XML group to create specifications for voting systems

Six months after the tumultuous presidential balloting in Florida, a nonprofit technical consortium yesterday announced that it has formed a committee to develop a specialized XML standard aimed at improving the accuracy and efficiency of elections.

The Billerica, Mass.-based Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) said the new technical committee will work to develop an Election Markup Language (EML) based on XML technology. The EML proposal would include specifications for exchanging data between election and voter registration systems developed by different hardware, software and IT services vendors.

Karl Best, director of technical operations for OASIS, said last November's voting brouhaha in Florida graphically showed the need for more accurate elections using modern technology. The improvements envisioned by OASIS could impact public and even private elections around the world, including those held by private groups and companies, he said.

The EML committee will look at a wide range of possible implementations for the new specifications, including voter registration, change of address tracking, redistricting, requests for absentee ballots, polling place management, election notification, ballot delivery and tabulation and reporting of election results.

While OASIS will only create the specifications and leave it up to technology vendors to implement them, Best said he's confident that the international consortium's standing in the XML world would encourage the adoption of EML by a wide range of companies that offer voting systems and software.

Gregg McGilvray, chairman of the new Election and Voter Services Technical Committee within OASIS, said the EML standard will be applicable to far more than just Web-based voting systems. He envisions the standard allowing different platforms, including touchscreen voting machines and even telephone-based systems, to share data regardless of how the information is collected or what operating system is being used.

The technical committee's first meeting is scheduled for May 15, and McGilvray said the development of the specifications will probably take 12 to 18 months.

The Florida legislature today is expected to approve a bill that would result in numerous voting changes in that state. For example, the bill would ban the punch cards, paper ballots and mechanical lever machines that contributed to the well-publicized balloting problems during the presidential election between President George W. Bush and former Vice President Al Gore.

But Steve Weissman, legislative representative for the Washington-based watchdog group Public Citizen, said it's too early to support the EML effort or any other specific ideas for how to improve elections. "There's a number of studies going on about this," he said. "There's a whole lot of people trying to figure this out."

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