur when voters are thought to have died,

moved, been convicted of a felony, or otherwise determined not to be eligible to

participate in a public election.

Other Databases. HAVA requires that states authenticate each potential voter by crosschecking

with other state databases—in particular, databases of driver’s licenses.16 If a

potential voter does not have a state driver’s license, then the last four digits of the

voter’s Social Security number must be used for authentication.

Because other databases can be inaccurate as a result of ambiguous or incorrectly

entered data or computer-related problems, wholly automated procedures are risky.

Consequently, we recommend that other databases not be used to enroll or de-enroll

voters automatically. External databases could be used for initial screening, but an

appropriate election official should perform any final determination of voter eligibility or

15 The Civil Rights Act of 1960 requires that every officer of elections retain for 22 months

registration and other voting records and papers for federal elections. 42 U.S.C. § 1974.

16 HAVA provides for coordination of voters lists with other state agency databases (42 U.S.C. §

15483(a)(1)(A)(iv)) and requires that registration applications include either a current and valid

driver's license or the last 4 digits of the applicant's Social Security number (42 U.S.C. §


24 24

ineligibility. We suggest that every change, addition, or deletion to the VRD require

explicit approval by an individual authorized to make that change. We discuss how this

might be done in Chapter 5 on security.

Errors can arise because of court-approved changes in legal name that conflict with

existing birth records, motor vehicle records, or other state records. Name similarities

also can create problems. For example, a death record database may show that Mr. John

Smith who lives at 254 Vine St. has died. There may be a Mr. John Smith, Jr. living at

the same address who is eligible to vote. If the death record database is applied with no

cross checking, John Smith Jr. may learn on Election Day that he has been denied his

right to vote.

Databases also can be inaccurate or unreliable because of computer viruses,

programming errors, and system failures. For example, in 2003 the Maryland Motor

Vehicle Administration (MVA) offices were attacked by a computer worm.17 The worm

shut down the MVA’s computers and telecommunication systems, cutting them off from

all forms of remote communication and disrupting operations in all 23 MVA offices

located throughout the state. A second event occurred on January 20, 2004, when the

MVA could not process work on the mainframe computer for about an hour after

opening. The problem was characterized as a computer glitch.18

A further risk to the accuracy of databases is insider fraud, involving either the VRD

itself or external databases, such as driver’s license databases, that are used to

authenticate voters.19 Therefore, election officials should carefully consider if the

accuracy and security of external databases is sufficient to meet voter registration needs.

Risks associated with insider fraud are discussed further in Chapter 5 on security.

Avoid Large-Scale Merges and Purges. Computers make it easy to automate sweeping

batch updates to a VRD; at the same time, errors can be magnified by the use of

automation. In the context of VRDs, a batch update is a group of updates received from

what is believed to be an authorized source (e.g., a local county). Because many voter

records could be affected by a single batch transaction, a greater level of authority should

be required to perform a batch update than is required to make individual changes. As is

the case with all updates, election officials should develop policies and procedures to

ensure the accuracy of large batch updates to the VRD. For example, a policy might

prohibit batch updates affecting more than a maximum number of voters or jurisdictions

(essentially requiring that large changes be broken down into multiple smaller batches

that can be reviewed more effectively), or a policy might require individualized review

and approval of each voter record that is affected. A policy might specify that batch

updates be reviewed by several people or mandate that audits of a statistically-significant

17 Christian Davenport and Hamil R. Harris, 2003, “MD’s MVA Offices Forced to Shut Down,”

Washington Post, August 13, p. A09.

18 “Glitch at MVA Branch Offices Delays Some Transactions for an Hour,” 2004, The Baltimore

Sun, January 21, p. B6.

19 For example, a Maryland MVA employee was charged with conspiring with others to sell more

than 150 state identification cards. See Eric Rich, 2005, “MD, MVA Employee Charged in ID

Card Sales,” Washington Post, April 23, p. B03. For a collection of stories of security problems

of motor vehicle records, see Center for Democracy and Technology, Tracking Security at State

Motor Vehicle Offices, available online at

25 25

random sample of records in the batch be performed before approving the batch update.

Given the inaccuracies that exist in many governmental databases, large-scale

automated merges between databases increase the risk of errors in a VRD.20

Consequences of inaccuracies in other databases could result in the widespread

disenfranchisement of eligible voters, the inclusion of ineligible voters in a VRD, or both.

We recommend special caution in deploying large-scale purges of VRDs. The move

to a statewide VRD may make it tempting to attempt to automatically eliminate

duplicates by comparing lists of eligible voters across counties, something that previously

could not be done. However, automatic purges of duplicate entries could disenfranchise

large numbers of legitimate voters. If large-scale purges occur, they should be done well

in advance of any election, and all people whose names are purged from the VRD should

receive notification in sufficient time for them to be able to correct any errors arising

from the purge.

Accountability. Clearly defined accountability for all changes to the database is a

fundamental requirement for helping instill voter confidence in VRDs. Voters,

politicians, election officials, the press, and others should be able to determine who is

responsible for changes to the VRD.

These changes include, changes to the data such as adding new voters, purging voter

records, changing addresses, names, etc.; changes to the software configuration such as

incorporating new software releases into the VRD; changes to the security policy and

access rights; or changes to the database design. Any of these changes can adversely

affect the data, so in order to provide the desired accountability there must be a record of

each change, when it occurred, and who approved the change.

Audit Trail. The record of the changes to the VRD is called an audit trail. In order to

ensure accuracy and transparency, VRDs must be auditable. VRDs that can be

independently verified, checked, and proven to be fair will increase voter confidence and

help avoid litigation.

The audit trail should include the record of all possible changes mentioned, namely,

data changes, configuration changes, security policy changes, and database design

changes. Although we call this an audit trail, it is not a single entity. The records of

configuration, policy and design changes, including who approved them, can be kept in

computer files or on paper as long as they are auditable by a third party. The record of

changes to the data, because there will be many of them, must be kept in computer files

to facilitate auditing.

In DBMS applications, there are typically two files generated because of a change to

the database. The transaction log records in a file the data values before and after the

change occurred, as well as the time of the change. The audit log records information

about the user ID of the person who made the change. The transaction log is used to

provide backup should a system failure occur.

The content of audit logs varies among DBMSs. In some, it is possible to configure

the system so that the audit log tracks changes to the security of the system (the

20 In 1988, Congress enacted the Computer Matching and Privacy Protection Act to address some

of the unfairness and inaccuracies arising from federal government use of computer matching

techniques. See Public Law 100-503, 102 Stat. 2507 (codified at 5 U.S.C. §552a).

26 26

permissions given to particular users), changes to the data, and changes to the database

design. For the purposes of the VRD auditing requirements, this is not sufficient. The

VRD should record not only which user made the change, but also the identification of

the person who authorized the change. Therefore, it may not be possible to rely on the

commercial DBMS’s auditing capabilities alone for the audit trail that a VRD requires.

VRD implementers will need to augment the application code of the commercial database

audit log to provide a complete audit trail.

Well-maintained audit trails are critical because they may allow reconstruction of the

circumstances of a system failure, thereby facilitating future improvements to access

policies and possibly to the database itself.

Approval Mechanism. Given that there is an audit trail that records whose approval was

given for each change, state or local officials must set policies on who is actually

authorized to make changes. Access control polices are discussed in more detail in

Chapter 5 on security. We assume that the person with ultimate authority to make the

changes is an election official, and we recommend that the responsibilities and authorities

of such election officials be clearly defined and publicly available.

For system changes, we recommend that there be a formal change control process that

states how changes to the system configuration, security policy, and database design are

reviewed, approved, and recorded.

Summary reports or excerpts from audit trails should be provided to supervisors and

made available to external auditors. These reports should be inspected frequently for

unusual or suspicious activities such as access from unexpected Internet Protocol

(commonly referred to as "IP") addresses or at unusual times of day, surges in the number

of accesses by a single user, and other anomalous activity.

Conclusion. Well-designed accuracy features must be accompanied by appropriate

training and resources. Even the best designed VRD will be of little value if officials do

not monitor and verify that only authorized changes are made to the VRD. Log files that

are never read and system quality control processes that are not supervised will not

ensure database accuracy. Since accuracy should be viewed as an ongoing responsibility,

election officials should assign specific staff to oversee these continuing activities.

27 27

3. Privacy

Policies for voter registration activities should include appropriate protections for the

privacy of identifiable data about individuals. A privacy policy should be based on Fair

Information Practices (FIPs), a set of principles for addressing concerns about

information privacy. FIPs typically address issues such as how data is collected, secured

and used, and how policies regarding data practices are disseminated. Specific

implementation recommendations are included in the discussion.

The increased computerization and sharing of voter registration records raises the

stakes for privacy. While paper records also affect the privacy of data subjects, the risks

are greater with electronic records, which may be more vulnerable to improper

disclosures by more people. Furthermore, the scope of the disclosures can be much

greater. A thief can carry only so many paper records, but an entire electronic database

can fit unnoticed in someone’s pocket.

Technology also brings opportunities for privacy improvements, making it easier to

obtain and enforce the preferences of each voter for the use and disclosure of the voter’s

personal data. Technological tools also facilitate the tracking of data. To minimize the

threats and maximize the benefits of technology for privacy, it is necessary to build the

proper capabilities into VRDs.

Fair Information Practices, which form the basis of many privacy laws in the United

States and around the world, help to assure that any system of personal information

addresses all appropriate privacy elements. The Privacy Act of 1974,21 a law that applies

to federal agencies, was the first statutory implementation of FIPs anywhere in the world,

and federal agencies have been operating under that law for more than 30 years.22

Although there have been numerous restatements and versions of FIPs,23 core principles

address collection limitation, data quality, purpose specification, use limitation, security

safeguards, openness, individual participation, and accountability.

While FIPs provide a useful framework for information privacy, the principles are not

self-implementing. How they are implemented depends on the type of data, the record

keeper, the purpose of processing, the manner in which data is to be used and disclosed,

the costs, the technology, and the traditions of the jurisdiction or record keeper. There

are often several strategies for implementing the same principle. What is most important

is that any privacy policy should consider and address in an appropriate way all elements

of FIPs. Some FIPs principles also reflect good record management policies.

