Government Technology

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California Holds Hearing on Open Source Software in Election Systems

February 8, 2006 By Wayne Hanson


Senator Debra Bowen (D-Redondo Beach, Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Elections, Reapportionment & Constitutional Amendments Committee, and a candidate for California Secretary of State, conducted a hearing today to look at how private companies, as well as state and federal agencies, have begun using "open source software" and where it can or should be used in California's electoral system.


"Open source software has been around for several decades, but it's become more popular in recent years," said Bowen in a release prior to the meeting. "Some of the more well-known names in the open source software world are Firefox (an Internet browser), Linux (an operating system), and Red Hat (which sells and supports a version of Linux for businesses). A number of private businesses, including Bank of America,, America Online (AOL), DreamWorks, Charles Schwab, IBM, and Merrill Lynch, have begun using open source software for some applications. Furthermore, the Department of Defense, the State of Massachusetts, and the California Air Resources Board have begun to migrate some of their computer systems from proprietary to open source software.



"We've worked hard to make elections more transparent over the years by, for example, making it easier for voters to track campaign contributions, but when it comes to the fundamental issue of how the accuracy of the election results are ensured, voters are left completely in the dark," noted Bowen. "We're in the middle of an intense discussion over whether voting systems that rely on proprietary software, such as Diebold, should be certified or re-certified for use here in California for the 2006 elections. I want to look further ahead at what alternatives we have to trusting the vote-recording and vote-tallying processes to closed, proprietary software systems that have turned out to be fatally flawed."


Hearing testimony dove quickly into very technical points around source code, object code, public licenses of various types, and business models around "free" open source software. Bowen, who has some technology credibility herself, asked questions to help clarify points for listeners, but on top of the complexities of voting systems, the technical merits of open source code, business models and bug fixes may have been daunting for all but the most technical in the audience.


At several points Bowen and others emphasized the importance of voter confidence in the process. Even paper-based voting in Florida was found to be flawed and open to challenge, and without the paper ballots to view the difficulty increases. The complexities of proprietary software vs. open source may be moot if the public loses trust in the process. Most voters cannot look at open source code -- or any code for that matter -- and detect tampering that could alter an election. Experts could, but would voters have more confidence in programmers than they would in politicians? Would they have more confidence in closed proprietary systems run by corporations than in open source code written by "wildly enthusiastic volunteers," as they were described at one point in the hearing.


According to Deirdre Mulligan of UC Berkeley, "the public has to be provided with information that allows them to make, at some level, a decision if they trust the system." She said it's not code that will give the public confidence, but a verified paper trail. Open code helps provide transparency, she said.


Clark Kelso, the state's CIO, suggested a wait and see approach is most prudent when spending tax dollars. He has followed Massachusetts in its move to open source systems, and the stability, sustainability and maintainability will be critical for government systems. He did say that the California Air Resources Board has been using open source for some time, and has claimed to have garnered some significant savings in that approach.


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