NewsForge Article: California takes up transparency, open source voting

From: Alan Dechert <dechert_at_gmail_dot_com>
Date: Wed Feb 22 2006 - 00:13:05 CST

The Online Newspaper for Linux and Open Source
      Title California takes up transparency, open source voting
      Date 2006.02.16 7:00
      Author Jay Lyman
Calif. State Senator Debra Bowen (D-Redondo Beach) knows about making
government and technology more open. She also knows her brother, a US Navy
programmer, could code a program to rig an election in 20 minutes.

After putting the Golden State's legislation, public records, legislator
records, and more online in 1993, Bowen is now looking to make transparency
in voting front and center in her campaign for Calif. Secretary of State.
Bowen, who chairs the state's Election Committee, is overseeing hearings
this month on whether the state should move toward using electronic voting
systems that rely on open source software, as well as how voting systems are
tested and certified. The hearings have featured electronic voting and open
source experts, including Red Hat Vice President of Corporate Development
Michael Evans, and highlight whether and how the public can see the code and
the process of voting.

"It's a huge issue," Bowen says. "The integrity of the voting process is
critical to the functioning of a democracy."

Bowen refers to her own track record on transparency -- available to the
public thanks in part to her work -- and indicates her 13 years in the state
legislature, her position on the state's Election Committee, and her
technology tendencies suit her well for the issue. Bowen recalls putting the
state's legislation online in the early 1990s, when she met with Apple and
others from the Silicon Valley to make it happen.

"Now we're focused on voting," she says, referring to past experience on IT
architecture, security, spam, phishing, RFID, encryption, and other
technology matters. "My perspective on this comes from years of doing and
overseeing large IT projects in California's state government."

Open Voting Consortium President and CEO Alan Dechert is also focused on a
more open, transparent vote, and backs not only Bowen and her bid for Calif.
Secretary of State, but also state legislation to be introduced soon that
requires disclosure of voting code and systems. Calif. Assemblywoman Jackie
Goldberg pushed legislation requiring consideration of open source software
for electronic voting systems in 2004 as well.

Dechert explains that while it seemed incumbent Secretary of State Bruce
McPherson was in agreement with open source and transparency advocates,
there has been no action out of McPherson's office.

McPherson's office did not respond to a request for comment, but a source
from the office who requested anonymity explained it was less a case of the
office dragging its feet, and more a result of the confusion and complexity
of the leadership change brought by former Calif. Secretary of State Kevin
Shelley's resignation a year ago. Shelley, who did move to de-certify
proprietary Diebold systems and expressed interest in open source e-voting
possibilities, resigned last February after an an ethics scandal, prompting
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to select McPherson.

The source conceded McPherson's office has been "slow to engage" on voting
machines and related issues, and while McPherson is described as somewhat
skeptical regarding open code, he is in favor of more transparency in
voting. Still, the source indicates the old vendor institutional habits
still have their influence.

"There's a long tradition of keeping the key vendor's proprietary
information confidential," the source says. "I don't know if the Secretary
of State is willing to begin to change that. Within that, though, he wants
everything about it to be as open and above board as possible."

For Bowen, what constitutes a truly transparent, electronic voting machine
remains undefined, hence the hearings, she explains. Her definition of a
trustworthy election does, however, center on open source code -- not only
for voting, but also for tallying -- which should be easily viewed and
critiqued by the public and experts.

"In places we use computers to tally votes, they all need to be
transparent," she says.

In response to her stated preference and interest in open source e-voting
code, Bowen says there has been skepticism about security, and a general
apprehension about something different than the proprietary vendors that
dominate the polls today. The deep transparency sought must also avoid
conflict with the right to privacy in voting, Bowen says, adding difficulty
to an already complex challenge. "We have a particular challenge with voting
because we require it to be private."

Still, Bowen believes one of the critical components to a trusted,
transparent voting system, along with the ability to verify and audit, is
open source software. The hearings this month focus on OSS and its use in
elections, and also on the process of voting system certification in the
state, which has come into question in California, as well as North
Carolina, where lawmakers are requiring comprehensive code review, and other

Bowen says that because of its novelty and the complexity of voting matters,
an open source alternative is not yet ready and will not be possible by the
2006 Calif. primary election in November.

"But that doesn't mean that's where we shouldn't go," she says. "Some
education is going to be required at the beginning."

An open code-based machine that has been certified by a more rigorous
standard than today's federal certification is the longer-term objective,
and Bowen says open source has its usual advantage in the all-important
categories of time and money.

"We want to find out about learning some of this -- who's doing what, where
there are parts of an open source system that really exists," she says.
"That's the nice thing about open source, we don't have to do the
programming all over again. We need to find that out."



  1.. "Debra Bowen" -
  2.. "move" -
  3.. "how voting systems are tested and certified" -
  4.. "Open Voting Consortium" -
  5.. "Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg" -
  6.. "legislation" -
  7.. "comprehensive code review" -

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Received on Tue Feb 28 23:17:07 2006

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