The prevalence of identity theft illustrates why any sharing of personal information

can be a threat to an individual. There is already some evidence that concerns about

privacy affect voter behavior: one survey found that 23 percent of California non-voters

21 5 U.S.C. § 552a (2002).

22 Fair Information Practices were invented in America. See Secretary's Advisory Committee on

Automated Personal Data Systems (Department of Health, Education & Welfare), 1973, Records,

Computers, and the Rights of Citizens, available online at

23 The leading international statement of FIPs is by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation

and Development. See Council Recommendations Concerning Guidelines Governing the

Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data (1980), available online at,2340,en_2649_34255_1815186_1_1_1_1,00.html.

28 28

say they haven’t registered to vote because they want their information to remain

private.24 If voter records are perceived to be a source of data that contributes to the

widespread trafficking in personal information and to identity theft, some potential voters

may be discouraged from registering and voting. Larger or centralized databases may

exacerbate these concerns. Further, any inadvertent or malicious release of data can

affect millions of people and will attract considerable publicity. The move to statewide

VRDs raises the privacy stakes considerably.

Privacy values, which too often are an afterthought for collections of personal

information, are fundamental for voter registration. For this reason, some privacy issues

are intertwined with basic design standards and do not need to be addressed separately.

This chapter addresses only those privacy policy matters of openness, data collection

limitation, and use and disclosure limits, which are not otherwise considered in this


Openness (Transparency). Policies and practices for the collection, maintenance, use,

and disclosure of voter registration databases should be transparent, published, and

available to all upon request.

Implementation Strategies

Publish on the main election board website a complete notice of policies and practices

describing the collection, maintenance, use, and disclosure of voter registration data.

The notice should include contact information for the office or the officials

responsible for the voter registration data.

Publish a readable summary notice of policies and practices in other places such as on

voter registration forms, at polling places, on sample ballots, and elsewhere as


Provide a copy of the complete notice to any person who requests it.

Publish any changes to the notice before the changes become effective, and accept

and consider public comments.

Place a date and version number on notices as they are published. Maintain, and

make publicly available, copies of all previous notices, including the periods of time

during which they were effective.

Discussion. A notice of policies and practices for the collection, maintenance, use, and

disclosure of personal information informs registrants, the public, and interested parties

of the relevant policies. It also informs the staff of the election agency about the policies

and the need to conform to those policies. Finally, clear notice imposes a discipline on

agencies helping prevent them from making ad hoc choices about their data processing

activities. By requiring that these activities be properly disclosed in advance, privacy

policies prevent agencies from undertaking new data gathering or disclosures without

going through a formal process, thereby helping agencies resist pressures to use personal

information in new ways without sufficient oversight.

24 California Voter Foundation, 2005, “California Voter Participation Survey,” available online at

29 29

Formal privacy notices, like other legal notices, are often necessarily long and detailed

– likely longer and more complex than an average voter will care to read. Consequently,

we recommend that a summary notice that is more accessible to the average voter and

brief enough to fit on commonly distributed forms be made available.

Collection Limitation. The following principles should apply to the collection of

personal data.

All data should be collected by lawful and fair means.

Data should be collected, where appropriate, with the knowledge or consent of the


Registrants and the public should be informed through the published notice of the

policies and practices of all the sources of data obtained for voter registration


Data collection should be limited to sources and procedures authorized by law and

properly described in the published notice.

Only the minimum information necessary for and relevant to voter registration

purposes should be collected and maintained. The reason for collecting each type of

personal information should be explained, and the specific data elements collected

should be subject to public scrutiny.

Discussion. There are several reasons why the public should be informed in advance of

the collection and the source of the data, when such data about voters is obtained from

third party sources for purposes of updating, correcting, verifying, or amending the

database. First, the public should know what data sources are being used so that it can

assess the validity and utility of the data sources. Second, public disclosure may uncover

errors (e.g., use of inappropriate or outdated sources). Third, the election agency will be

required to justify its choices, thereby reducing the chance that unnecessary data will be

collected. For example, there is no reason for voter registration records to reflect

religious or sexual preference.

The collection of data with the knowledge or consent of the individual will be

accomplished in most instances through the published notice of policies and practices.

The public identification of data sources normally will be sufficient to meet the

knowledge standard. However, if data on a specific individual is being collected as part

of an examination of that individual’s eligibility, it may be appropriate to inform the

individual, seek consent for the collection, ask for cooperation in the examination, and

provide due process rights before taking any action that affects the individual. It will not

always be possible to satisfy the consent standard. For example, if voter registration

records are examined in an investigation of voting irregularities, notice or consent to the

subject of the investigation may be inappropriate. However, in other circumstances, the

data subject may be the best source of information.

Use and Disclosure Limits (Purpose Specification and Use Limitation). There should

be limits to the uses and disclosures of voter registration data by the agencies that collect

and maintain the data. Personal data should not be shared with anyone outside the

election process without legal authority or the consent of the data subject. Within the

30 30

election process, use of personal information should be limited to those officials who

have a need for the information in the performance of their duties. All uses and

disclosures should be specified at the time of collection.

Implementation Strategies

Limit use and disclosure of voter registration data to those activities directly related to

the election process or expressly authorized by law.

Describe all uses and disclosures in the published notice of information practices.

Identify publicly all recipients of voter registration data.

Provide public notice of and, if possible, a chance for public comment on all

disclosures of identifiable voter registration data for any activity not directly required

for voter registration purposes.

Restrict access to specific records, specific data elements, and specific classes of

voters (e.g., by location) to those election officials who have a need to use those

records, data elements, and classes in the performance of their duties.

For some or all uses or disclosures, maintain a record of the date, nature, and recipient

of all personal information and make the record accessible to the data subject upon


Restrict disclosures to specific data elements permitted by law and necessary to

accomplish the purpose of the disclosure. Withhold data elements that are not

essential to accomplish the purpose of the disclosure or that would place data subjects

in excessive jeopardy to identity theft or other improper activities.

Prevent all recipients of data from using or disclosing the data in ways not

specifically authorized by law. Asking recipients to sign data use agreements is one

way to accomplish this.

Allow some non-essential uses and disclosures only with the affirmative (opt-in) or

negative consent (opt-out) of the data subject.

Limit disclosures to the greatest extent possible for data subjects at risk (e.g., victims

of spousal abuse, jurors, some public officials).

Even the best use and disclosure policies may be violated by people and software

within the election process. Therefore, limit access by each person and each system

component. Chapter 5 on security provides further discussion on access policies.

Provide access for every voter to a personalized list of those third parties who have

been given or purchased access to his or her voter registration data.

Discussion. Use refers to the utilization of data internal to the operation of the election

agency. Disclosure refers to any sharing of data with an external party. Controlling both

use and disclosure is essential to maintain proper control over data and to prevent the data

from being used in inappropriate ways. Controlling use and disclosure through formal

procedures and public notice will help limit function creep, which is the use of data for a

purpose unrelated to the purpose for which it was originally collected.

Whenever possible, use or disclosure should include only those data elements that are

necessary for the required purpose. Limits on the disclosure of some data elements are

constitutionally required. The principle is illustrated by a successful challenge in 1993 to

the disclosure of Social Security numbers from Virginia voter registration records

31 31

(Greidinger v. Davis25). The plaintiff challenged the public disclosure requirement of

Social Security numbers as an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote. The plaintiff

argued that the privacy interest in the number is sufficiently strong that the right to vote

cannot be predicated on disclosure of the number to the public or to political entities.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Following the decision, Virginia changed

its law. The importance of restricting disclosure of some or all data elements has only

been highlighted by the epidemic of identity theft in recent years. The Greidinger

decision was issued in 1993, well before identity theft had become a common crime and


The Greidinger decision also highlights the sensitivity of the use of any identification

number as part of the voter registration process. While Congress mandated that a

registration application include a driver’s license number or the last four digits of the

Social Security number, excessive reliance on numbers for identity verification in voter

registration may not be successful, may create new risks to data subjects, and may expand

pressures for the use of identification numbers or identification cards in other contexts.

While some secondary uses and disclosures of voter data are authorized by law, the

political process may impose limitations on what secondary activities are to be permitted.

Some states make voter registration records public, while other states strictly restrict

secondary activities. There are no clear right or wrong choices, but privacy standards

argue for limiting secondary data sharing to the greatest extent possible.

Middle ground may be helpful at times. While registration records will appropriately

be used for voting purposes, it is possible to offer each individual a choice with respect to

some secondary uses or disclosures. The federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act26

provides a model. It describes a series of activities for which use and disclosure is

permitted without the consent of the data subject. For other activities, the affirmative

consent of the data subject is a requirement.

Many methods can be used to give voters a choice about how their data will be

handled. Under an affirmative consent (opt-in) model, personal information can be used

or disclosed for particular purposes only if the data subject agrees. Consent can be

obtained orally or in writing. Under a negative consent (opt-out) model, a use or

disclosure is permissible unless the data subject has stated an objection. Individuals can

be offered choices through check boxes on applications or websites or in other ways.

Sometimes it may be possible to ask each individual to make a choice about a use or

disclosure without establishing a default option. For example, on a website, an individual

can be required to make a selection before moving on to the next screen.

The value of individual choice is that it gives the individual a voice in how his or her

records may be used for purposes that are not directly related to the purpose for which

information was originally obtained. It is a way to resolve conflicts between data

subjects who desire privacy and officials and others who seek to use information in new

ways. It is a middle ground between saying that records are never available and that

records are freely available. The preference of the individual is a reasonable and

significant factor to consider when making decisions. With computerized information

25 988 F.2d 1344 (4th Cir. 1993).

26 18 U.S.C. § 2721 et seq. (2002).

32 32

systems, it is easier as well as practical to keep track of individual choices and to abide by

those choices.

