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GoGaRuCo '09 – TrustTheVote: Open Source Digital Voting – Gregory Miller


Open Source Digital Voting

Trust The Vote

What OSDV means to me personally

I personally am really excited about this talk. I worked on the OSDV prototype at Pivotal last year, when we made a small prototype in a few weeks. This was subsequently presented to congress. It was an incredible experience. As a programmer, you write a lot of code which isn’t that exciting, counting beans or Yet Another Social Networking Website.

OSDV, however, is something that is REALLY important. It has the potential to revolutionize the way Democracy works, and really change the world for the better.

GoGaRuCo '09 - Matthew Douglass and Gregory Miller - Open Source Digital Voting (OSDV)

Here goes the talk, with Matthew Douglass running the slides and Gregory Miller talking.

Intro Video

First is a video about how democracy used to work, when we trusted the outcome of votes. Now, after the 2000 Presedential Election, people lost confidence.

Now, states are getting funding to update their voting system. However, now that we are past the “Hanging Chad”, we are seeing MORE, not fewer problems. The companies that make proprietary digital voting do not make the required investment to make their machines trustworthy, and rely on PC technology and proprietary code.

Shouldn’t we be able to say “I count”? We should not expect the Government or Private Sector to fix this. It must be a Grass-roots movement, something big. We need to completely rethink the lifecycle of our ballots.

We have to shift away from companies guarding proprietary, black box voting to a world of “glass-box” voting. Blueprints and designs are freely available.

We need the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation.

it is not just another thinktank or group of lobbyists. It is technology professionals teaming up with volunteers. Everyone can see, touch, and try it out.

This is a digital public works project, calling people from all over the country and world to help out, take a hands-on approach, and do something.

We are the real stakeholders in our Democracy. We can all make our votes count. The time to begin is NOW.

Pop Quiz

Q: Federal guidleines for how votes are counted?

Q: California’s absentee ballots always counted?

Q: Major voting vendors system rely on commodity Hardware/Software
A: Sort Of. They use “Windows 95”.

He then shows “Clippy” helpfully offering to finish your vote for you…

A “Free Markets” Failure

  • No Competition
  • High Barriers to Entry
  • No Incentive to Innovate

Horribly dysfunctional market. There are FOUR vendors of voting systems in the US, there may be two by the end of year

Very high barriers to entry, hard to get it approved and legal.

When you have no competition and barriers to entry, there is no incentive to innovate. You end up with closed proprietary systems with inconsistencies and irregularities. There is a natural conflict of interest between shareholder interest and public interest.

Guess who wins every time when shareholder interest meets public interest?

Critical Democracy Infrastructure

The pillar of democracy is transparency, and the substance of the pillar is technology.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant”

This stuff is so imperative and essential to our Democracy, it needs to be lifted up to the level of a public works project.

Why not commercial sector? They will do as little as possible, and have conflict of interest

Why not the government? Slow, and at risk of losing funding.

Our Solution

GoGaRuCo - OSDV/TrustTheVote

Bringing together two approaches – fault tolerance and high-availability computing, with the dynamics of open source community.

Rather than being a think tank, they have a group of people in Silicon Valley making things that we can see and touch.

Development Process

  • Core team
    • partner with Mozilla Foundation.
  • RFC (Request For Comments) Service
    • Send out requests for comment to community
  • Design Congress
    • A virtual community to help drive requirements, so they know there is a possibility of adoption
  • Federally certified

Public Technology Repository – State and local govt, Fed govt, Commercial Vendors, test suites, dynamic continuous testing, everyone is giddy!

Two commercial vendors who are deploying with a commercial deployment license, and are being delivered open source solutions based on draft standards that the consortium is building.

Major work areas

  • Digital Voter Registration System
  • Ballot Design Studio
  • Ballot Casting and Counting Systems
  • Election Management Services
  • Operating System Platform

Rails is a major part of their work. They are assembling a great core team.

It has been below the radar, but it will be more public in the future.


Q: How do we advance or improve the system?
A: Yes, look over the horizon at what the future looks like – Instant runoff, etc. However, there is another half of the question. They DON’T want to build the ‘perfect’ system, and have it be a relic. They have to be driven by real requirements and real adoption. They have to take the EXISTING processes, and make them better. That will get their attention, and drive adoption.

Q: Are the Hardware and Interface designs open source?
A: Absolutely everything is open. Everything will be transparent and funneled through the RFC process. The goal is to build an entire software ecosystem that runs against a known, virgin, commodity hardware system. Then they will examine on a device-by-device basis to plug in new parts. “Open Source Hardware” has never been done, but they will try.

Q: What are the obstacles (e.g. politicians)
A: Lots of them, but their position is that they are technologists, making the best solutions. Senator Patrick Leahy said “please don’t waste time trying to change systems, make things that people can touch and try”.

There are “horrifying” ways the system is designed to preserve incumbency. If this works, it really changes the landscape in a big way.

Q: What percentage of elections are corrupt?
A: They have been doing due diligence, and have found “remarkable” inconsistencies, some of which have resulted in criminal elections. We may think that Obama got elected, things are great, but we dodged a bullet. We are 170 days into the congressional session, and no senator from Minnesota is seated. Politicians will no longer be able to hide and say “the box did it”.

Q: It seems like a huge complex problem to solve, shouldn’t it be bite-sized?
A: They thought about componentizing it, but the only way to do it right is to start with a clean slate. Forget incumbency, and legacy. We need open data and open processes. They are partitioning the process to different buckets, and have different teams working on them. They are laying the foundation for a pluggable, XML-based framework. They are going in a procedural fashion, and really focusing on the 2010 election.

Rapid prototyping, Agile Development approaches with Structured Approaches.


  • Richard

    Have you seen what was done in Humboldt County CA using “Ballot Browser” Open Source Software?

  • Dennis

    This was an interesting talk, but what I found odd was the desire to have a Federal law requiring open source voting platforms.

    That makes this organization just another lobbying group trying to get a law passed at the Federal level to help out its objective.

    Why not just build the software/hardware and let states choose it? One or two successes and more states will choose it.

    Elections are controlled at the state level for very good reasons (most elections are for state, not federal officials)…

  • Chad Woolley

    @richard – Thanks a lot for those links, it is good to see more work in this area.

    @dennis – I don’t have a problem with governments mandating *open source* in general. It is a superior approach for many reasons; and completely different than mandating a specific technology, company or organization (with which I would have a problem). Elections == Power == $$$. Thus, there will always be a strong incentive for corruption; and “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”.

  • Chad and All-
    Three more things…

    [1] Sorry about my attempt to provide contextual response; the quotes goofed everything up.

    [2] To be clear, crystal clear, add the word NOT in the first point about our interest in Federal legislation mandating OSS. We have NO interest in that at all.

    [3] To @Richard post about BallotBrowser in Humboldt County. Theirs is important work and we congratulate their efforts and look forward to working with their code in parts of our systems.

    BallotBrowser as it stands today, however, needs more work to make it the kind of utility that States’ elections directors would want for “ballot forensics.” And although it is open source, they have chosen to commercialize their efforts as TEV Systems, which we think is fine but wonder if it will essentially result in a disclosed-source solution (at least the fork or branch that is owned by TEV Solutions). I am sure they will clarify that when the time comes.

    However, our work will be non-commercial, freely available, and 100% open source, which means the additional work required, at least in our version of ballot forensics, will require more public financial support, as it is not currently covered by directed gifts (funding) already allocated to TrustTheVote work, as a condition of the giving, for other elements of elections systems (e.g., voter registration, ballot design, ballot casting platform).

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