Volunteer Group Demos Free Election Software - InformationWeek

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Volunteer Group Demos Free Election Software

The Open Voting Consortium showed off its software; it hopes to produce an offering that can be used with older PCs, doing away with existing systems.

The Open Voting Consortium, a group of volunteer engineers and programmers, reached a major milestone Thursday in demonstrating a version of its free election software in a Santa Clara County government office building in San Jose, Calif.

Spurred on by the electronic ballot glitches of recent elections, the consortium's members envision the program running on "trailing edge" machines in polling places across the country. "The purpose is to set a number of standards for future voting systems," said David Mertz, the system's architectural adviser. "We want to set security standards. And the open source software will be open for inspections."

The organization, which has volunteers across the country and from as far away as Sweden, wants to produce voting systems that will do away with problematic existing systems, many of which it regards as "fraudulent, proprietary, expensive, and unreliable." Mertz said such a system, if adopted nationwide, would require several million PCs. By targeting used computers--"trailing edge" machines--the cost would be cut dramatically.

In the consortium's system, a voter approaches a touchscreen and fills out a form, which is promptly printed out as an official legal ballot. The voter can cast his vote or review choices before the ballot is printed out with the voter's choices checked off. The voter then places the ballot in a private envelope and places it in a ballot box.

That approach is in sharp contrast to most of the electronic voting machines now in use. Most of today's voting machines use proprietary source code and machines--and leave no paper trail, making it difficult to audit counted votes. Money and funding are important issues. Although the Help America Vote Act of 2002 earmarked some $4 billion for voter modernization, there has been little progress on the issue to date.

"We are not in favor of having a public process run by private companies that want to keep everything a secret," consortium president Alan Dechert, a Sacramento, Calif. software developer who founded the organization, said in a statement. "We advocate spending a small percentage of this money on a comprehensive scientific research and development project that will give us the best possible voting system."

The group posts its software publicly at SourceForge.net, a posting place for much public and open source software. Some members have talked with companies about acquiring used commodity PCs--another measure that would keep prices low. While there was widespread interest in funding secure and accurate voting machines in the wake of the 2000 election, very little funding has actually materialized.

The most ambitious effort is the Caltech-MIT/Voting Technology Project, which was established by the respective presidents of those universities "to prevent a recurrence of the problems that threatened the 2000 U. S. Presidential election." That project has received some funding from the Carnegie Corporation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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