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4. Usability

VRDs will be used by voters, election workers, and authorized officials from state and

local governments to perform crucial tasks. As problems in data entry and interpretation

can easily disenfranchise voters, user interfaces for these systems must be designed to

minimize opportunities for error.

User interfaces that provide users with inadequate and unclear feedback can lead to the

entry of inaccurate data. Displays that fail to provide indicators of system state (e.g., the

name of the currently authorized user) can introduce opportunities for malicious users.

Data displays that include identifying information beyond the minimum level needed to

complete a task might compromise voter privacy. Poorly designed voter registration

database user interfaces might confuse users and reduce confidence in the system, thus

creating a perception, if not a reality, of reduced reliability.

General Usability. User interfaces for voter registration database systems should be

designed to help all users complete their tasks confidently and correctly. The design,

development, and testing process should explicitly account for wide ranges in user

training, backgrounds, and physical abilities, as well as the physical environments in

which these user interfaces will be used.

VRDs will be used by voters, election workers, and other authorized officials to

accomplish numerous tasks, including (but not limited to) registering voters, updating

registration information, verifying eligibility for a given election, and extracting summary

reports. Each of these tasks involves one or more user interfaces that bridge the gap

between user tasks and the underlying database.

The range of possible users and uses make user interface design particularly

challenging. Although some people—for example, county and state elections staff—are

likely to be frequent users who receive detailed training, many others—namely polling

place volunteers and voters—will use these systems infrequently, possibly without any

training at all. Large variations in background, literacy, computer experience, and

physical capabilities (including disabilities) throughout the general voting population

complicate matters further. User interfaces should be designed to be easily usable by a

wide variety of users in a variety of challenging environments employing strategies such

as providing text in multiple languages and providing alternative input and output

methods for people with disabilities.

The environments in which these systems will be used present additional challenges.

Unlike systems that are only used in one well defined work context such as an office,

VRDs might be used in many places, including municipal offices, polling places, and in

homes or libraries via the Internet. These differing use contexts require different user


The computing environment may also influence usability. Computing platforms for

VRDs may have relatively minimal requirements for processor performance, network

bandwidth, memory, and display capabilities. However, user interfaces that seem to be

functional when a system is not stressed can encounter usability difficulties when there is

a high system load, network congestion, or other demanding situations. These issues are

discussed in more detail in Chapter 6 on reliability.

Human-computer interaction professionals know that simply adding an interface to an

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already-designed system does not work well. Interface design development,

documentation, and training materials should be addressed at the beginning of a project

and throughout its course of development and implementation. While an early focus on

interface design and testing allows more time for refinement, user interface evaluation

can provide useful information at almost any stage in the software development process.

The needs of the wide range of likely users should be evaluated during the interface

design process. Although it is clear that there will be many different types of users for

VRDs, not all types of users initially can be defined or identified completely. Input from

classes of many potential users including voters, public officials, poll workers, and others

can help clarify user needs. Serious consideration for user concerns also can have the

added benefit of building good will toward the project.

Before any user interfaces are designed, techniques such as interviews, group

discussions, and observations of users completing typical tasks with existing systems

(computerized or paper-based) can be employed to gather usability requirements and help

developers understand the contexts of use. Such activities also will help developers

understand the difference between classes of users and how those differences will impact

user interface design.

Usability requirements can act as a starting point for an iterative cycle of design and

feedback. Initially, simple mockups of proposed layouts will stimulate more input from

users and further clarify usability requirements. In addition to being inexpensive to

produce, paper prototypes and other informal presentations of design proposals can make

some users feel freer to make critical comments than if they are presented with an almostfinished

version. Feedback can be used to inform subsequent, more fully-realized

designs, with further iterations eventually leading to convergence on acceptable designs.

Structured evaluations can be useful for identifying specific usability issues that may

not arise in discussions with users. Usability experts can examine user interfaces for

consistency, proper feedback, error handling, and other criteria. Known as heuristic

evaluation, this technique is often very effective after just a few evaluations. Direct

observation of potential users attempting typical tasks with proposed designs can also be

very helpful. In so-called “think aloud” sessions, users are asked to tell observers what

they are doing and why. This feedback helps developers identify potentially confusing or

disorienting aspects of a proposed design. If multiple alternative designs are being

considered, a user study involving measurement of user performance (in terms of task

completion time, accuracy, or other objective measures) on meaningful tasks can help

clarify the strengths and weaknesses of the alternatives.

These measures may seem excessive to some, but frequent, early evaluations increase

the chances of finding problems with interface designs and other system features before

fixes become prohibitively costly.

The process of evaluating and refining user interfaces should continue after the

systems have been deployed. As various users—including many who were not involved

in the design discussions and evaluations—work with the system, usability difficulties

and challenges will likely be identified. Developers should assume that ongoing

feedback will lead to further user interface revisions.

Although specific user interfaces will vary from state to state, all of the VRDs will

face similar usability problems. Mechanisms for sharing insights gained during user

interface design and evaluation (while still respecting proprietary designs) can help

35 35

improve overall usability.

Usability in the Service of Accuracy, Security, Reliability, and Privacy. All user

interfaces should be explicitly designed to support the goal of building VRDs that are

accurate, secure, reliable, and sensitive to voter privacy concerns.

To be successful, user interface specification and design must be an integral part of the

software development process. As mechanisms for ensuring accuracy, reliability,

security, and privacy sensitivity are developed, their impact on user interactions should

be carefully considered and user interfaces designed accordingly.

Clear and useful feedback regarding the state of the system and the impact of user

actions is a crucial component of successful user interface design. Such feedback can

play a role in guaranteeing system security and privacy sensitivity. For example, user

interfaces used by polling workers or county officials might display a photo of the

currently logged in user at all times, allowing onlookers to verify that a task is being

performed by the appropriate person. Prominent displays of system date and time can

show both users and (when appropriate) voters that the systems are configured correctly.

Status alerts listing active network connections, along with indications of any that involve

unknown hosts, can be used to identify possible intrusion attempts. Dialog boxes and

other alerts that warn users of the potentially undesirable outcomes of their action should

be displayed. Well-designed displays of summaries regarding accesses to the system and

changes to voter records can help managers ensure that the system is functioning reliably

and securely.

User interfaces for VRDs should be minimal, containing only displays and

functionality that are necessary for the completion of specific tasks. Because displays of

personal information create risks for invasion of voter privacy, these displays should only

contain information that is necessary for the task at hand. For example, if the last four

digits of the Social Security number are used to verify identity, displays should contain

only those four digits, not the full number.

When extraneous functionality is removed from an interface, opportunities for

malicious hacking, data theft, or entry of inaccurate data are also removed. For example,

hardcopy printouts of voter registration data might contain unnecessary information that

violates voter privacy. Proper privacy protection would mandate protecting and

destroying the printouts. As modern printers generally receive data over a network

connection, hardcopy print facilities also have the potential to introduce security

vulnerabilities. Limiting print functionality to cases where it is absolutely necessary can

reduce these privacy and security risks.

Eliminating extraneous user interface components can have other benefits as well.

Simple user interfaces are often less cluttered and therefore easier to use, particularly for

novice users. Decreasing the complexity of the interface also can simplify the underlying

implementation, potentially reducing development costs.

Usability considerations must factor in tradeoffs as well. Supporting privacy,

accuracy, security, and reliability can sometimes reduce usability as can happen with

security measures that are explicitly designed to make systems unusable by unauthorized

users. For example, systems that are used in public places might have forced logouts

after very short idle times to prevent unattended workstations from becoming inviting

targets, even though this will, in some cases, result in annoyance for the authorized users.

36 36

Appropriate evaluations and user tests might identify aspects of interface design that

could negatively impact other design goals. Each display and control can be evaluated to

determine if it might introduce potential problems or if it simply can be removed.

Testing user interfaces under extreme or suboptimal conditions can provide insight

into the interplay between user interfaces and reliability. Systems that simply freeze or

lock-up under extreme operating conditions are neither usable nor reliable. Wherever

possible, systems should respond gracefully to stressful conditions, provide users with

appropriate feedback, and degrade to reduced functionality if some services are


Usability for Election Staff and Government Workers. Because errors in data entry,

retrieval, and interpretation by election workers and government officials can lead to

voter disenfranchisement, the VRDs should be designed to maximize the usability for

election officials while reducing these common problems. The challenge of constructing

user interfaces to minimize these errors is complicated by the nature of the user

population. County election officials and other municipal employees regularly use the

voter registration system. These users can be provided with training that would enable

them to effectively use a reasonably complex system. Volunteer election officials, on the

other hand, might use the system infrequently (perhaps one day per year) with minimal

training. These users might also be relatively unfamiliar with some election jargon.

Polling places are often crowded, busy, and noisy on Election Day. Noise,

interruptions, and other distractions can increase cognitive load on users, potentially

leading to an increased error rate. Any election technology user interfaces that will be

used during polling should account for Election Day stresses.

Known user interface design techniques can reduce the frequency of errors in data

input, retrieval, and interpretation. Data input forms should be designed with layouts that

clearly indicate the meaning of each field. When possible, data provided on these forms

should be immediately validated for accuracy and consistency. Error messages should be

as clear as possible, providing information that can help users respond appropriately, for

example, by correcting the input or by accessing external resources, such as

documentation or personnel, to clarify any confusion. However, as mentioned in the

previous section, messages should avoid disclosing unnecessary information.

Modifications to voter record fields such as address or party affiliation can change a

voter’s precinct or render the voter ineligible to vote in some primaries or for certain

offices. Functionality that might change the ability of one or more citizens to vote

should be available only to authorized users, but access controls are only the first step in

preventing harmful changes. Exactly as desktop operating systems require users to

confirm potentially damaging actions before they are executed (“Are you sure you want

to delete this file?”), user interfaces for VRDs should require explicit confirmation from

the user before making any changes that would restrict or modify an individual's ability

to vote. This confirmation might come in the form of a dialog box, or by requiring that a

certain check box be selected. For changes that have wider impact, particularly batch

updates, displays should indicate the number of affected records. Confirmation for these

changes should make users think twice before making significant changes. Possible

approaches include multiple, sequential requests for confirmation, request for

reauthentication via retyping of the user name and password, or requiring that users type

37 37

a word embedded in an image (a so-called CAPTCHA™ test, commonly used for

registration on web sites). Larger batch updates should require confirmation by the

current user and a colleague who confirms the action separately. Where possible, undo

facilities should be provided.

