Bringing Democracy to America with FOSS: voting

Bringing Democracy to America with FOSS: voting


“Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?”

“I think it would be a very good idea.”

“But what about American democracy?”

“I think you better start using open source voting machines.”

OK, maybe Gandhi didn't say ALL of that, but if he were asked the question, I can see him saying something like that, based on our election history this century.

It's now over a month after the November 7, 2006 midterm elections, and the verdict in Florida's 13th Congressional district is still up in the air. Why? Over 18,000 votes for the House seat are missing, vanished, or somehow just don't exist see here.

Like many people predicted and feared, the culprit in this very foreseeable escapade in Floridian electoral “democracy” is the very commercial (and very proprietary) voting machines. So now, the Florida board of elections is trying to conduct an audit of the voting machines source code. Of course, the real solution to this most recent foray of Florida into the arcane science of voting is to do it over. But I'm just highlighting Florida as an example, because it is real, and it (hopefully) can't be swept under the rug.

What I see here, merely epitomized (again) by a Florida voting debacle, is more than the lack of competency of American “democracy” to conduct fair and accurate elections, but more truthfully, it really illustrates a disdain for doing so. After all, if we really held fair and accurate elections in this country, certain people and parties would never gain ascendancy into positions of political power.

Now, here is where the development methodology of free and open source software (FOSS) can ride in and save the day, if “we the people” really want to at least be able to believe that the vote tabulations are accurate.

I propose we start the OVPC (One Voting-machine Per Country) project. Instead of the hodge-podge of machines and software used across the country to conduct elections, let's standardize on one machine, designed in the open, built with off-the-shelf hardware, and open source software. Sort of “the PC” for voting.

This is not a kooky idea either. I mean, you have all kinds of people who have proposed, and even built, such a machine already. It's just seems that the state elections boards haven't shown too much interest in these open systems.But here is where the might of the FOSS community, with it's corporate supporters, have to step up to the plate.

I figure if Nicholas Negroponte is put in charge, we can eventually produce these badboys for about $100 per machine. We can have the OSDL establish all the necessary file and data formats. It would use a Ruby on Rails framework with an SQLite embedded database to handle the screen GUIs, ballot presentation and interaction, and vote storing. Or maybe a Drupal CMS system would work better.

I can see Google sponsoring a “summer of code” fest for writing all the code, and donating some of their search engine wizardry to find any missing votes. AMD and Intel would compete to see whose X2 or quad core chip would be used, or maybe IBM can sneak in a Cell processor cheaper.

Let Apple design the physical layout. It would have a round ballot-wheel to advance/repeat screens, and come with cute earbuds so people could listen to voting instructions (ogg formatted) in their native language picked from a selection menu. Of course, they would come in various colors (beside red and blue). And last, but not least, they would provide a verifiable (recycled) paper trail.

Now, after we create confidence in the vote casting/counting process, we can then tackle the bigger problem of creating a system that produces people we really want to vote for.

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Comments

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I keep wondering why, after all the pre election warnings of how the 2006 election results were going to prove the election had been stolen. Jessie Jackson, Nancy Polosi, Howard Dean, Hugo Chávez, Castro, Kennedy, ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, (just to name a few) ALL warned us the results of the 2006 elections could not be trusted!

Now after the democrats won, we heard nothing more on the subject? Does this mean the trustworthyness of election results hinge on which party wins?

And they wonder why we don't trust any of them to do anything other than lie, cheat, and steal..... All for the higher good of keeping their power and continue to do nothing to help the common folk. Pontification and BS empty promises don't count! Never did, never will! No matter who is doing the snow job!!

independant linuxusr

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Nahh... it's obvious. The Democrats stole the election! :-P

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Since republicans sponser the machines they must be behind their system 100%. Mid-terms are small fish, and when it comes to the next election, the big one, and the dems loose by a landslide and we get another "New World Order" Carlyle-sponsered, Yale Bonesman president, the "we didn't bitch in 2006" argument will be their ace. Then they can finish enslaving the human race in the name of security by 2012.

Open source, and two receipt paper trail is the way to go. The whole voter privacy thing can be exploited as well. It's no longer the 1800's where people were intimidated into voting like the mob would target a juror.

