The Politics of Honest Voting

It's time to replace the politics of secrecy and cover-ups in voting with the politics of open source.


I keep hoping that a technical solution to the unaccountability of
current voting technology is right around the corner. Unfortunately,
each time I think we are moving in the right direction, I see more
politics added. So, although Linux Journal is
a technical magazine, I think we need to look at the politics
of the situation and figure out how to get from politics to technology.

The problem is current voting machine technology is flawed, but
we, the public, don't get to see those flaws. Beyond that, your
elected officials seem to be doing their best to cover up for those
selling flawed systems. Rather than write about the examples, take a
look at
BlackBoxVoting.org.
The site contains a lot of history on this topic, and it continues to
add more and more information every day.

The basic situation is a company makes a voting machine and
sells it. (Diebold is the example you read about most often, but
it is not the only company involved.) System designs are proprietary,
so there is little review of how they work. Beyond that, some federal
standards are in place, but there are clear examples of them being
ignored. For example, although federal standards say the program
running in the machines cannot be interpreted--that is, interpret-ly
executed rather than compiled--there are "approved" systems that
don't meet this standard.

Now, there are many reasons we could assume that these systems are
installed and continue to be used. These reasons include:

  • Kickbacks by the vendors to government
    employees
  • Government employees not wanting to admit they made
    a bad decision
  • Election corruption in which the intent is to modify
    election results

Additional reasons are likely. The reason, however, doesn't matter.
What does matter is these closed systems have been proven to be flawed.
The victim is the voter.

The technical question is "Why would an open-source system be
better?" This is a common question, and it clearly is not limited to
voting systems. The answer is simple: you (for any value of you) can
see how it works. This means that errors in the system--design
errors, software bugs and other vulnerabilities--can be located. If
they can be located, they can be fixed.

I don't know about you, but I would prefer to have 20 software geeks
rather than 20 politicians looking for flaws in the system that is going
to count votes in the next election. But, today, you have companies
with vested interests in not exposing flaws in their products and
politicians deciding what "you" want.

My writing of this editorial was inspired by what sounded like an effort to
get an open-source solution in place. I read an article about
the Open Voting Consortium and went to the
group's Web
page
with great hopes. Unfortunately, after a few minutes of
reading, I saw more politics.

The most prominent information on the site is the group's request for
contributions totaling $1.5 million to "take back our election system".
The Consortium uses the word "open" over and over on the site, but what
it wants to do with that $1.5 million isn't very clear.

That is, the Consortium says its computer scientists have begun
programming, and it needs the $1.5 million "to fund project completion,
including certification". Now, if someone had offered Linus Torvalds
$1.5 million to write Linux, he probably would have felt it was a
sufficient amount. But, a voting system is pretty damn small compared to
Linux. And I think we can assume it will not be a complete OS and,
most likely, will be built on top of the Linux kernel.

So, back to politics. If I was to start an organization to solve this
issue of unaccountability, here is what it would do:

  1. Write and publish specifications for the design of an
    open-source voting system.
  2. Open a public comment period on the specifications. The
    comment space likely would need both a "political issues" section and a "technical
    issues" section. For this effort to succeed, it needs to be
    politically viable.
  3. Refine the specification based on the comments received and
    openly publish the final design documents.
  4. Recruit open-source programmers willing to work on the
    system.
  5. Recruit legislators willing to support the effort. This
    hopefully could mean getting some public funding for the project.
  6. Build the system and make it available for free to
    anyone.

What if some company "steals" the idea and builds a system based on it?
So what? That would be good. As long as all of the software remains
open and free, we have addressed the problem. If, for example,
Diebold wants to sell new machines totally based on this software and
is willing to keep everything open, it is a win for Diebold and a win
for the voters.

In the long run, this "commercialization" is likely to bring money
back to those involved. That is, although the programmers might receive
"stipends" from possible public funding, the long-term benefit for
them could be working for companies that produce these
machines or starting their own companies.

In conclusion, I am saying that if we can replace the politics of the
current voting system scandals with the politics of open source, we
all can benefit. Now, is there someone other than me out there that
wants to start this organization, or did I just create yet another job
for myself?

Phil Hughes is Group Publisher for SSC Media Corp.

______________________

Phil Hughes

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OVC and why it takes money

NC Voter's picture

Thanks to Mr. Hughes for bringing this up.

In his writing about the Open Voting Consortium, Mr. Hughes says:

'The most prominent information on the site is the group's request for contributions totaling $1.5 million to "take back our election system". The Consortium uses the word "open" over and over on the site, but what it wants to do with that $1.5 million isn't very clear.'

I would urge you, Mr. Hughes to ask OVC what they want to do with the money. Just ask them, before you criticize them.