User interfaces for specifying data retrieval parameters are similar to data entry forms:

users must specify one or more values for each of several fields. Once data has been

retrieved, it should be presented clearly on screens that indicate both the values of the

specified parameters and the fields that match those parameters. Such a presentation will

help users distinguish between input errors and result interpretation errors. Important

fields such as registration status should be highlighted. Detailed feedback, including

appropriate contextual information and links to relevant rules and policies, should be

provided especially on problems and policies that might disenfranchise voters. To

minimize the risk of infringing upon voter privacy, all displays of personally identifiable

information should be limited to include only details that are necessary for the task at


Different users might require different user interfaces and training materials. An

interface for election officials might provide information that is more detailed and use

specialized language that would be inappropriate for election volunteers. Infrequent, less

well-trained users might benefit from training sessions, online tutorials, and online help.

The context of use is also an important factor in interface design. While audio indication

of input errors may be fine for office workers, noisy conditions in polling places might

render such output useless.

Interface designs should be tested thoroughly, with representative users performing

typical tasks under situations that simulate as closely as possible those of real use. These

challenging tests may identify usability problems that might not have been found during

testing under idealized conditions.

Usability for Voters. Usable interfaces for individual voters have the potential to

educate voters, provide necessary information, and build confidence in the election

process. Voters who are unable to perform voting tasks effectively might require help

from election officials. If assistance is not available, a voter might simply walk away,

effectively disenfranchised by bad design.

The deployment platform for voter user interfaces is an important concern. Systems

for use by election officials and workers are likely to be dedicated, stand-alone packages

with completely custom user interfaces. As the deployment of custom software to

individual voters is not practical, voters are likely to use web browsers to access

registration information. Although the use of standard browsers offers many advantages,

including the ease of linking to relevant contextual data, browsers can be somewhat

limited in the types of feedback that they can display.

The use of web browsers for general public-access user interfaces also presents testing

challenges. These systems need to work with many different hardware and software

configurations. Such systems need to have their performance verified on many web

browsers, including multiple older (and pre-release) versions of popular browsers and

screen-reader systems for people with visual impairments. Designing to generic, vendorneutral

standards is one way of achieving maximum portability; conversely, using one

vendor’s proprietary extensions is an almost certain way to restrict portability and access

38 38

by the full public.

Web-based user interfaces should be designed to maximize privacy and security.

Retrieval of information about polling places and election policy should be based on a

minimal specification: if the street address is sufficient for identifying a polling place,

the voter’s name should not be requested.

Conclusion. The importance of ease of use with VRDs cannot be overemphasized.

User-friendly interfaces are essential if the systems are to be effective and credible.

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5. Security

This chapter examines the security mechanisms that enforce the decisions made about

who may read or update VRDs. It also addresses ways of protecting against malicious

actions by both insiders and outsiders.

VRDs need to control who may access different kinds of information stored in the

VRD and under what circumstances they are authorized to do so. Accordingly, the first

part of this chapter discusses access controls. Careful control over who is allowed to read

or update the VRD reduces the possibility of intentional abuses and unintentional

mistakes by authorized users of the system.

The right to view or modify some portion of the VRD is called an access privilege.

The list of rules specifying who has which access privileges is called an access control

policy. We examine the following aspects of data access:

deciding who should specify which parts of the access control policy;

determining who should have which access privileges;

enforcing access control policies; and

authenticating that people are who they say they are so the system can identify what

access privileges each user should receive when the system is in use.

Generally speaking, four broad classes of access privileges are commonly found in any

database system:

Read privileges. The authority to view, inspect, read, print, or otherwise access

certain records without modifying them in any way.

Write privileges. The authority to modify, update, add, or delete certain records.

Administrative privileges. The authority to specify what privileges are made

available to other users. This includes the ability to create new user accounts, to

assign user accounts to specific employees, to specify or change the privileges

available to users, and to delete users. In some systems, this category might also

include related privileges such as the authority to modify or patch software, the

database schema, and other administrative functions.

Execution privileges. Operations that the user is allowed to perform. Execution

privileges are often enforced by another system component called the application


Access control policies should minimize the number of people who receive privileges

either to access each piece of information or to grant access to others. They should also

ensure that each person is granted only the minimal set of privileges needed to do his or

her job. Following these guidelines can provide significant protection.

The second part of this chapter discusses how to harden a VRD against attack. If a

VRD is not secured adequately, technical attacks by insiders who have access privileges

or by outsiders via hacking may undermine the VRD—for example, by inserting the

names of ineligible voters into the VRD or by removing names of eligible voters from the

VRD. Since there are many ways that an attacker might try to subvert the system, one

needs processes that encourage secure system design and detect and close significant

40 40

vulnerabilities in the deployed system. We discuss the following:

providing security against technical attacks and other attempts to subvert the system

(system security); and

dealing with security failures should they occur.

Dividing the Responsibility of Choosing an Access Control Policy. Access control

policies provide an automated way for state and local officials to implement the accuracy

and privacy policies discussed in Chapters 2 and 3, respectively. Access control can help

ensure that only authorized users are allowed to make authorized transactions.

Establishing access control policies will likely require the cooperation of state election

officials and election officials from each local jurisdiction. For example, state officials

might not have detailed knowledge of the staff and their responsibilities in each

jurisdiction; county officials are more likely know which county employees should

receive which kind of access. However, county officials are unlikely to be able to set

statewide policy. Therefore, we believe it will be productive if all relevant offices work

together in setting VRD access control policy. We discuss some of the options for

structuring this process.

One possibility is a partially centralized model. State officials might identify certain

common job roles, suggest a reasonable set of access privileges for each role, and perhaps

even require that local registrars adopt these roles and privilege sets. For example, roles

might include (1) data entry clerk (who receives access privileges that permit the creation

of new records and editing of existing records subject to approval by other officials), (2)

election judge (who approves modifications to voter records for all voters within the

judge’s jurisdiction), or (3) registrar of voters (who receives access privileges that allow

him or her to create accounts for new users, assign these users to roles, and change the

role assignments for existing users). To allow for local autonomy, localities might be

allowed to modify the roles and their privileges.

Alternatively, the partitioning of access privileges could be decentralized and left up to

county election officials, leaving the state officials with only tasks such as the following:

Specifying the access rights that officials in one jurisdiction have to data belonging to

others. This policy could be rigid, or subject to revision by the jurisdictions involved.

Managing a list of job roles and purposes, so that people in different jurisdictions all

use the same terminology. In other words, in situations where practices are the same,

make the vocabulary the same.

Specifying (or recommending) maximum privileges that can be granted to each job

role and purpose. A jurisdiction would be free to specify narrower privileges, if the

jurisdiction’s officials felt this was appropriate for their setting.

It is likely that even a centralized scheme will require some aspects of authorization to be

decentralized. For example, the roles of authorized users are more suitably managed

locally, such as by a county registrar, than from afar by, say, the Secretary of State. In

many cases a local registrar knows who local users are and thus is much less likely to be

deceived by an impersonator.

There is an opportunity for the EAC, or some other nationwide organization, to

41 41

provide sample roles and levels of privilege as suggestions to states and local

jurisdictions, leading to a more uniform vocabulary and starting point for states.

Some composite actions might require privileges from more than one of the four

categories of access privileges (read, write, administrative, and execution). For example,

moving a voter from one jurisdiction’s voter rolls to another’s might require both write

privilege (to delete the voter from the former jurisdiction’s voter rolls) and read privilege

(to obtain the information needed to add the voter to the new jurisdiction’s rolls).

Normally, a user should be permitted to take a composite action only if the user has all

relevant access privileges. Alternatively, such situations can be handled by access rules

that state who may execute the action. The rules can be specified by an authorized user

who administers all the necessary underlying privileges and enforced in either a DBMS

or an application server.

The process used to assign categories of access privileges need not be the same. For

example, it would be possible to assign administrative privileges via a semi-centralized

model, yet assign read and write privileges in a decentralized fashion. One could also

separate administration of felony status from administration of addresses.

Determination of the access control policy does not need to be tied to details of how

data is physically distributed. Access control policy might be determined in a centralized

or decentralized fashion regardless of whether the VRD data is stored at a centralized

location or is physically distributed.

Assigning Access Privileges. The access control policy’s scope should include all types

of access to the VRD including records on both voters and non-voters, database schema,

and so forth, and the VRD should be designed so that such a policy can be enforced. To

reduce the overhead of administering privileges, we recommend the approach of

grouping people by their roles. Most DBMSs and application servers support this

approach. One might define groups of people, groups of data, groups of actions, and

specify rules for whole groups. Election officials should specify very detailed rules on

who can access what.

It is advisable not to grant all users the same access privileges. Instead of thinking in

terms of access to whole databases (e.g., the list of eligible voters or the database from

which the eligible voter list was derived), officials should determine specific access rights

for each user or group, limiting each user to appropriate data fields, subsets of voter

records, and purposes, as well as appropriate access modes (e.g., read, modify, delete,

create). One can specify privileges for individual fields of all voters’ records (e.g.,

authority to modify party affiliation and preferred contact method but not the mailing

address). One also can specify access privileges for sets of voter records (e.g., authority

to modify any part of the voter record for voters in Boston). Separately, one can specify

access privileges in terms of groups of people (e.g., all data entry clerks receive the same

set of access privileges) or in terms of individual employees (e.g., a privilege granted

only to Alice Jones).

The basic principle underlying a sound access control policy is to minimize the

number of people who have routine access (read or write) to each data item, and to

minimize the amount of data that each person has access to. The rule of thumb is to give

each user of the system the minimum amount of access privileges he or she legitimately

needs to get the job done and nothing more. This is often known as the Principle of Least

42 42


A related guideline is that users’ tasks should be structured to minimize the amount of

access they need and to minimize the number of people allowed to access information.

