NYT MAY 30 text -- A Really Open Election

From: Alan Dechert <alan_at_openvotingconsortium_dot_org>
Date: Mon Jun 07 2004 - 10:41:23 CDT

IDEA LAB

A Really Open Election
By CLIVE THOMPSON

Published: May 30, 2004

This fall, as many as 20 percent of American voters will be able to cast
their ballots on A.T.M.-style electronic voting machines. But to put it
mildly, these machines -- where you simply touch a screen and a computer
registers your vote -- have not inspired much confidence lately. North
Carolina officials recently learned that a software glitch destroyed 436
e-ballots in early voting for the 2002 general election. In a Florida state
election this past January, 134 votes apparently weren't recorded -- and
this was in a race decided by a margin of only 12 votes. Since most of the
machines don't leave any paper trail, there's no way to determine what
actually happened. Most alarmingly, perhaps, California's secretary of state
recently charged that Diebold -- the industry leader -- had installed
uncertified voting machines and then misled state officials about it.

Electronic voting has much to offer, but will we ever be able to trust these
buggy machines? Yes, we will -- but only if we adopt the techniques of the
''open source'' geeks.

One reason it's difficult to trust the voting software of companies like
Diebold is that the source code remains a trade secret. A few federally
approved software experts are allowed to examine the code and verify that it
works as intended, and in some cases, states are allowed to keep a copy in
escrow. But the public has no access, and this is troublesome. When the
Diebold source code was accidentally posted online last year, a
computer-science professor looked at it and found it was dangerously
hackable. Diebold may have fixed its bugs, but since the firm won't share
the code publicly, there's no way of knowing. Just trust us, the company
says.

But is the counting of votes -- a fundamental of democracy -- something you
want to take on faith? No, this problem requires a more definitive solution:
ending the secrecy around the machines.

First off, the government should ditch the private-sector software makers.
Then it should hire a crack team of programmers to write new code. Then --
and this is the crucial part -- it should put the source code online
publicly, where anyone can critique or debug it. This honors the genius of
the open-source movement. If you show something to a large enough group of
critics, they'll notice (and find a way to remove) almost any possible flaw.
If tens of thousands of programmers are scrutinizing the country's voting
software, it's highly unlikely a serious bug will go uncaught. The
government's programming team would then take the recommendations,
incorporate them into an improved code and put that online, too. This is how
the famous programmer Linus Torvalds developed his Linux operating system,
and that's precisely why it's so rock solid -- while Microsoft's secretly
developed operating systems, Linux proponents say, crash far more often and
are easier to hack. Already, Australians have used the open-source strategy
to build voting software for a state election, and it ran like a well-oiled
Chevy. A group of civic-minded programmers known as the Open Voting
Consortium has written its own open-source code.

But if our code were open, wouldn't cyberterrorists or other outlaws be able
to locate flaws and possibly rig an election? Well, theoretically -- except
that it's highly unlikely that they could spot an error that escaped
thousands and thousands of scrutineers. Indeed, it may be far easier to
infiltrate a private-sector company and tamper with its software. Diebold,
after all, kept quiet about the bugs it found in its programs -- including
one that subtracted more than 16,000 votes from Al Gore in a single Florida
county during the initial vote counting in the 2000 election. Open-source
enthusiasts, by contrast, are precisely the sort of people you'd like to see
inspecting the voting code; they're often libertarian freaks, nuttily
suspicious of centralized power, and they'd scream to the high heavens if
they found anything wrong.

>From the classification of documents to the refusal to name detainees, the
Bush administration's actions show a high regard for secrecy. In essence,
it's hiding its code, too. Inside such closed systems, nasty things can
happen, as we're learning to our chagrin. Perhaps a blast of open-source
candor is exactly what America needs right now.

Clive Thompson writes frequently for the magazine about science and
technology.
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Received on Wed Jun 30 23:17:10 2004

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