It’s obvious from the latest U.S. election that our voting system could use some improvement in terms of both enabling and supporting voters and efficiently tallying and verifying a trusted result. Open source offers the technology, as well as the culture and community, to address these challenges, and it may be among the best solutions.
Unfortunately, after covering elections and open source software for a long time, I’ve seen how other challenges and hurdles can stand in the way of progress. Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to more open, transparent and verifiable elections is public perception and attention.
We may see extensive coverage of voter suppression issues, long lines, voting machine malfunctions, ballot misprints, and other election day foibles in the midst of an election. However, despite President Obama’s recent mention of improving the situation, I fear the topic will die down. Based on what’s happened in the past, it won’t be an issue for most people until the next election approaches. It will fade from their minds until the next presidential election exposes how varied — and harried — the U.S. election process can be.
Another major challenge is one that is more familiar to open source software proponents and communities: the entrenched vendors. Many of the current voting machine and software technology suppliers have an advantage in certification as well as procurement policies and procedures.
We’ve seen disruption from open source software before in enterprise IT, government and, most recently, in healthcare. Whereas these types of organizations may have previously been using and adopting open source quietly and unofficially, today’s progressive organizations lay out consideration and use of open source software in their policies.
We see more and more elected officials, voting advocates and technologists who are educated and active in making changes. They include organizations such as the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation and individual candidates who influence voting procedures and technologies.
There are also resources produced by open and transparent voting advocates that shed light on our current technological situation, such as the book, Broken Ballots.
Elsewhere around the globe, there have been significant successes in open source-based voting and elections, such as the open source software used on PCs for several elections in electronic voting for the Australian Capital Territory. While the region has a small population and is a limited example, it does illustrate how open source software helped produce verifiable e-voting source code at lower cost.
The Technology Is There
Once we can overcome the attention issues, open source software and its champions may well be able to challenge incumbent vendors, particularly if they rely on proprietary hardware and software. We have seen the weaknesses and dangers in non-open source code for elections, such as an incident I covered more than six years ago. The fact of the matter is the technology is there.
Consider what vendors and consortia are able to do today in terms of social networks, massive-scale online games, e-commerce, and other software and services that support millions or billions of users — all with sensitive banking, personal identification and other data at stake.
Open source software could be a paradigm for a national voting system in the United States that could still allow states and counties to customize and adapt the technology. Taking the Linux operating system model, a common open source core or kernel of the software could be developed and distributed to election officials in each of the 50 states.
Different states and counties could implement the software according to their preferences for languages, accessibility and other factors — similar to how different Linux distributions are produced from the same OS kernel. Of course, the software would be free as in beer, with no cost, and free in terms of freedom in the code.
The challenge is immense, but if open source software can support virtualization, cloud computing, massive Web-scale and enterprise computing, then it certainly may have a significant role in modernizing U.S. elections and making them more transparent, efficient and trustworthy.