For example, processes should be organized so that poll workers do not require routine

access to voters’ Social Security numbers or criminal conviction information.

The Principle of Least Privilege helps reduce the likely impact of security failures and

abuse should they occur. For example, if some user’s password is discovered by a

hacker, then the hacker might gain access to everything to which the user has access. In

this case, the damage will be far less if the user has only a limited degree of access to the

system. By comparison, if every user receives full privileges to read and write every

voter record within the state, then penetration of a single user account could lead to

almost unlimited harm to the VRD. The Principle of Least Privilege also helps reduce

the likelihood of insider abuse of privileges.

A user’s access rights should usually depend on his or her role, location, current

purpose, and so forth:

User access privileges should be limited by jurisdiction. Election officials normally

should not be granted privilege to read or modify records for voters registered outside

of their jurisdiction. For example, San Diego election officials would normally not

need to read or modify the records of a San Francisco voter, so they should not be

given access privileges that would let them do so. As a special case for voters who

move, a San Diego election official might be permitted to read the record of a San

Francisco voter when performing a transfer transaction that moves the voter to San

Diego County. Initiating such a transfer also might require approval by a San

Francisco election official.

An employee who processes registration forms might be allowed only to change a

voter’s driver’s license or phone number, while an official responsible for

determining eligibility might be allowed only to update whether or not a voter is


Access might also be limited by field. For example, on Election Day poll workers

need read access to some information from the voter rolls (including voter names,

addresses, and party affiliations for some elections) to check voter eligibility at the

polls. However, poll workers normally would not be granted any access to other

fields of the voter record because such access is not needed to perform their jobs and

because poll workers are not vetted as carefully as other users of the system. The

access control policy should codify such privileges and restrictions.

Administrative privileges should be particularly restrictive; very few users should

have the ability to grant access to others. Privileges also might be limited to account for

organizational relationships. In certain circumstances, preventing municipal employees

from increasing the access levels of their supervisors might remove the possibility of

conflicts between database access policies and manager-employee relationships.

Similarly, users with administrative privileges should never be allowed to grant

themselves new access privileges; requiring the consent of another administrative user

increases accountability.

Use of software that extracts and prints voter information, including the creation of

43 43

DVD-ROMs for political parties or poll workers, should be governed by the privileges of

the ultimate recipient. In other words, documents or DVD-ROMs should contain only

data that all of the recipients are allowed to view, even if the creators of the documents

have additional privileges.

It is likely that access control policies will need to be updated periodically. As with

privacy policies, older versions of access control policies should be retained, along with

their dates of applicability. Furthermore, officials may wish to consider making their

access control policies public in some form in the interests of transparency and to make

the chain of responsibility clear.

We recommend that those responsible for managing VRDs attempt to measure how

effectively they have limited privilege by characterizing how many people have access to

how much data and by tracking progress over time using these metrics. For example, one

might count for each voter record how many people have some kind of access privilege

to at least part of this record and compute the average of this across all voter records.

More refined metrics might reflect access to only some of the fields (e.g., affiliation but

not full SSN). One might perform separate analyses for read access (to assess privacy

risk) and write access (as a risk to accuracy). We stress that we mention these metrics

only as examples of what is possible.

The EAC, or other nationwide voting administration organizations, could play a

helpful role in coordinating an effort to develop suitable metrics. Ideally, such metrics

would be published by each state, enabling independent analysts to evaluate each state’s

effectiveness at setting access control policies and facilitating comparisons of practices

among states in a meaningful way.

Adding election workers to the system in an appropriate fashion is a crucial step in the

operation of a VRD. It does no good to have restricted access rights if a corrupt official

can add new personnel with arbitrary access privileges. There are two complementary

solutions: public logs of all changes to the list of authorized parties including their access

rights, and a dual signature requirement for any changes to the list (also known as twoperson

control). Both should be adopted for most users of the system. An exception

might be made in the case of poll workers with very limited read access to the system

(e.g., ability to view redacted records of only voters within their precinct) and no write

access. In this case, approval by a single full-time election official might replace the

dual-signature requirement.

Access During Emergencies. Provisions also need to be in place for handling

emergencies. Officials should create rules that allow trusted election officials to

temporarily increase privileges available to others. This might be achieved by creating

rules that enable additional privileges under emergency conditions, together with a

separate mechanism to declare to the system that an emergency exists. Emergency

overrides should be tightly controlled, for example by two-person authorization,

generation of detailed audit logs regarding such events, notification of the person whose

privileges are delegated, and periodic proactive inspection of such audit logs. No single

user should be permitted to declare an emergency and elevate his or her access privileges

during the declared emergency; instead, exercise of an emergency override should require

the active cooperation of at least two people.

Recognizing that people will occasionally be absent or overloaded with work, it will

44 44

sometimes be necessary to grant one employee some privileges belonging to another. If

access control policies are based on roles, this can be done by temporarily assigning a

new role to the appropriate individual. In any case, this should be done without revealing

either employee’s password to the other employee. Emergency or unanticipated

delegation of access privileges should be temporary, preferably with automated

procedures to remove the extra authority.

Enforcing Access Policies. DMBS and application server security provide several

mechanisms for specifying and enforcing policies with the goal of keeping administration

manageable. First, DBMSs provide mechanisms for describing the set of users. One can

Define groups and assign users to them. Groups, rather than individuals, then become

the basic unit of authorization. Similarly, one may define a role to represent a

specific set of privileges (e.g., those associated with a job description).

Give users additional descriptive properties that may be used for decisions. For

example, officials might be associated with a list of zip codes for which they are


Second, DBMSs provide the means for assigning privileges to users and enforcing the

access control policy. One can

Grant a privilege for a group to access a field or specified fields of the database (e.g.,

encoding a policy that states that this user is permitted to view the voter’s address but

not the voter’s full SSN).

Grant access to a view that filters or summarizes the data but hides many details.

Some views might filter by locality, while others might provide statistical summaries

that are widely releasable.

Grant access in which some items in a database are automatically filtered out based

on the current user or task.

Application servers offer some of these capabilities, together with privileges to execute

programs that implement business functions larger than a single DBMS request.

The VRDs should use access control mechanisms provided in the DBMS; trying to

implement access control entirely at the application level leaves greater opportunity for

security mechanisms to be bypassed or compromised. There should be no way for users

to bypass the access control mechanisms. For each user request, either the application

server policy must approve the entire operation or the DBMS must enforce access

controls on each data access or both. This requires examining the user’s individual

credential and the privileges associated with his or her job. Implementing an access

control rule in the DBMS guarantees that the rule applies to all operations that developers


Authentication: Verifying Identity. In any system with restricted access rights,

authentication is crucial. The system needs a way for people to prove who they are; from

this, their access rights must be determined and enforced.

Authentication can be done in many different ways. The most common form of

45 45

authentication is by user name and password. While superficially attractive, password

authentication is subject to many failure modes including password guessing,

inappropriate sharing of passwords, and inadvertent or deliberate password leakage.

Authentication schemes based on physical devices can be considerably more secure.

Systems based on smart cards or timer-based tokens require the presentation of an

appropriately encoded electronic device (possibly within a defined time period) for

authentication. Biometrics such as fingerprints or eye scans may also provide greater

security than simple textual passwords.

The potential advantages of these alternative authentication techniques may be offset

by increases in cost and complexity. Lost smart cards are likely to be more expensive to

replace than lost passwords. Biometrics systems may have difficulties in enrollment:

difficulties in the initial capture of the finger, eye, or voiceprint may cause later problems

with authentication.

Security breaches in authentication mechanisms might be exploited to achieve

unfettered access to the underlying systems. To avoid this scenario, authentication

mechanisms should be carefully designed and tested. Authentication servers must be

highly secured, both physically and technically, and appropriate cryptographic techniques

should be used. VRDs should not utilize any authentication techniques that have not

been validated by extensive use in production environments.

Biometric systems are especially tricky, because many current deployments have been

implemented improperly. The use of fingerprints, retinal scans, facial features, and other

biometrics all rely on the conversion of these characteristics into strings of bits that can

be stored and processed by computers. If these digitized versions of the biometrics are

transmitted across networks or stored on multiple computers, security weaknesses in the

networks or remote computers might be exploited to capture the biometrics. A malicious

attacker who captures digitized biometrics might be able to use them to gain access to the

system. In addition to reducing the security of the VRD, such attacks might compromise

the use of the specific biometric by the affected users in any other domain. As a result,

biometric data should be stored as close to the user as possible, perhaps used only to

unlock a smart card. In this scenario, the user’s fingerprint, for example, might be used

to verify that she is the authorized user of a smart card that would then be used to access

the VRD. As the biometric data would be stored only on the smart card (which is

generally under the physical control of the authorized user), there are no network

connections or remote hosts to tempt malicious intruders.

Biometrics also should be used only in a supervised setting to foil various forms of

spoofing attack. There have been many reports of successful attacks on unsupervised

biometric authentication. For example, with some facial recognition systems, holding up

a glossy photograph of an authorized user to the camera is sufficient to fool the system.

There also have been published reports stating it is possible fool a fingerprint recognition

system by lifting the fingerprints of an authorized user off of a surface touched by that

person and creating a fake “gummy finger” made out of gelatin that bears the authorized

users’ fingerprint.27

Different authentication schemes might be appropriate for different users or different

27 Tsutomu Matsumoto, 2002, “Gummy and Conductive Silicone Rubber Fingers: Importance of

Vulnerability Analysis,” pp. 574-575 in Advances in Cryptology - ASIACRYPT 2002, Lecture

Notes in Computer Science, Vol. 2501.

46 46

tasks. The type of authentication being used should be determined by the type of task

that the user is performing, the expense and complexity of the authentication scheme, and

the potential harm that may be caused if the authentication system is breached.

Advanced authentication schemes are more appropriate for election workers and

government officials with access to greater privileges over a wide range of voter records.

