Open Source in Elections

A lot of attention has been given to electronic voting machines, with concerns on the part of democracy activists that private corporations have no business owning and managing the software and hardware responsible for registering and tallying our votes. I am sympathetic to their concerns. I see no reason why the most basic and fundamental action of a democratic society should be contracted out to the private sector.

I would like to suggest, however, that perhaps there is a place for Open Source licensing agreements in the development and deployment of vote tallying software. As it stands, companies like Diebold and Elections Systems and Software have received heavy criticism for their use of closed, proprietary software. It does not logically follow that a closed system is a corrupt and conspiratorial system; nevertheless, suspicion and speculation will continue to plague these closed systems so long as Diebold et. al. refuse to adopt a policy of transparency, which isn’t asking too much considering they are claiming to serve the interests of democracy.

Making a move towards Open Source in our voting systems will go a long way to eliminate the black box effect of electronic voting. Thousands, perhaps millions of programmers will be able to review and improve upon the source code, thereby minimizing glitches and ensuring a transparent process easily verified by independent, non-partisan auditors. Diebold would most certainly protest that such a move represents the destruction of their business model, but this has not been the case for Apache, MySQL, AsteriskPBX, and hundreds of other Open Source companies, both large and small, that have developed extremely profitable businesses by releasing their source code to the public.

Open Source is not a silver bullet. We still need other safeguards to guarantee the integrity of our democracy: verifiable paper trails, non-partisan election officials, and better legislation to prevent voter suppression and encourage registration. Still, making a move towards Open Source software in our new electronic voting system will go a long way to allay our misgivings about a closed, proprietary system ostensibly created to safeguard our nation’s democratic integrity.


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