This page presents an introduction to the common data format (CDF) project and answers the question, why is a CDF needed? It starts with a discussion of the proprietary nature of past election equipment data formats and the resultant problems this creates, and then discusses the advantages to using a common data format and how this improves efficiency, reduces cost, and increases the overall transparency of election equipment and, ultimately, elections.
The need for a common data format is analogous to the use of a common language for people and economies to share the best of ideas, products, and services. A language used exclusively by a few isolates people from the rest of what the world has to offer. As the demand and use of technology increases in elections, a variety of new products are being used by election officials that must be able to “talk” with each other (i.e., share data) or talk with a common host in order to integrate them into the larger election administration process. Since the "data language" used by these products tends to be proprietary and doesn’t communicate with products from other manufacturers, election officials can be limited to the voting systems product line available through the manufacturer they already have a relationship with.
In the elections marketplace, this has several disadvantages:
The addition of newer devices such as online blank ballot distribution or tablet technology is complicated by projects having to define its own data format or use a format that is proprietary to an existing manufacturer.
Without a CDF, duplication of effort, greater risk of getting things wrong, and re-invention of the wheel can occur. Here are a few example scenarios:
A jurisdiction’s voter registration system and candidate filing system may both contain the information needed by its ballot layout system when it comes time to create a new election. These are actually "families" of equipment, and due to a lack of a CDF between the two families, jurisdictions that import/export information between them have commonly had to expend their own resources to create a sort of "translation service" between the two that is unique to that jurisdiction’s situation. Or, some jurisdictions may have to duplicate their data entry by re-creating the information in the ballot layout system more or less manually. A CDF between these families of equipment would largely eliminate this duplication of effort and reduce the potential for mistakes.
During an election, the vote-capture devices such as DREs, POS, and CCOS (Direct-Record Electronic, Precinct Optical Scanner, and Central-Count Optical Scanner respectively) communicate the votes they gather to a common EMS (Election Management System) where the votes are tabulated and reported. Prior to its use in the election, a common EMS communicates a complex set of ballot configurations to these devices that define the ballot styles of each vote the device will be used to gather. Typically, the EMS that creates the ballot styles and communicates the ballot styles to the devices is the same system that receives the votes gathered by the devices. Without a common data format and given that the communication protocol, data structure, and data elements are unique to each manufacturer, the DRE, POS, and CCOS in a jurisdiction will generally be products developed, marketed, and/or integrated by the same manufacturer who created the EMS. If a jurisdiction wants to use a different DRE, or POS, or CCOS than the one provided by its manufacturer, it may be very costly to integrate the product. The same issue occurs with EMSs; a state must use the same manufacturer throughout the state or else must import/export tabulated results to intermediate formats.
A number of states, motivated by the MOVE (Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment) Act's requirements and the need to deliver blank ballots to voters located overseas in ample time for the election, are now fielding blank ballot distribution systems (BBDS) to allow voters to download their respective ballots; some states are also experimenting with using tablets (e.g., the iPad) to assist in blank ballot delivery. These technologies each need to "speak" to other parts of the voting system, for example the BBDS needs to access ballot information stored in the EMS and voter/precinct information stored in the VRDB (Voter Registration Database). However, without a common data format, the data format either needs to be invented for that particular project, or the data format will be the same proprietary format as one of the manufacturer partners, e.g., for example, the data format used by the EMS. This typically requires a business arrangement between the project developer and the owner of the proprietary format.
There are numerous advantages to using a common data format in election equipment and associated software and systems. Perhaps the best answer is because it makes the devices easier to use, deploy, and understand. Ultimately, it can make them less complex to administer and understand, and the resultant reduced complexity may then lead to greater trust of the voting devices. Thus, a CDF is foundational in several ways for improving current voting systems and for making it possible to develop new voting technologies in an efficient, orderly way. It follows from the previous discussion that use of a CDF brings the following advantages:
Achieving the goal of election device-to-device interoperability, using a CDF in part as the means, is complicated and requires the involvement and cooperation of many parties. Given this, NIST and the working groups formed to develop the CDFs have followed a project plan that consists of a series of CDF specifications modeled after typical functions in elections and where interoperability between the functions and devices involved would be advantageous. This strategy involves addressing the “lower hanging fruit” functions that are at voting system boundaries to external systems, e.g., for imports from voter registration systems or for reporting election results, and then subsequently working towards those functions and devices that are within the voting system and that would achieve more device-to-device interoperability, e.g., cast vote records exported from scanners and EMS and imported into tabulators and audit devices.
The figure above shows a diagram of common election subsystems and how they are typically related, as well as the primary classes of data processed by the subsystems. The common data format work generally maps to the subsystems in this diagram but may possibly overlap one or more of the subsystems or may target only a subset of the data processed