OVC folks are mostly computer scientists, not public relations people, and they are trying to provide a better way for all of us.

I do know that they need money to get their software and system federally qualified. That isn't free.

They need money to operate. Would you rather they live on welfare while they give up their time for this issue?
Would you rather they be un-funded?

I see that you refer people to www.BlackBoxvoting.org to get a history of the issue.

You might also refer people to websites like www.verifiedvoting.org who subsists on miniscule donations, I was amazed at their tax filing for 2004;
or www.wheresthepaper.org (she doesn't ask for donations)
or www.votersunite.org where you can really get some info.

Ask yourself when you have ever seen an email from BBV.org that did not include a request for donations, or advise you that they accept donations, or need donations to exist?
In that email, do they give you a line item of what that money is spent on?

Prominently displayed on the bbv.org website that Ms.
Harris owns, you will see that she accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express and DISCOVER.

And what does BBV do with that money?
Why do they need it?

And, when will their 501 C3 tax filing (990) be available?
It isn't at www.guidestar.org yet.

Since you haven't found out what OVC would do with the funding, shouldn't you find out, before you urge people to ignore it's good work and start all over re-inventing the wheel?

Of course, it wasn't that long ago that Bev Harris trashed OVC.
Of course, after appearing at an event and being photographed with some of the OVC folks the week before.

See:
Bev Harris Trashed OVC at the Houston Election Hearing. This message :
http://gnosis.python-hosting.com/voting-project/July.2005/0003.html

The criticism of the Open Voting Consortium is unjustified

Anonymous's picture

Perhaps the author is unaware of the sacrifices and dedication that the folks of the Open Voting Consortium have gone through since 2000, the cost of certifying a new voting system (over $100,000), the complexity of voting system design, and the need to be able to pay programmers to complete the project, and the open source project and work that have already been accomplished by the OVC.

The author should take the time to contact and speak with the members of the OVC before jumping in with immediate criticism based on a cursory look at their web page.

Other than that, this is a great article.

Or you could..

Ken Kuhlman's picture

Perhaps rather than starting your own organization, you should join one of the existing ones & volunteer your skills. The OVC's developers haven't just "begun programming," they've delivered a working prototype, done largely with volunteer hours. So now that they've aiming for a production system, they want a few dollars.. not a big deal considering the stakes that are involved.

Besides, while transparency in balloting is an important issue, an even more fundamental issue is the counting method used. Our current Plurality, or "first-past-the-post" method is extremely harmful & should be replaced. Preferably by a Condorcet compliant method. Perhaps lj should write an article on how the Debian team handles its elections. That would be good reading.

Hardware design as open as software source

Josmar Pierri's picture

No doubt going Open Source is a good thing, but why not bring that concept to the hardware too?

Perhaps an open hardware design together with an open source software could be exactly what elections need.

By open hardware design I mean a machine whith no closed chipsets (either ASICs, CPLDs, FPGAs, ...) and no hiden details, where its hardware design is as open as its software source.

I live in a country (Brazil) whose elections are full electronic since 1996. Our machines where built by Unisys and Diebold and about 480,000 units where sold to our government.

The proprietary concept has been criticized here, mainly because the official politics defend the total lack of public information about what happens inside those machines.

Open Source in general.

Kenneth Reiszner's picture

The idea of using Open Source on a much broader scale not only on software but on hardware is intriguing. I personally favor expanding the concept to the maximum. Although, I haven't seen this done on electronic hardware, plans for woodworking projects are commonly available for free as well as some boat building and even an airplane design. All of these Open Source projects allow evolution to take place and the general public to benefit from the combined effort. Two things that are disconcerting though is that the Democrats and Republicans as well as the Christian right seem to hold dear the concept of a secret government that naturally fosters little openness. It seems particularly odd that Christians who profess to believe in grace are often unaware of the Open Source movement which is an excellent example of grace in practice.

Although I am not a programmer, I would further suggest that there may be a foundation for an Open Source voting solution at one of the business projects such a GNUE that already have front ends to several databases.