While I'm on the subject, the final canidates can be exploited as well! WHY ONLY TWO?! What if one is no better than the other like BUSH/KERRY? Wow! What a choice!

FOIA that software.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

but there was an article that suggested that there was Republican cheating but that Dems won anyway, ie that made it close when it should have been more of a blowout. Unfortunately I don't have a link, and the numbers given weren't very detailed, but, someone at least had numbers to put toward that idea.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

America has the NSA - they are able to certify equipment and procedures as being tamper-proof. I think they should be mandated to certify any new design as being secure.

There are extensions to public key cryptogtraphy that allow a vote to be conducted securely and that can allow the counting procedure to be verified.
The current systems are risible.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Take a look at the discussions around technology before you propose building this machine.

Long and short of it:

There are serious, well considered doubts that current technology can be made sufficiently secure AND transparent to satisfy the needs of our democracy. At best, it seems technology can be used to support a paper ballot system.

I know techies (me included) don't like to hear this, but it's true.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

independant linuxusr:

Those wacky leftist, liberal, bleeding-heart communists! Did it occur to you that maybe there is a bit less urgency about insecure voting machines because the election is over now? There is some time now (~2 years) to work on the problem, but that doesn't mean it's solved or never existed.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

There's already an organization working on this:

http://www.openvotingconsortium.org/

I am not affiliated with them in any way, but I wholeheartedly support what they want to do.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

We /do/ hear about it. Consider this article and its mention of Florida's 13th district.

No, IL, I don't think anyone trusts the results much more. I attribute the lack of more outrage to the facts:

1) The weirdness and fraud that we do know about isn't enough to sway the outcomes. (Not true of previous outrages.)

2) The public has a short attention span. We heard a /lot/ about it before, and that burnt out any chance for the "story to have legs."

I think it's premature to suggest anyone is disingenuous.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

The fact is that when paper ballots were used fraud was a common problem. People unlike machines are easily swayed and prone to cheat. The other fact is is that most states require voting machine companies to release there code to them. It's not in the general public eye and open to hackers, but specialists in parties are able to see the code and ensure fairness. One mistake that many states made is they did not require a paper backup. In Utah the voting machines had a paper cashier roll that printed your vote and scrolled through so you could confirm that the vote is correct. No lost votes. I think that should have been a National Standard. As far as opening the code for all the world to see, well that just gives hackers more time to figure out how to manipulate the system. Frankly I think it's a stupid idea, and going back to paper only ballots, will only open up the opportunity for vote counters to make "errors" in favor of their candidate.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

You must not read the news much. At least two of the races in the 2006 election are being questioned because the voting totals make no sense: In one case thousands of voters apparently entered the booth and chose not to vote, and in the other there were thousands more votes than there were voters in that county (which also happened in the last presidential race in Ohio).

Also Re the Chavez election. It was observed by international voting inspectors and was declared an example of good election procedure. Also the Venezuelan exit polls matched the election results, which is more than you can say for our last 2 Presidential races.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

In the ACT (Canberra, Australia), we've had electronic voting system in use (I'm talking actual election use) since 2001.

Read about it here:
http://www.elections.act.gov.au/EVACS.html

FAQ about it here:
http://www.elections.act.gov.au/EvoteFAQ.html

The software is open source - GPL to be exact. It's designed to be run on regular PC's running Debian GNU/Linux.

...Sadly, the latest version of evacs is no longer open source, but the 2001 version is still available for download - and naturally - possible forking.

Some interesting commentary regarding evacs is here:
http://yro.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=04/08/04/1951202
...one of the comments is from a co-author of evacs even.

--Nemo

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Hey, here's an idea, why don't we outsource the voting machines to India like all of our other IT related stuff. We can call it offshoring and save a bundle! Just hope you don't need to call tech support!

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Maybe you should look at the Brazilian voting machines. They are being used since the nineties on elections with tens of millions of voters, and on the last election the results were officially published in less than 5 hours.
BTW, there's a migration planned to get all Brazilian voting machines running on Linux in time for the 2008 elections :)

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Jabari Zakiya's picture