Kapor: “Disruptive Innovation” Could Fix U.S. Voting
Friday, October 23rd, 2009
“Disruptive innovation” is what we need to fix America’s broken voting system, Mitch Kapor, the election reformer and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Lotus 1-2-3, said on Wednesday night in Los Angeles.
Kapor made his remarks at an event sponsored by the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation (OSDV) at the home of Hollywood film producer Lawrence Bender. The event was intended to introduce the Hollywood audience to the OSDV’s Trust the Vote project and its mission, to “re-invent how America votes in a digital democracy.”
Kapor was joined on a panel by Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan and friends of Why Tuesday? OSDF co-founder Gregory Miller, Heather Smith from Rock the Vote and CA Secretary of State Debra Bowen. Kim Zetter covered the event for Wired Magazine, and said that the main piece of news to come from the event was that the OSDV’s open-source voting code, the type of “disruptive innovation” Kapor was talking about, is now ready for a transparent public review.
The OSDV, co-founded by Gregory Miller and John Sebes, launched its Trust the Vote Project in 2006 and has an eight-year roadmap to produce a comprehensive, publicly owned, open source electronic election system. The system would be available for licensing to manufacturers or election districts, and would include a voter registration component; firmware for casting ballots on voting devices (either touch-screen systems with a paper trail, optical-scan machines or ballot-marking devices); and an election management system for creating ballots, administering elections and counting votes.
Miller said the foundation wasn’t looking to put voting system companies out of business but to assume the heavy burden and costs of research and development to create a trustworthy system that will meet the needs of election officials for reliability and the needs of the voting public for accessibility, transparency, security and integrity.
“We believe we’re catalyzing a re-birth of the industry … by making the blueprint available to anyone who wants to use it,” Miller said.
The foundation has elicited help from academics and election officials from eight states as well as voter advocacy groups, such as Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters, to guide developers in building the system. Technology bigwigs such as Oracle, Sun and IBM have also approached the group to help with the project.
The code currently available for download and review represents only a small part of the total code and includes parts of an online voter registration portal and tracking system, election management software and a vote tabulator. Prototype code for producing ballots has been completed and will be posted soon. Code for auditing is still being designed.
The voting firmware and tabulator program are built on a minimized Linux platform (a stripped down version of Sharp) and the election management components are built with Ruby on Rails.
The foundation already has California, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington interested in adopting the system and is in talks with 11 other states. Florida, which has been racked by voting machine problems since the 2000 presidential debacle, has also expressed interest, as has Georgia, which uses machines made by Premier Election Solutions (formerly Diebold Election Systems) statewide.
“Currently two vendors impact 80 percent of the vote” nationwide, Miller said, referring to Premier/Diebold and Election Systems & Software, which recently merged in a sale. But if all the states that have expressed interest in adopting the open source system follow through with implementing it, about 62 percent of the nation’s electorate would be voting on transparent, fully auditable machines he said.
The foundation is especially interested in getting a system that would be workable in Los Angeles County, the nation’s largest and most complex election district with 4.3 million voters casting ballots in seven languages.
Miller passed along these clarifications to me about Zetter’s post (which he also posted as a comment on the Wired site):
 While we are aware through other elections officials that there are aspects of our work that both FL and GA are likely interested in (especially as to transparency). But to be sure, we have not had any formal chats with officials from either state WRT participating yet. We’re working on it. If Gregory mis-spoke at the event, we apologize and want to set that record straight.
 Its not quite right to suggest we are trained on L.A. County adopting our work… just yet. We are definitely interested in supporting the efforts of the VSAP (Voting Systems Assessment Project) in L.A. County; its a huge undertaking with some spot-on vision. And yes, we believe that the ballot ecosystem framework we’re developing (which really can ensure accuracy, trust, transparency and security) is in line with their vision. However, we do *not* have any “system” per-se that we want them to adopt. They need to complete their VSAP process first, and believe when they do, what will result is an alignment with many aspects of our framework. One key finding we expect them to make (and we’ll discuss this in detail on our blog shortly) is that the Federal Certification process is antiquated if not obsolete for the technology innovation required to restore trust in voting systems. That noted, one thing we didn’t say much about Wed evening (not the right audience, frankly), is that we have considerable design effort underway to create something that can help NIST/EAC re-think the certification process, by decoupling software into a device independent layer from the hardware used to cast and count ballots. We think this is essential, but that’s another discussion rat-hole.
This is an extremely important issue and we’ll stay on top of it. For our past coverage of electronic voting issues, including my video chat with Princeton professor (and Electronic Frontier Foundation board member) Ed Felten, who hacked a Diebold voting machine, check out our electronic voting and open source posts archive.
Ultimately, even if our voting systems become open source and secure, there’s still one question that remains: why do we vote on Tuesday?