Open source: How e-voting should be done

An open source approach to open voting systems is essential to the integrity of an electoral process. Here's a technical blueprint for securing the vote

Open elections require open systems

Ultimately, the call for open source e-voting systems isn't as much about open source software as it is about securing our inalienable right to legitimate elections. It just so happens that open source is the best way to accomplish that goal.

If the past few elections are any indication, secure voting machines are essential to political legitimacy. With machines sold by companies that produce far more secure ATMs than voting systems, something must change, especially as the inaccuracies and irregularities incurred by these systems continue to mount. No effective steps have been taken by the government thus far to address the integrity of our vote, other than small measures by state and county governments that have already blown budgets on insecure systems.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in response to the hanging-chad debacle of Florida's 2000 presidential elections. The act's main thrust was to provide money to states to replace outdated punch-card- and lever-based voting systems with optical-scan or touchscreen models. The act largely accomplished that goal, filling the coffers of closed source voting system manufacturers. In doing so, the act may have inadvertently placed the country in a worse situation, given how difficult it is to rig large numbers of votes with punch card or lever systems. By contrast, a single poorly designed e-voting machine can be used to covertly modify large numbers of votes.

Of course, even with a paper ballot cast in a locked box, there have never been fail-safe assurances that any given vote has been counted and recorded. Human error and malfeasance are sure to be constants.

Yet in every industry, computers have reduced or eliminated human error and guarded against fraud. From banking to taxes to tollbooths, computers ostensibly provide a dispassionate third party to tally numbers, not as we might wish them to be but as they are. Voting systems are no exception, and they should be afforded far more protections, oversight, and regulation than those in most other industries as they protect the very foundation for our democracy.

The law has always trailed behind technical innovation. In the case of e-voting, Congress must act to close this gap, by passing legislation to provide grants for developing a single, open framework for all voting systems and to provide funds to states to retrofit existing hardware where possible.

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