Can Open Source Save Democracy? No, Says Bev Harris

Originally published at Blackboxvoting

By Bev Harris
Founder, Black Box Voting

Quite a wave of PR pieces have come out in the past few days about a new open source voting system -- NOT from Alan Dechert's well known Open Voting Consortium, but instead from an upstart, loosely connected to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and several cronies of the Holt-Bill-pushing verified voting fans.

So let's talk about this. I'm going to link you to Michael Hickens' piece, one of the many bloggers who jumped on this bandwagon. His article is headlined "Can Open Source Software Save Democracy?"


Before I get to that, and before outlining my concerns with the new "Open Source Digital Voting Foundation" concept, I'll point out that:

(1) THIS IS NOT ON THE IMMEDIATE HORIZON. The federal certification process takes two to three years

(2) Though not covered by U.S. antitrust laws, THIS IS STRUCTURED MUCH LIKE ANOTHER MONOPOLISTIC GRAB FOR U.S. ELECTION PROCESSES. This new group claims to have 26 states on board (though I doubt this) -- that would give a horizontal monopoly of over 50% of the USA; the "top to bottom" design also invokes vertical monopoly concerns, in that it wants to have the software control voter registration, ballot design, ballot counting, and even election auditing.


Counting votes inside computers conceals the counting from the public. If key processes are concealed from the public, you no longer have public elections. If you don't have public elections, The People no longer hold sovereignty over the instruments of government they have created, and it ceases to be a democratic system.

The core issues are not "security" or "assuring the public" as the author of this blog assumes. The ultimate issues are public right to know, and public ability to understand their own election without need for special expertise, and public controls. You cannot achieve these simply by replacing proprietary software with open source software.

Open source software DOES achieve two worthwhile things, though it doesn't solve our current elections problems. It does enhance our ability to get freedom of information requests filled, by eliminating the proprietary exemption, and it should significantly reduce cost. But costs are also reduced significantly by public hand counts, which, when done correctly, actually do restore democracy.

Case in point: Marion County, Indiana is conducting its next election by public hand count. This is a large jurisdiction (Indianapolis). The ballot is a small one, just four ballot questions. This will provide an excellent pilot project example for expansion of hand counts, beginning with elections with only a modest number of ballot questions. Marion County estimates that all together, it will save $288,000. In fact, the cost of just delivering the voting machines (be they open or closed source) was estimated by Marion County to be $22,000!

The German high court recently banned its e-voting system because it conceals the counting from the public. Open source changes this not a whit. Instead, Germany is now counting in public, by hand.


(1) The less centralized, the better (the more people, the better, the "many eyes" safeguard);

(2) the public needs to be able to understand how the election works, and be able to authenticate it, without need for special expertise.


You've gotta wonder. The acquisition of Diebold's elections division by Election Systems & Software, giving it 75% of the horizontal market and a vertical monopoly as well, is being questioned by a U.S. Senate committee, but the committee chosen is a bit odd: The Rules Committee. One might expect to see this investigation taken up by the Judiciary Committee (after all, monopolies are illegal and are typically investigated by the U.S. Dept. of Justice); or perhaps the Commerce Committee ... but the Rules Committee?

On this Rules Committee are the two key Senate pushers of forced voting machine purchase, Help America Vote Act sponsors Chris Dodd and Mitch McConnell. If only they had Steny Hoyer, they'd have the trifecta. Chairing the committee is Charles Schumer, who is now pushing an unwise Internet Registration bill (and Internet registration happens to be one of the areas this nifty new Open Source Digital Voting Foundation claims to be developing).

At first, after looking at the makeup of the senate committee undertaking the antitrust examination, I thought maybe they'd be using this as an excuse to expand the powers of the EAC. Now I expect the real reason these particular senators grabbed this particular investigation was to push an open source agenda -- but not just any open source agenda.

One particular open source agenda. The specific well oiled machine produced by a bunch of the folks who had been associated with the Quixote Group, who also have been associated with pushing the Holt Bill; those folks chummy with the multi-million-dollar NSF-funded ACCURATE. Always covered by Kim Zetter at Wired News. Usually pipelined in to the New York Times Editorial Page.

By the way, not all the "open source" code is being released.
And the only comment I can offer for that is:  Strange, but true.

Now, here's one of the blogs on this:

Information Week Government Blogs
Oct. 26, 2009, by Michael Hickens

Can Open Source Software Save Democracy?