Will ‘controlled open source’ software take over election work?


Author: Jay Lyman

When he accepted a request to speak at OSCON last month, University of California Davis student
and Open Vote Foundation founder Scott
Ritchie did not know he would be talking about how the open source election
software he wanted to bring to the United States was being abandoned for a more
proprietary approach.

And while the speech he was to deliver on behalf of eVACS software maker
Software Improvements — which deployed its open source, GPLed software and
system in an Australian election three years ago — may have been a rude
awakening, it has also spurred Ritchie to push even harder for an open
source election solution for American voters. NewsForge talked to Ritchie,
who is currently overhauling the Open Vote Foundation site, about what
happened and what’s ahead.

NewsForge: One question about what happened — what is your reaction now that you consider what Software Improvements is doing with the eVACS system and software?

Ritchie: Although for now their record seems to be better than
Diebold, we have lost our reasons to trust them. Their software is now as
closed as possible, and open source is simply a must for making trustworthy
electronic voting systems.

NewsForge: Are there other models, such as CanVote, that can help lay the
groundwork for an open source voting system in the U.S.?

Ritchie: The CanVote system, although workable for rural territories in
Canada, is not very applicable to U.S. elections, where telephone and Internet
voting are strictly prohibited.

NewsForge: Do you have the code that you need from the pre-“controlled open
source” eVACS system that was the original basis of the Open Vote Project?

Ritchie: Yes. The code is still available from the Australian Capital
Territories and should remain there indefinitely. We’ll be putting up a
mirror for our own tree as soon as our subversion server is ready with the
new site design.

NewsForge: What are the biggest technical challenges in terms of actual code and supplying an open source electronic voting system that meets certification-type standards?

Ritchie: The system is almost ready to go. Although there remains some
technical work implementing a voter-verifiable receipt, most of the
unfinished work is suit-and-tie stuff, such as going to certification
meetings and explaining to bureaucrats how the system can be trusted.

NewsForge: If you could put together the open source code and system, do you
think the political and institutional barriers would ever allow an open source election in the U.S.?

Ritchie: Absolutely. Because decisions for which voting systems to be
purchased are carried out at the local level, there isn’t much room for the
iron-triangle present in other government projects. The incumbent voting
machine vendors, big as they are, don’t have much influence over local
governments fed up with them.

NewsForge: You’ve obviously received many offers for help, but what are you in need of most? What can developers and others do if they want to help?

Ritchie: We always need information. Input, public opinion, everything is
helpful. If someone has concerns about our project’s approach, distrusts
electronic voting, or has any suggestion for improvement, we would like to
know about it. Post on our forums, email us, or give us a call. I consider
it a personal failure of mine if I can’t convince a total stranger of the
merits of the open vision of the future of elections.

NewsForge: Anything else you would like to add?

Ritchie: There is no reason the project should stop at the bare-minimum
of legal requirements for California, however. The Open Vote system could
easily become a universal voting machine. New features can be added, such as
support for alternative voting systems, voter ID cards like those found in
India, and vote anywhere technology, along with accessibility options for
every human language.

I have a map of the world on my wall with black pins for every voting
district using proprietary election software, except for a small white pin
demarking the Australian Capital Territory, which could soon change back to
black. I’m not going to let anything stop me until every last one of them is

Open source election software gets ‘controlled’

When the Australian government was looking to avoid controversy and
questions around its elections four years ago, it put out a call for an
electronic voting system and Andrew Tridgell, working at the time for
Linuxcare’s OzLabs research and support arm, worked to answer.

“The government tender process was fairly formal, and we realized that
our weakness would be on the formal project management and tender side of
the project, so we joined up with Software Improvements, which had much more
experience in that area, and did a joint proposal,” Tridgell recalled. “We
won the tender, apparently in part because the government was sympathetic to
our argument that an open source solution would provide a greater degree of
transparency and confidence in the system. Our proposal was also very
technically sound, but the open source part certainly helped.”

With economic conditions forcing layoffs at Linuxcare, eVACS engineers
wanted the project to continue and formally handed over control of the
project to Software Improvements, according to Tridgell.

Although the final version of the code for the Aussie election was
released under the GPL license by the Australian Capital Territory electoral
commission, Software Improvements is now moving away from open source toward
what it calls “controlled open source,” which according to e-voting experts
equates to a proprietary system.

“I have talked to the Software Improvements people, and their intention is
not to change the license at all on the existing code — the code that I
know of as eVACS,” Tridgell said. “Instead, they intend to write a
completely new system, and it is this new system that will not be open
source. The really confusing part is when this new system is called eVACS. I
think it would be clearer for everyone if the new system had a different

Tridgell described the term “controlled open source” as unfortunate,
indicating that what has been described by Software Improvements is
“completely proprietary, and in fact seems more restrictive than the license
that Microsoft uses on the Windows NT source code.”

“I hope that Software Improvements can come up with a better phrase to
describe their proposed license,” Tridgell said. “I still firmly believe
that election software should be open source, so I think that Software
Improvements is making a mistake by choosing a proprietary license, but at
the same time I would defend their right to make that choice. I am a strong
believer in the author of a piece of software being able to choose the most
appropriate license. I just wish I could convince Software Improvements to
choose a truly open source license for their new system.”

“I think the term (controlled open source) is unfortunate, and I hope
they choose a different phrase to describe their proposed license,” Tridgell
added. “I certainly find it misleading myself.”

For its part, Software Improvements points out that the development of the original eVACS software used in 2001 was not an open source effort. The source code, however, was released under the GPL. However, Open Vote Foundation founder Scott Ritchie said the rewriting of the eVACS software is intended to take it away from the GPL licensing.

“They’re bascially rewriting the code completely again to get away from the GPL,” Ritchie said.

The Australian company laid out its plans for a “high-integrity system” in paper presented at OSCON last month.

“In respect of the new development, because we are using a ‘high integrity’ methodology for the development, in which the code is generated effectively from analysis/design models — especially through ‘translative’ techniques — the development will again not be an open source development,” said Software Improvements Managing Director Carol Boughton. “However, for exactly the same reasons the original eVACS was released under the GNU GPL, we want to have full disclosure and have no desire to sell proprietary code.”

Boughton stopped short of indicating a GPL license for the revamped election software, but acknowledged that use of the phrase “controlled open source” may have been a mistake.

“In retrospsect, the use of ‘open source’ in the expression has proved to be somewhat confusing,” Boughton said. “The discussion generated is welcomed and will be taken into account as we make decisions about the new software.”

Boughton also said the original, GPLed eVACS software had been enhanced and will be used in the October 2004 Australian Capital Territory election.

-J. Lyman


  • Open Source