Can Open-Source Voting Tech Fix the U.S. Elections System?

(Image via OSET Foundation)

(Image via OSET Foundation)

American voting technology is trapped in the last millennium. This lifeline to democracy is kept secret—closed off from public inspection and controlled by large businesses. It is decades old to boot. Our voting methods ought to be at least as cutting edge as our selfie apps, but they’re not.

“Our nation’s elections systems and technology are woefully antiquated. They are officially obsolete,” says Greg Miller of the TrustTheVote Project, an initiative to make our voting system accurate, verifiable, transparent, and secure. He adds: “It’s crazy that citizens are using twentieth-century technology to talk to government using twentieth-century technology to respond.”

Miller and others are on a mission to change that with an entirely new voting infrastructure built on open-source technology. They say open source, a development model that’s publicly accessible and freely licensed, has the power to upend the entire elections technology market, dislodging incumbent voting machine companies and putting the electorate at the helm.

With Miller’s system, we’d still go to the polls to vote and use a machine to cast our ballot. But the software on that machine would be completely open to public inspection. While coders wouldn’t be able to edit or tamper with the code, technically literate citizens would be able to, in effect, cross-examine the processes tabulating all of our votes, verifying their integrity and assuring accountability.

The organization behind TrustTheVote, the Open Source Elections Technology Foundation (OSET), believes open-source voting software can instill confidence that people’s votes are being counted. “Make that machine a glass box instead of a black box,” says Miller, who chairs OSET. He says that will get more voters to the polls.

Other organizations like the California Association of Voting Officials (CAVO) are also working to bring open-source principles to American elections. “Every ballot that’s cast in the United States is counted by a machine, so we owe it to the voters and the public to use the most secure, most transparent, most auditable technology,” says former CAVO President Kammi Foote, who is also the elected registrar of voters for Inyo County, California. “Open source has proven itself in the private sector,” says Foote. “Now governments around the world are starting to look at open source as a good business model.”

The primitiveness of our voting technology is surprising in an era when we routinely use smartphones, when big data is revolutionizing business, and the Internet of Things is spreading across the landscape. As Andrew Rasiej of the Personal Democracy Forum puts it: “Why haven’t we been able to apply an equal level of innovation in the way we vote?”

Time and again Americans are reminded of how inadequate our voting technology is. In 2000, it was the disastrous Florida recount, with its infamous “hanging chads.” In 2004, it was the Ohio recount. In 2008, a Minnesota recount. There were also problems in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries and the 2013 Virginia attorney general race, not to mention innumerable, less-publicized local problems around the country.

One reason is that the U.S. elections administration structure is decentralized and sprawling, delegating control to individual states and cities, which select and buy their own voting technology. Explains Foote: “Different jurisdictions use different technologies according to their budgets and timelines.” Sometimes they cobble together several kinds of technologies that only barely meet their needs. With about 180,000 precincts in the U.S., the outcome is a mishmash of machines, regulated by surprisingly few standards. While the 2002 Help America Vote Act appropriated billions of dollars to states to replace their punch-card and lever-based voting machines with electronic ones, it didn’t do much to give them better electronic technology to choose from.

Because the voting-machine market is dominated by just three companies—Election System and Software, Dominion Voting Systems, and Hart InterCivic—elections administrators are left with very few options. Without any real competition and regulated by testing standards that are a decade old, incumbent voting-machine vendors have zero incentive to update their systems. According to Foote: “How can they invest in new technologies when they don’t know what future governments will allow?”

So elections administrators frequently buy outdated machines, use them for an election, and then store them away until the next one. As Miller puts it: “A voting machine spends most of its life in silence in cold, dark warehouses … only to be woken up periodically for one day of sheer chaos.” And as the machines grow older, the risk of problems also grows. “We’re still using 20-year-old technology that we know is problematic,” says Foote. If elections administrators could instead pool their resources together to develop free open-source software, then run it on cheap off-the-shelf hardware, they could ensure that every jurisdiction, no matter its budget, has the same access to the best voting technology available.

But beyond the decentralized system and the voting-machine market, there seems to be a bigger barrier at play: our elected officials.

The Personal Democracy Forum’s Rasiej thinks he knows why so few other elected officials agree with Foote: they’re afraid of what they might lose. “Changing the voting system doesn’t necessarily benefit the status quo or the people already in office,” he says.

Miller knows that fixing voting problems is not as exciting as building or investing in social media platforms like Facebook. “This stuff isn’t very sexy,” he admits. Still, OSET has managed to recruit veteran technologists like Hugh Dubberly and Pito Salas, who held responsible roles in the past at Netscape and Lotus, respectively.

While more transparent and reliable polling systems might help build confidence in voting, the processes of democracy also face bigger problems. Elections expert Kenneth Mayer says we need to reform voter registration and campaign finance laws, change district boundaries so they do not favor a result for one party or another, and make voting quicker and easier. He thinks the biggest challenge is to ensure that a more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse electorate is represented in U.S. elections. “The problems are not technological,” says Mayer, a professor at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin. “Open-source code on a bunch of iPads is not dealing with the underlying issue.”

Rasiej believes the real barrier to people voting is that they feel their votes don’t matter, that the system is stacked against them long before Election Day rolls around. “That has nothing to do with software; that has to do with a failure of democracy,” he says.

Indeed, the 2013 Electoral Integrity Project, a study that scored 66 countries on the integrity of their elections, rated the United States low in categories related to elections systems and structures like “voting district boundaries,” “voter registration,” and “campaign finance.” (The U.S. ranked 26th. Norway, which is already experimenting with open-source Internet voting, was rated No. 1.)

