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Open Source Fix For US Voting System?

Open source programmers and maverick election officials want to improve the way we vote, register to vote, and count the votes. Wish them luck.

would only multiply. Instead, OSET seeks to make greater use of proven, reliable, and off-the-shelf hardware in combination with software that is open to scrutiny in a way that proprietary systems are not.

If web-based voting is certified for use at all in the next few years, it will probably be limited to edge cases such as voting by members of the military stationed overseas.

OSET has the backing of digital media experts like Christopher M. Kelly, former chief privacy officer, general counsel, and head of global public policy for Facebook. Sebes, Miller, and some of the other cofounders previously worked on healthcare information technology and believe the discipline required to meet the demands of regulations like HIPAA has prepared them for the rigors and sensitivities of voting technology.

Still, this is not an overnight app sensation, Miller pointed out. "It's like building a new operating system. It takes time to build, and to do it right." The project wants to take "a more nimble, agile approach" while at the same time driving for the kind of fail-safe reliability associated more with medical technologies and NASA missions than the digital economy. A more trustworthy system for recording and tabulating votes needs to be "fault-tolerant -- or, as we say, fault-intolerant," Miller explained, and able to recover smoothly when things go wrong. That means when equipment fails, there must be backups on top of the backups. The plan is to provide more redundancy at a lower cost by making greater use of commodity components such as printers and scanners, rather than single-purpose devices.

Getting the technology certified for use by state and federal officials is also a daunting process, so OSET initially focused on developing software that didn't require that degree of certification. So far, the piece that has had the greatest impact is a web-based system promoting voter registration, which was first deployed by Rock the Vote and subsequently by some voting officials. Although the law still requires a wet ink signature, new voters can do the preliminaries online and then print and mail the form. By providing web-based validation, this app reduces errors and omissions. With the encouragement of states such as Virginia, OSET has gathered several of these utilities together into a portal for voter registration and election reporting.

Next up: an electronic poll book, the application poll workers use to verify an individual's eligibility to vote and check them in at early voting or on Election Day. The components are intended to be modular, so that an OSET poll book could be used in combination with voting machines from a commercial manufacturer. The poll book software is expected to be ready for pilot project use within the year.

Getting to the center of the voting and counting process is still the ultimate goal. "You won't see ballot casting and counting for another probably 18 months," Miller said. Modules are under development but need to be pulled together into one system. "We think we'll be ready to go to pilot in 2016, with significant adoption in in 2018," Miller added.

Logan's timeline for LA County is similar, targeting testing in 2017 and first use for an election in 2018. "There's a lot that has to happen in that time," Logan acknowledged. Even if a system could be pulled together in time for 2016, he said, "You wouldn't want to roll it out in a presidential election year -- that's just not a desirable scenario."

Logan acknowledges that building a new election system from scratch is an audacious goal. "It's an audacious problem, to be honest," he said.

OSET's Sebes said his attitude in the beginning was: "Are you kidding me? How hard could it be to design voting machines that don't suck?" Well, it's turned out to be harder than he anticipated, and the technological challenges are only half the battle.

When it comes to creating certified election technology, Sebes said, "That's a longer timeframe that isn't actually in our hands. It's not how much time take us to write the code. If we really needed to get it done in a year, from a standing start today, we probably could. Meanwhile, there's no federal body operative to do this stuff anymore."

The technologists are plowing ahead, hoping the regulators will catch up.

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