Open-source voting

You may have been following the “Diebold memo” scandal, but if you haven’t, here’s a quick recap:

1) In the wake of the “hanging chad” Florida fiasco, the feds decide to start looking at computerized voting machines.
2) One of the main contenders is Diebold Election Systems. The only problem is …
3) Diebold is run by fiercely partisan Republicans, who donated boatloads of cash to the GOP in the last election; the CEO once said that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year”. Nice. But even worse …
4) Diebold’s voting machines are so shoddily designed that, according to one study, a teenage hacker with a $100 card-printer could forge as many votes as he wanted. Diebold engineers know this, and over the last four years, they’ve written thousands of frantic memos to each other talking about how bug-ridden their software is.
5) Amazingly, the company posts these memos on public portions of their web site (accidentally, I assume).
6) In March, a bunch of college students take 15,000 of these memos and begin circulating them online, to warn about the danger to democracy.
7) Diebold freaks out and fights back — legally. Using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Diebold lawyers force universities to take the documents off servers, claiming they’re copyrighted information. Students rebel by posting the docs on peer-to-peer networks, spreading them around the world.
8) This forms an elegant object-lesson in why peer-to-peer networks are so politically powerful. If a document gets passed around enough, it’ll be on so many millions of hard drives that no legal order — or political despot — can quash the information. It’s a technology about which guys like John Milton could only dream.

So now you’re caught up. The reason I give this bloated preamble is to point to the real solution: Open-source software.

As the Diebold scandal illustrates, it’s incredibly dangerous to let a private company develop proprietary voting software. If they “own” the code, they’ll keep it a secret. That means we’ll have to trust them that the software is secure. If they’re lying to us — or, more likely, if they’re well-intentioned but just unable to realize how buggy their code is — democracy is screwed.

So why not just develop voting software in open-source mode? If everyone can openly inspect the code, any bugs or hackable insecurities would instantly be noticed and removed. And given that many geeks are pretty psychotic libertarians, you’d best believe they’ll triple-check every line of the voting-software code to make sure no-one can mess with US elections. It’s perfect!

So perfect, in fact, that Australia has already thought of it. According to a Wired story today, an open-source project in Australia created completely secure and bug-free voting software — in only six months.

(Cool debate alert: Over at his blog, Barry Brigs wrote a post pointing out the dangers of open-source development, as well as a post in the boards here.)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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