In these cases, multi-factor authentication (such as requiring both a biometric and

password) may be warranted, despite its higher costs or inconvenience.

Another style of authentication relies on a technology known as certificates. Apart

from authenticating the user, certificates allow for operation in the absence of access to a

permission database. A certificate can contain a user's access rights in a form that is

mathematically protected from change. When a certificate is presented to a system, that

system can enforce the user’s access rights using only the data presented. Because

certificates are too long to be memorized or typed, they frequently are stored on smart


Once a user has been authenticated to the system, each operation on the database

should check that the person’s privileges allow him or her to perform that operation.

Similarly, the database should create an audit trail for all requests that modify the

database. Both of these goals are straightforward to achieve. Logging read operations

may be feasible and useful though careful engineering is needed to ensure that the

logging system can handle the data volume. As previously discussed, to guarantee that

these access controls cannot be bypassed, access control restrictions should be

implemented in the database itself, where possible.

The importance of security training cannot be overstated. Authorized users of the

system must be taught about protection of passwords, how to resist social engineering

attacks—attempts to deceive someone into performing certain actions—and the

importance of never sharing their passwords, even with their colleagues and other

authorized users. Training should include how to cope with failure scenarios such as how

to proceed when normal authentication mechanisms are for some reason not functioning.

Because procedures that seem arbitrary are often ignored, users should also learn how

and why failure to follow procedures could lead to security breaches. Knowing why a

rule is in place is the best motivation for following it.

Operational Security. If a partial or whole database is transferred from a central site to

another location, protection becomes more difficult, especially if the data is transferred to

system with different security controls. Digital signature techniques can protect the

integrity of database dumps; thus, a county system that receives a copy of its database on

a DVD-ROM could verify that the copy was properly created by the statewide system.

Further, a combination of encrypted media and procedural controls (i.e., the presence of

two people to decrypt the data) can help.

Security Against Technical Attacks. VRD systems must be secured against technical

attacks, including attacks both by outside “hackers” and by insiders. When any system is

connected to an open communication network, including the Internet, a wireless network,

or the phone system, the risk from hackers becomes substantial. Any network-connected

VRD will be exposed to attacks from anyone anywhere in the world who cares to attack

it; therefore, system security needs to be sufficiently robust to survive the inevitable

47 47

onslaught of attacks. It is imperative that security be considered starting very early in the

software development lifecycle so that design decisions can be made in ways that

maximize security. Trying to add security as an afterthought to a completed system often

leads to catastrophic security failures.

First, all communication channels should be secured. Anything transmitted over open

communication networks such as the Internet, wireless network, or the phone system

should be protected using end-to-end cryptography (such as a VPN or an encrypted

network tunnel). This cryptography requirement applies to all channels of

communication including those between local election officials and the central database.

It may also be prudent to cryptographically protect all data sent over internal networks to

limit the damage if a hacker is able to break into the internal network or if an insider

seeks to attack the system. Cryptography is especially important if wireless networks are

employed, because otherwise anyone within radio range can effectively gain insider

access to the wireless network.

Second, defenses should be applied to prevent outsiders from penetrating internal

systems. Firewalls should be used to severely limit connectivity between internal and

external networks. One simple strategy might be to completely disconnect voting

registration systems from all open networks. For example, county officials might

communicate with central servers by sending authenticated DVD-ROMs through the

mail. Alternatively, if network connectivity is necessary, firewalls should be used to

minimize the set of communication protocols, network services, and destination

addresses allowed to cross the firewall communicate from the internal network to the

external network or vice versa.

Mission-critical machines should be hardened as much as possible, and they should be

professionally administered. All relevant security patches should be applied, and virus

scanners should be used where appropriate. Unnecessary network services should be

disabled. These machines and networks should be used only for voter registration.

Third, mechanisms should be deployed to detect any penetration of system defenses,

as well as any insider misuse. For example, application-specific intrusion detection

systems could be used to monitor the number of updates to the VRD. Any large spike in

activity, whether by an authorized user or in the aggregate, might warrant human

attention. In addition, officials could consider contracting with a third-party network

security monitoring service to detect network intrusions and attempted attacks on the


Fourth, care should be taken to ensure that it is possible to recover from security

failures. Regular backups are a simple and effective method for recovering from known

failures. All modifications to the database should be logged to write-once media to

provide a trustworthy audit trail and enable after-the-fact forensic investigations. Offsite

storage of backups can reduce the risk of catastrophic loss of voter registration data.

However, backups themselves must be secured, possibly including encryption, so that

their loss does not compromise voter privacy or reveal information.

Denial-of-service attacks are particularly vexing. Such an attack could render the

VRD unreachable or non-functional when it is most needed. Election officials should be

aware that systems connected to open networks are almost invariably subject to malicious

denial-of-service attacks that render the system unavailable or unreachable. Because it is

beyond the state-of-the-art to completely prevent denial-of-service attacks, either officials

48 48

should have a plan prepared for how to ride out and survive such attacks, or they should

avoid the use of open networks. For example, one might arrange to use DVD-ROMs if

the network has been rendered unusable. Because of the threat of Election Day denial-ofservice

attacks, officials should ensure that it is possible to function without any network

connectivity on this day. Options might include downloading all critical data to polling

places several days in advance or distributing copies of the registration list printed on

paper. These issues are also discussed in Chapter 6 on reliability.

Fifth, officials should obtain an independent review of their system before

deployment. We recommend hiring a group of skilled experts to evaluate VRD security.

These experts will conduct a thorough risk analysis of system requirements, architecture,

security processes, and all other aspects of the system. These reviews should check for

flaws that would allow attackers to obtain privacy-sensitive information, to compromise

the integrity of the database by modifying information without authorization, or to mount

denial-of-service attacks that would render the VRD inoperable. The use of technical,

physical, and human procedural measures to attempt to penetrate a system can also

identify security problems that might otherwise have been overlooked.

Officials should consider including an independent security review and publication of

the software as part of the acceptance testing for the system. Claims that the security of

the system will be endangered by such a review should be treated with extreme

skepticism or rejected outright.

Sixth, the technical security of the system needs to be viewed as an ongoing

responsibility, with resources devoted to it accordingly. Election officials may find it

useful to perform periodic security audits of their system to ensure that system security is

kept up to date as technology and attacks change. As the system will evolve over time,

and as the threats will change with time, it is important that the system be tested for

security issues on a periodic basis. In particular, the system should be fully evaluated

after any major upgrades and after recovery from any significant incident

Dealing with Security Failures. In spite of good security measures, there is always

some possibility that an attacker will carry out a successful attack. When successful

attacks do occur, the system should protect the ability of users (including both election

officials and voters) to carry out their activities with as little disruption as possible.

Additionally, because prosecution of attackers can act as a deterrent to future attackers, it

is important that systems be designed to support potential identification and prosecution

of attackers, for example, by keeping audit logs and maintaining a proper chain of

custody for relevant records.

Electronic registration databases heighten the need for well-designed recovery

mechanisms, because a statewide electronic database potentially introduces opportunities

for more, and more significant, failures. To the extent possible, existing policies and

laws should be applied.

We discuss three categories of security failures:

unauthorized disclosure of data in which some data is seen by someone who is not

authorized to see the data;

breaches of integrity, in which ineligible voters are wrongly registered and/or actually

vote or in which eligible voters are disenfranchised or wrongly prevented from

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voting; and

breaches of reliability, possibly occurring on Election Day, in which legitimate users

of the database are unable to get necessary results.

Unauthorized Disclosure of Data. Disclosure can occur by accident or on purpose.

Unauthorized disclosure can happen when an authorized user of the system exceeds his

privileges, or when an outsider gains unauthorized access. VRDs should incorporate

audit logs (discussed in Chapter 2 on accuracy) that record all attempts to read

registration data. With appropriate scrutiny of these audit logs, it may be possible to

detect many cases of unauthorized disclosure.

To the extent possible, individuals should be notified if it is determined that data about

them has been or may have been obtained inappropriately. Security breach notification

laws in California and other states are already having a beneficial effect in this regard.

Breaches of Integrity. The intentional corruption of official records is both a federal

and state crime falling under many different statutes, giving prosecutors a number of

options. However, unless appropriate audit trails, procedures, and detective controls are

in place, security breaches are unlikely to be noticed and identified as potential criminal


Because of the high legal and public relations cost of disenfranchising legitimate

voters or allowing ineligible people to vote on Election Day, states should have

procedures for auditing and quantifying the accuracy of registration data before an

election. For example, election officials could perform an audit of a statisticallysignificant

random sample of all changes to the voter registration database since the last

election to look for anomalies, followed by a more thorough audit if anomalies are found.

Such an audit should be performed sufficiently in advance that corrective actions can be

taken before Election Day if errors are discovered.

To avoid disenfranchisement of legitimate voters on Election Day, it is also important

to avoid creating a culture among poll workers that assumes that the computer is always

right. In particular, it should be possible for someone who thinks she is a registered voter

but is not in the database to cast a provisional ballot that can be counted later, if it is

subsequently determined that she is an eligible voter.

Breaches of Reliability. Unlike breaches of data and integrity, which can go undetected,

breaches of reliability are easily detectable. Audit logs, including firewall logs, are

crucial for tracing and perhaps prosecuting malicious attackers. To limit the impact of

reliability breaches on Election Day, we suggest that each polling place be given a

backup copy of the data that will be needed to validate eligible voters within that

precinct. This list should contain only the information needed for validating voters. For

example, Social Security numbers might be redacted from the backup list. Existing

policies allow the polls to be kept open beyond the scheduled closing time if failures

occur; we recommend these policies be followed. Reliability issues and fallback

procedures are discussed in more detail in the next chapter.

50 50

6. Reliability

Reliability is often thought of as system availability (i.e., whether the system is up and

running 24×7). However, to better understand reliability, we need to understand the

goals of reliability in a statewide VRD.