Mischaracterization

David Car's picture

I happen to be an avid woodworker, a tremendous and vociferous supporter of the open source movement, a programmer and hold on to your hats, identify with the "Christian right". As all those things, I don't ever once recall supporting or holding "dear the concept of a secret government that naturally fosters little openness." The notion that the open source movement "is an excellent example of grace in practice" is also a misapplication of grace; grace in the Christian doctrine being the unmerited favor and love of God which is freely given. Grace in a lesser sense could be construed as goodwill and their is certainly much of that in the open source movement. I think a better description of the open source movement would be one of a generous spirit of collaboration achieving more than any of us could accomplish singularly. It's a place for innovation and not a place for ego (although I think that generally creeps in some of the time). Let's face it though, the movement is not entirely anonymous. There are the standard-bearers: Does anyone who uses Linux not know of Linus Torvalds? But let's not digress here, but move back to the point of the article: "The Politics of Honest Voting". If you're wondering why OVC may have trouble being accepted or raising revenue, maybe you should talk to George Soros ;). The point being, a cursory look over the rhetoric and the supporters on the website reveals not an apolitical movement (I'm not implying Soros has donated any revenue, so please don't miscontrue that statement; it's tongue-in-cheek). Apart from that aspect, there is simply convincing the American people that the system is broken. There was nary a sound of brokenness prior to the 2000 election, but then, all-of-a-sudden the system was in shambles, corruption abounded and even the electoral college was called into question. This was the same system and method that served this country for over 200 years. In short, this simply doesn't pass the smell test. The county in which I vote still uses the dreaded punch ballots with all the impregnated and hanging chads. Oh the shame, but the result is a material record of your vote. One that can be recounted, locked away and guarded. Now, I'm not suggesting that the design of the punch card cannot be improved. A solid card stock (i.e. no preforations) in which a hole is burned through the card would resist degradation and remove the possibility of hanging chads. The improvement to the system should then focus on the counting of the ballots, but the ballots themselves should be material. I've always hated the lever voting machines and felt (felt is the operative word, I have no proof) that these could be easily manipulated, but I don't like computerized versions either, even with 20 geeks at the helm. Here's where the open source programming and development could take place; in the counting of the votes and recording/registration of the votees. That way we could be confident that the counting was valid, dead people didn't vote and people don't vote multiple times. Ultimately, the recorded vote should be material. That would be a very good start, one in which I think most Americans would be support. This wholesale rush to create a sophisticated computerized voting system reminds me of NASA's need to design a zero gravity pen so they could write in space. The Soviets simply used a pencil.

Additional comments/correction

David Car's picture

After digging in a little deeper at the OVC site, I see that they are advocating some form of paper trail. Kudos to them!!! I certainly see support being garnered in the future for them. My bad for not digging in a little deeper. I still don't see a proposal for registration and accounting of the voters at the polls, but certainly they seem to be proposing something that I think many can support. Losing the innuendo and political rhetoric would be helpful.

Open Source Voting

Richard Dawson's picture

Republican, Democrat, Christian, Atheist, Muslim, or what have you, the concept of open source voting software should appeal to all. Of course, making it happen will be political. We are, after all, talking about the machinery of politics.

Those of you who live in California have the opportunity to have an immediate impact on making open source voting machine software a reality. You need to call members of the California Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee and tell them why it is important to you.

Currently. the California State Assembly is considering AB 2097, a bill that would require the state of California to use only open source voting machine software. The definition of open source in this instance is software with publicly disclosed source code.

AB 2097 came to be because a year ago one assembly person, at the urging of a constituent, came to understand the concept of open source software and why it is the obvious choice for voting equipment.

The first step towards realizing the use of open source was a resolution from the legislature asking the secretary of state to do a study on the feasibility of open source software. After considerable stalling, the SOS did a conduct a charade of a study, conceding the validity of the concept, but chose to approve Diebold's proprietary software instead. AB 2097 is the legislature's attempt to force the use of open source.

The suitability of open source for voting equipment should be obvious to anyone who is sincerely interested in preserving public confidence in the integrity of elections. None-the-less, it is an uphill battle to make it happen. Considerable political capital (to coin a phrase) is being expended by Diebold and the like to convince California not to use open source. Their motivation is probably innocent enough -- that is they want to keep the state captive to their systems. In addition, I'm not sure that at least some of the parties involved wouldn't like to preserve the option for cheating. Why else would they object to voter verified paper audit trails as well as open source software.

AB 2097 can be reviewed on line Take my word it's a good bill, or check it for yourself, but then call or email the following members of the Elections and Redistricting committee:

Tom Umberg Chair 916 319 2069
Mark Wyland Vice Chair 916 319 2074
Johan Klehs 916 319 2018
Mark Leno 916 319 2013
Lloyd Levine 916 319 2040
Michael Villines 916 319 2029

As to OVC: I am convinced that they are sincere. As a political activist, I know it takes money to make things happen. It's not only doing the programming, it's getting the legilslature educated and convinced. (Not all legislators are as quick to learn as mine is.) I have given OVC a small bit of money. I suggest that others do the same. I do know that the assembly person who introduced AB 2097 has relied upon OVC to get the bills written and into a form that works, and that OVC's lobbying helped get the original resolution through both the California Senate and the California Assembly.

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