OPINION

Open Source Could Clean Up US Elections

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.

Emerging Trend

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.

In view of the technology that underpins much of today’s Web-scale and enterprise IT, it’s clear that open source software plays a big role, particularly in virtualization and in cloud computing.

Different Strokes

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.

LinuxInsider columnist Jay Lyman is a senior analyst for 451 Research, covering open source software and focusing primarily on Linux operating systems and vendors, open source software in the enterprise, application development, systems management and cloud computing. Lyman has been a speaker at numerous industry events, including the Open Source Business Conference, OSCON, Linux Plumber's Conference and Open Source World/Linux World, on topics such as Linux and open source in cloud computing, mobile software, and the impact of economic conditions and customer perspectives on open source. Follow his blog here.

2 Comments

  • Idea: Internet based voting (No specialized voting machines)
    Reading about it gave me the idea that Bitcoins features could be adapted to voting.
    The features to adapt: distributed ledger, encryption, open source code. In broad outline, when a voter registers, the person opts for e-voting and registers a single email address. For each election, only one vote is allowed from that address. At election time, a ballot is emailed, which can be lengthy and include data about each issue on the agenda. The voter uses the software to send his/her unique ballot to the election tally network, but like Bitcoin, not easily traceable to voter. Also like Bitcoin, the system is fraud-proof, and highly redundant in the recording, so results are entirely trustworthy, may be monitored world wide, in thousands of participating machines. This type of civil participation is by nature, transparent, and revolutionary.
    As yet, no large scale democracy has ever existed. What has been done is to vote for representatives, who may be corrupted, and certainly will tend to put their own interests above their constituents. They can be eliminated by adding two new features to governance: Strict constitutional control of voter issues, and volunteer issue writers. Some issues which need to be included in the constitution are prohibitions against impossible or impractical options, (need balanced budget, cap on taxes, etc.) ways to game the system giving unfair favor to special interests, (e.g. lobbyists), tyranny of the majority (yes, the majority can be a special interest if you are in the 49%) etc. Such a system would be biased toward simplification. When representatives are in control, their bias is toward complexity. Open source software is provided by volunteers, and must be standardized world wide, like Bitcoin. The design must be tamper-proof.
    Another idea to consider for future would be the weighted vote (not one person one vote). Similar to the way shareholders vote in a corporation according to how many shares they hold, a community ought to consider the value of each citizens contribution is not equal to all others. Values to consider might include time a resident, size of family, volunteer efforts, taxes paid, people employed, property maintained, burden to community, etc. I would be interested in your comment to the above thoughts.
    See also Are We Ready for E-Voting? By Elizabeth Millard/ E-Commerce Times http://www.ecommercetimes.com/story/31972.html

  • Reading your article I could not agree with you more, For the passed 6 years I have been promoting Free Open Source Software. I’m sorry to have to say this, I find that the American population the most stupid dumbest uneducated idiot nation on the face of the earth, They are a nation split down the middle, it’s either their way or no way,

    Yesterday I was reading the news report on the worlds fastest computer, I then moved down to read the blog remarks, not one of 1100 plus comments made a decent remark, they didn’t understand the report, They didn’t know what a HPC is used for. They was arguing among themselves which operating systems was running on the HPC, of course none was right, So much for a supposedly well educated nation.

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