While 24×7 operation may achieve these goals, solutions that are more economical are

possible because reliability can often be achieved without continuous online access to the

database. For example, if regulations impose a deadline for registration or registration

changes sufficiently in advance of an election, static snapshot copies of the database may

be adequate for supporting Election Day verification of voter registration. Static copies

may well prove more reliable than attempting to guarantee reliable network access from

each polling place.

We assume that VRDs will have more intense usage in the months immediately prior

to the election, with a very large spike in usage during and immediately following the

election itself. Activity before an election includes absentee voting, in-person absentee

voting, and early voting. Absentee and in-person absentee voting occurs anywhere from

10 to 45 days before Election Day, and early voting usually occurs 10 to 14 days before

Election Day.

With this in mind, we divide the recommendations for design of a VRD into two

classes—namely, technical and operational mechanisms for ensuring reliability. We also

give recommendations for ensuring reliability during the development of the database.

Technical Mechanisms for Reliability. The hardware/software combination used to

access the VRD needs to provide good response and reliable service. It should be

designed to work well both in non-election times, when the major activity is voter

registration, and in the high-activity times, immediately prior to and during the election


We list several design choices that can be used to improve reliability and discuss

recommendations and caveats to be considered when evaluating choices.

Redundancy. While redundant communications systems (e.g., multiple network

connections from different providers) have been used successfully,28 care must be taken

to ensure that the systems are truly redundant. For example, a modem and ADSL

connection29 over the same phone line provides little redundancy; two ADSL lines from

different providers probably provides less still, as they likely utilize the same central

28 The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, makes frequent use of redundant systems

for air-traffic control. This includes both alternate communication links such as redundant fiber

links for Airport Lighting Control and Monitoring Systems (see AC 150/5345-56) and

independent approaches such as using Flight Service Station communications as a backup for

relaying Air Route Traffic Control Center instructions if direct ARTCC contact is lost (see

Aeronautical Information Manual).

29 “ADSL, which stands for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line, is a broadband communication

technology designed for use on regular phone lines. It has the ability to move data over the phone

lines at speeds up to 140 times speedier than the fastest analog modems available today.” From

51 51

switch leased from the local telephone company.

A more robust form of redundancy is to support independent approaches to

accomplish the same task. For example, using online access to a centralized statewide

database as the primary means of entering voter registrations allows immediate

verification of registration. However, a power failure affecting a central database

immediately before a registration deadline could prevent registration workers from

entering registrations in time. Allowing local entry, followed by later online

validation/verification of the entered values, could provide operational reliability similar

to redundant power sources for the central database, but at less cost.

Replication. Replicating data in multiple places has value, but the impact of likely or

anticipated types of failures must be evaluated to ensure that replication significantly

increases reliability. Replicating the database may not protect against software failures

that cause errors to spread to all copies, and keeping the replicated databases in different

physical locations has the added cost of space for the replicated system and

communication lines between the locations for updating the replicas. Additionally,

replicated data may not be useful if communications problems at polling places make

network access unavailable. Careful archival procedures combined with adequate

fallback procedures may be more cost effective and provide as effective reliability as


For example, sending DVD-ROM copies of the relevant part of the database to polling

places shortly before an election would provide both a high degree of replication and a

fallback procedure for access to the data if either centralized database or communication

failures occur. However, the use of DVD-ROM copies must be tempered by the

increased risk of disclosure of information. The information stored on such copies should

include only the data that would otherwise be available to the polling place and no more.

As discussed in Chapter 5 on security, encryption and digital signatures, along with

appropriate policies for their use, should be used to protect these copies.

Building and including redundancy is not sufficient. The system must also be tested

under realistic situations as discussed in the testing section of this chapter.

Distribution. As was discussed in the introduction, statewide VRDs are being

implemented as top-down, in which the master copy of the database is stored in a

centralized location, or bottom-up, in which the master copy of the database is actually

distributed among many databases. A properly designed distributed database can provide

a centralized list of voters as HAVA mandates. The design of a distributed VRD must be

evaluated to ensure both that no single failure (hardware or software) can bring down all

the connected databases and that fallback procedures are adequate in each county to

protect against localized failure.

Distributed databases can serve as a good backup and contain damage caused by

failures, including software failures and actions of malicious insiders. However,

designers must be aware that distributed database systems can be vulnerable to mass

propagation of errors if processes are designed to apply to all the databases at once.

Another potential problem is to design a distributed database system so that individual

parts cannot act independently. For example, one can design a system that requires that a

county database coordinate with a central database for every transaction. It is important

52 52

to design a distributed database so that these possibilities are minimized.

Database distribution also increases the difficulty of ensuring the accuracy of the data,

unless the system is designed to coordinate the data in the individual databases. One of

HAVA’s main requirements is that data should be coordinated between VRDs and other

databases; therefore, this element should be part of every distributed VRD’s design.

Centralization. Centralized databases face a different set of reliability challenges. If the

entire database is stored in a central location, this location becomes a single point of

failure. Power difficulties, network problems, or other reliability problems with the

central location might bring voter registration activities to a halt throughout the state.

Although replication and redundancy can help reduce such risks, additional costs may be

involved. The use of alternative methods to access and input data, including DVDROMs,

printed voter lists, and paper forms, may be particularly important when

centralized databases are used.

Archives. When data is backed up, the backup files can be recycled or can be retained as

long-term archives. Archives safeguard against loss from software failures, intrusion, or

malicious insiders who could damage less resilient kinds of backup. Consequently, an

archive must be protected from modification through write-once media such as DVDROM

to ensure against both accidental and intentional erasure or modification.

A second use of archival material is for forensics—that is, identifying what went

wrong when a failure occurs, correcting the problem, and preventing new failures (this

includes both human- and system-caused failures). To ensure detection of malicious

action, it is important to log and archive all changes to the database. With the decreasing

cost and increasing density of backup media, long-term maintenance of such logs, which

we recommend, can be achieved at reasonable cost.

Operational Mechanisms for Reliability. Reliability will not be achieved solely

through technical means. Provisions must exist to ensure the integrity of the election

process in spite of possible Election Day failure of the registration database. Since it

should always be assumed that something could go wrong, a system must include

operational procedures, or fallback processes, that ensure reliability in spite of technical

failures. While these procedures are often tied to the technical design decisions, it is

necessary to document the operational procedures to be followed in the event of database


We recommend that for each process there be at least one specified alternate process

to follow in case of failure. In particular, there should be a fallback procedure for each

process that could affect the ability of people to vote on Election Day. For example,

suppose the process requires that voters physically sign a voter registration list. In case

the correct list is not sent to the polling place, we recommend as a fallback that there be a

back-up computer system and communication line available at the polling place, so that

people’s names can be looked up online. If the process requires that voters’ names be

looked up online, then a fallback would be to provide paper copies of the list in case the

computers or their connections go down. Further, Election Day verifications can be done

(1) via paper systems, (2) via personal computers or handheld devices with DVD-ROMs,

or other methods of holding static copies of the voter list, or (3) via personal computers

53 53

or handheld devices connected by electronic communication links to central VRDs.

Regardless of the method used, a fallback process should be devised to deal with its

failure. When appropriate, these processes should operate in tandem with provisional

balloting and other measures designed to protect a voter’s right to vote.

Provisions for Delayed Entry of Registration Information. While direct entry of voter

registration information into the database may be desirable, allowing immediate

confirmation of registration that requires direct entry could undermine the registration

process in case of system failure. As discussed previously, fallback procedures must be

developed to support alternate means of registration.

Testing Issues. A VRD must be tested to ensure that it will function reliably when

placed into service. The problem is that it is impossible to do a true stress test on a VRD

because there is no way to completely replicate the stress of an Election Day except to

have an election. However, through effective modeling of the system and its capabilities,

it is possible to design tests that effectively simulate the stress of actual use. This

imposes the requirements on the contracting agency of ensuring that sufficient

information is available for vendors/developers and quality assurance groups to

adequately model the system.

Technical measures designed to increase greater reliability also should be tested.

When used, replication and redundancy facilities might be tested by trying to operate the

system when all or part of the system is unexpectedly taken offline. In accordance with

EAC recommendations, archival backups should be tested regularly.30

The system also should be secured against external network-based attacks (see

Chapter 5 on Security). Tests that simulate denial-of-service and related attacks can be

used to evaluate the robustness of the VRD and possibly identify weaknesses that should

be addressed.

30 U.S. Election Assistance Commission, 2005, Voluntary Guidance on Statewide Voter

Registration Lists, available online at

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Appendix A: Glossary

Following is a relatively non-technical glossary of terms referred to in the report. Our

intent is for the report to be readable by as many people as possible; for that reason, many

of the definitions below are not as technically detailed as they might be. For more

exhaustive technical definitions or explanations of these and other related terms, please

refer to one of the two documents noted at the end of the glossary.

Access control policy – A list of rules assigning access privileges to system users.

Access privilege – The right to read or update a particular kind of data, or to execute a

particular operation.

Application – One or more computer programs developed to provide specific

functionality. Examples include such things as word processing applications, web

browsers, database software, and so on.

Authentication – The process of verifying that a person is who he or she claims to be –

for example, specific knowledge of a personal identification number (or PIN) is often

used to authenticate ATM card users.

Backups – Copies made for the purpose of safeguarding information; making regular

backups of important data is a widely recognized best-practice.

Batch update – A group of additions, modifications, or deletions to a database received

from what is believed to be an authorized source (e.g., a local county).

Biometrics – Authentication techniques that rely on an individual’s physical attributes

(for example, fingerprints, iris scans, facial recognition, and so on).

Bottom-up – Approach to managing voter registration data whereby each county or

municipality may keep its own database of records for voters within the county, and the

county’s records may be reconciled with a database run by the state on a periodic basis.

See also “top-down.”

CAPTCHA™ (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and

Humans Apart) – is a mechanism used to verify that a human user is completing a form,

as opposed to a computer program. Generally, CAPTCHA tests consist of an image that

contains distorted text that is easy to read for humans, but very difficult for computer

software to interpret.

Certificate – A cryptographic tool used to verify such things as the identity of a

computer, the source of a program, the integrity of a message, or the identity of the

source of a message.