While open-source advocate Miller acknowledges these bigger structural issues, he says he focuses on problems that can be solved in the short run. Redistricting, voter registration reform, and campaign finance reform all require legislation and political reforms that might take decades. But open source, he points out, doesn’t. “Not a stitch of my work requires a single, solitary act of Congress,” he says. OSET expects TrustTheVote technology to be ready by the 2018 election.

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7 Responses to “Can Open-Source Voting Tech Fix the U.S. Elections System?”

  1. Ann wrote a nice and necessary piece on this topic essential to catalyzing the conversation America needs to have. I offer a couple of really important corrections and clarifications to my comments incorporated into her article here.

    1. OSS and the Commercial Market: The reason we believe open source can be so disruptive to the status quo of the commercial market is NOT because it will up-end it, but rather rejuvenate and invigorate the commercial market. Those incumbent vendors are free to license this technology and reinvent their own business around systems integration, adaptation work, deployment, service and support. Think about how LINUX rejuvenated IBM and made RedHat possible. Its the same idea. So we want to reboot the commercial industry, not up-end it. Healthy disruption of a market that has no sustainable business incentive to innovate with a customer base that has no budget to pay for it.

    2. The Vendor Landscape: To be sure, Sequoia and Diebold have long since been consumed by others in a market consolidation. We see the market as now comprised of primarily three players: ES&S, Old Dominion, and Hart-Intercivic. That wasn’t my contribution to the article but it should be clarified.

    3. The Role of OSS and Policy Issues: To be sure, there are several systemic issued with electoral reform, but while all those monumental policy changing efforts are underway, the fact remains that today’s voting machinery is reaching the end of its useful life. And innovation is way overdue. We all deserve an easy, convenient, and dare I say delightful voting experience (for voters and administrators alike!) Our goal is to increase confidence in elections and their outcomes. The policy reforms discussed are hugely important and many are working on those. Sadly, some will require legislative will power to shift. That won’t happen any time soon. Meanwhile we continue to believe that “code causes change.” And making available new election technology will foster change and improvement in HOW America votes. We still need to fix campaign finance and lots of other things, but code alone will not fix that as easily.

    4. Clarification: Lastly I made a remark about the reality of how government interacts with its people today. Actually, someone else originally said it I think, but cannot recall who. The actual point was this: today, citizens use 21st century means to communicate with their government, who use 20th century means and 19th century processes to reply. That’s a big problem given we’ve moved from the industrial age to the digital age.

    Otherwise, AWESOME work Ann. I hope this catalyzes the conversation.

  2. Ann Babe says:

    @OSET Foundation

    Thank you for your comments. We appreciate your adding to the discussion. I’d like to address the points you made:

    1. One of the core principles of TrustTheVote and other open-source voting initiatives is moving from proprietary to publicly owned voting software, essentially empowering the American people. It is my understanding that proponents believe this public empowerment has the potential to result in open-source software running on not only incumbent-built voting machines, but also generic, off-the-shelf hardware, leading to a possible industry shakeup. I characterize this shakeup with the word “upend,” which you point out may be too strong. “Transform” may be more apt.

    2. Thank you for clarifying the voting-machine market. In 2010, Dominion Voting Systems acquired both Diebold (which had changed its name to Premier) and Sequoia, making Dominion, ES&S, and Hart InterCivic today’s industry leaders. I have corrected the article to reflect this.

    3. Thanks for your additional comments on the future of elections policy reform.

    4. I reported your remark based on my records of our conversation.

    Thank you for your continued engagement.

    • Brent Turner says:

      Thanks for the great article. Many consider this the ” third rail ” and sometimes coverage of the issue is sparse. The California Association of Voting Officials looks forward to future articles.

  3. Thank you for this important article. A small point of clarification regarding Norway’s internet voting experiments. After trails in 2011 and 2013, the Norwegian government decided last year to discontinue funding for future trials based primarily on security concerns. See:

    E-voting experiments end in Norway amid security fears – http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-28055678

    Norway internet voting experiment fails – http://www.zdnet.com/article/norway-internet-voting-experiment-fails/

    When Reality Comes Knocking Norwegian Experiences with Verifiable Electronic Voting – http://www.e-voting.cc/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2012/07/21-33_Stenerud-Bull_Norway.pdf#!

  4. Neal McBurnett says:

    Yes, thank you! The sort of open source technology that OSET brings to the table has the potential to deal with so many problems of transparency and confidence in how we cast and count votes, do online registration, etc!

    We do of course want to take advantage of modern technology, e.g. to reduce hardware costs for scanners and accessible technology. But we need to avoid a rush to Internet voting. That’s also a “modern” lesson we’ve established in the 21st century. Computer science has taught us (and our everyday experience confirms) how hard security is on the Internet.

    The Open Rights Group neatly summed up the concerns over the security of online voting:
    Electronic Voting A challenge to democracy?

    “Voting is a uniquely difficult question for computer science: the system must verify your eligibility to vote; know whether you have already voted; and allow for audits and recounts. Yet it must always preserve your anonymity and privacy. Currently, there are no practical solutions to this highly complex problem and existing systems are unacceptably flawed.”

    I would add that usability is another huge part of the challenge – i.e. designing such a system so that both voters and election officials have success with it, and confidence in it. And of course we have to be willing to pay the high costs of very secure and robust operations.

  5. Brent Turner says:

    The core of this issue is well represented with slight accent to be added to the necessary standard of General Public License when discussing the open source software. There must be strict adherence to the GPL standard for obvious reasons. Once proper back-end OS systems are certified and in place the adjuncts can be decided upon. SB 360 allows CA to opt out of the Federal Certification process and hopefully CA can lead the country toward publicly owned / GPL / commodity off the shelf systems. CAVO suggest the counties pooling resources – see http://www.cavo-us.org

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