Ciphertext – Information rendered unintelligible except to those who can decrypt it;

(encrypted plaintext).

Data element – A basic data structure in a database (for example, “last name,” “address,”

“city,” and so on).

DBMS – A database management system is a computer program (or a suite of programs)

55 55

that enables users to store, modify, and retrieve information from a database.

Decryption – The process of turning ciphertext back into plaintext. See Encryption.

Denial of service attack – An attack on a system where the objective is to prevent the

normal use of that system, often by overwhelming the system with a large volume of

seemingly normal transactions or requests for data.

Digital Signature – An electronic signature based upon cryptographic methods of

originator authentication, computed by using a set of rules and a set of parameters such

that the identity of the signer and the integrity of the data can be verified.

DVD-ROM – Digital versatile disk (originally “digital video disc”) is an optical storage

disk similar to compact disks (CDs). However, DVDs are capable of storing much more

data. ROM, or read-only memory, refers to disks that are capable of being written to

only once.

Encryption – The process for turning plaintext (e.g., a person’s name and address) into

ciphertext, where the meaning of the encrypted plaintext is obfuscated. See also


FIPs – Fair Information Practices, a widely accepted set of principles (e.g., notice,

security, minimization, and so on) for addressing concerns about information privacy.

Firewall – A means for preventing unauthorized access to a given system. Firewalls

(both hardware and software firewalls) allow administrators to regulate the kind of traffic

and data that flow into and out of a system.

HAVA – The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-252). Election reform

legislation that mandated statewide VRDs.

Heuristic evaluation – A strategy for evaluating user interface designs. In heuristic

evaluations, usability experts examine user interfaces for consistency, proper feedback

and error handling, and other criteria. Heuristic evaluation can often be a cost-effective

alternative to more rigorous evaluation via controlled user studies.

Internet Protocol (commonly referred to as "IP") – is a connectionless, best-effort

packet-switching protocol and makes up part of the TCP/IP suite of protocols that enable

machines to communicate with each other on the Internet.

Intrusion detection system – An application designed to detect attacks on a network or

computer system.

Logs – Records of actions within a system, often contained in specific files (for example,

audit log files, error log files, and so on). Information found in logs generally includes a

description of what was done, when it was done, who did it, and other details necessary

to construct and accurate and complete record of what happened.

Merges/purges – Batch updates that involve the integration, alteration, or removal of

large amounts of data in an automated fashion (for example, updating voter records in a

database by comparing data with a driver’s license database, or removing records in a

voter database based on records added to a death record database).

Plaintext – Intelligible information; generally in a form readable by a person (decrypted


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SSN – Social Security number.

Top-down – An approach to managing voter registration data whereby state officials

administer a single master computer server; all voter records are stored on that central

server, and all requests to view or modify voter records are executed on the central

server. See also “bottom-up.”

Truncation – The practice of displaying only part of an identifying number (e.g., a

Social Security number) for the purposes of identity verification.

VPN – Virtual private network.

VRD – Voter registration database.

Web-based – Applications that are accessed via the Internet (or an intranet), generally

using a web browser (e.g., web-based email services like Google’s Gmail or Yahoo!


Note: Other relevant resources include the glossary associated with Volume One of the

U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s Voluntary Voting System Guidelines, which is

available online at, and the Consolidated Security Glossary

by the NIST IEEE POSIX P1003.6 Security Working Group, which is available at

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Appendix B: Biographies of Committee Members

Paula Hawthorn, Ph.D., Co-Chair

Dr. Hawthorn received her Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from

the University of California in 1979. Her thesis topic was on the performance of database

systems. She has spent much of her career as a manager of database development,

including Vice-President of Software Development for start-ups such as Britton Lee and

Illustra, and both management and individual contributor positions at Hewlett-Packard

(working on database performance issues) and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

She is now mostly retired, with occasional consulting and continuing involvement with

U.C. Berkeley.

Barbara Simons, Ph.D., Co-Chair

Dr. Simons earned her Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley and was a computer science researcher

at IBM Research, where she worked on compiler optimization, algorithm analysis, and

scheduling theory. A former President of the Association for Computing Machinery

(ACM), Dr. Simons founded ACM’s U.S. Public Policy Committee (USACM) and

served for many years as chair or co-chair of USACM. She was a member of the

National Science Foundation panel on Internet Voting, the security peer review group for

the DoD’s Internet voting project (SERVE), and the President’s Export Council’s

Subcommittee on Encryption. She is on several boards of directors, including the U.C.

Berkeley Engineering Fund and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, as well as the

Advisory Board of the Oxford Internet Institute and the Public Interest Registry’s .ORG

Advisory Council. She has testified before both the U.S. and the California legislatures.

Dr. Simons is currently co-authoring a book on voting machines and related issues.

Steven M. Bellovin, Ph.D.

Dr. Bellovin is a Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University. He recently

joined the faculty after many years at Bell Labs and AT&T Labs Research. He is an

AT&T Fellow and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. Dr. Bellovin is

the coauthor of Firewalls and Internet Security: Repelling the Wily Hacker (2d ed. 2003)

and holds several patents on cryptographic and network protocols. He has served on

many National Research Council (NRC) study committees and is a member of the

Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Advisory Committee. He

has been a member of the Internet Architecture Board and co-director of the Security

Area of the Internet Engineering Task Force.

Chris Clifton, Ph.D.

Professor Clifton has a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Princeton University, and

Bachelor's and Master's degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He first

worked on reliability and availability of database systems at IBM Research in the 1980s.

He also worked on data mining and database security issues while at the MITRE

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Corporation and, more recently, has been leading research on privacy-preserving data

mining since joining the faculty of Purdue University.

Lillie Coney

Ms. Coney is Associate Director with the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

Her issue areas include nanotechnology, surveillance, children's privacy, civil rights and

privacy, coalition development, spectrum, census, and electronic voting. Ms. Coney also

serves as Coordinator of the recently established National Committee on Voting Integrity

(NCVI). NCVI was created in 2003 in response to growing concerns about the reliability

of electronic voting systems.

Robert Gellman

Robert Gellman is a privacy and information-policy consultant in Washington, D.C. He

advises companies, government agencies, and other institutions on how to address

privacy concerns on the Internet, implement the federal medical-privacy rules, and

integrate privacy law and policy in their national and international operations. A

graduate of Yale Law School, Gellman has worked on information-policy issues for more

than 25 years. He spent 17 years as chief counsel to a subcommittee in the U.S. House of

Representatives responsible for privacy, freedom of information, government information

dissemination, health-record confidentiality, and other information-policy matters. He

also served as a member of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s National

Committee on Vital and Health Statistics (1996-2000), a federal advisory committee with

responsibilities for health-information infrastructure matters, including the Health

Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Harry Hochheiser, Ph.D.

Dr. Hochheiser received his Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Maryland,

and bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His

research interests include information visualization, bioinformatics, human-computer

interaction, universal usability, and privacy. A former member of the board of directors

of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CSPR), Dr. Hochheiser wrote

CPSR's FAQ on Internet filtering systems. He has also written about the policy

implications of Internet privacy protocols. He is a founding member of the ACM

SIGCHI Committee on U.S. Public Policy.

Ralph Spencer Poore

Ralph Spencer Poore (Principal Consultant at Inovè LLC and Senior Partner at Pi "R"

Squared Consulting LLP) has over thirty years of information technology experience

with emphasis on privacy, security, audit and control in electronic commerce, enterprise

systems, and enabling technologies. His involvement in national and international

standards for electronic commerce includes participation on two Internet Engineering

Task Force (IETF) working groups and chairmanship of an ad hoc working group of the

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Accredited Standards Committee X9, Financial Services, subcommittee X9F Data and

Information Security. He founded and chaired the Standards Review Committee of the

Information Systems Security Association (ISSA) and participates on the Global

Executive Committee of the Generally Accepted Information Security Principles

(GAISP) Committee. Mr. Poore has developed and patented security and privacy

products, taught cryptographic security courses, and provided assurance services across a

broad range of private sector and governmental organizations. He is an inventor, author,

and frequent speaker on topics ranging from privacy to transnational data flows. Mr.

Poore is a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), Certified Information Systems Auditor

(CISA), Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), and Certified in

Homeland Security-Level III (CHS-III).

Arnon Rosenthal, Ph.D.

Dr. Rosenthal is a Principal Scientist at The MITRE Corporation, doing consulting and

research on databases and distributed systems. In recent years, his research and

consulting has focused on data sharing, privacy, and security. He received a Ph.D. in

1974 from U.C. Berkeley. He was on the faculty of the University of Michigan and

worked at Sperry Research and Computer Corporation of America. He has held visiting

positions at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic (ETH Zurich) and IBM Research. He has

served on numerous conference program committees and is an Associate Editor of the

ACM Transactions on Database Systems.

David Wagner, Ph.D.

Professor Wagner is an Assistant Professor in the Computer Science Division at the

University of California at Berkeley with extensive experience in computer security and

cryptography. Dr. Wagner is an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow and a CRA Digital

Government Fellow. Dr. Wagner was a co-designer of one of the Advanced Encryption

Standard finalists, and he remains active in the areas of computer security, cryptography,

and e-voting. In the past, Dr. Wagner has served as a member of the Security Peer

Review Group for the SERVE Internet voting project and as a technical advisor to the

ACLU Ad-Hoc Committee on Touchscreen Voting. Currently, Dr. Wagner is a member

of the California Secretary of State's Voting Systems Technical Assessment Advisory


Rebecca N. Wright, Ph.D.

Dr. Wright is an Associate Professor in the Computer Science Department at Stevens

Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. Her research spans the area of

information security, including cryptography, privacy, foundations of computer security,

and fault-tolerant distributed computing. Dr. Wright serves as an editor of the Journal of

Computer Security (IOS Press) and the International Journal of Information and

Computer Security (Inderscience), and she is a former member of the board of directors

of the International Association for Cryptologic Research. She received a Ph.D. in

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Computer Science from Yale University in 1994 and a B.A. from Columbia University in


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