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D.C. launches test of open-source online voting

Washington, D.C., will let overseas voters cast ballots online using open-source, standards-based software, not the closed, proprietary mechanisms that have dominated electronic voting throughout its troubled history in the United States.

Open Source Digital Voting Foundation, a Palo Alto, Calif., developer of election software is providing the District's new system. Company representatives explained in a conference call with the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics how this absentee-voting option will work.

Starting with September's primary election, D.C. citizens serving overseas in the military and others posted far out of town won't have to choose between voting secretly but slowly by mailing in a paper ballot or voting quickly, but with no guarantee of secrecy, by submitting a ballot by fax or e-mail.

(Voters living in the District will continue to use closed-source, proprietary hardware, although the next batch of machines [PDF] will generate a paper record, visible to the voter, confirming that that the machine registered the ballot accurately.)

Instead, after applying to vote online--using the same kinds of forms required to obtain an absentee ballot today--overseas voters will receive a one-time personal identification number. They'll use the PIN to log on to an encrypted site hosted by the District, on which they will fill out a PDF form and submit that under two forms of encryption--one to confirm the integrity of the ballot, a second to attest that it was completed by the holder of the PIN.

Voters will be able to check online to see that their ballot (or, for the first time this year, their mailed-in form) was received. The Board of Elections and Ethics will confirm receipt of the ballot and then discard the identifying information attached to the ballot itself.

Rokey W. Suleman,, executive director of the board, called the process "completely auditable, completely transparent."

That's a sweeping claim to make. But with an open-source system--in which anybody can inspect the program's instructions, as in such widely used programs as the Firefox Web browser--we won't have to take his word for it once OSDV posts that source code on its site this summer.

This is an overdue step for electronic voting. It may also be the only hope left for electronic voting, considering the woeful history of closed, proprietary systems that on good days merely confuse voters with badly designed interfaces and on bad days lose votes for mysterious reasons (as happened in the District in the 2008 primary).

But first, other jurisdictions will have to show some interest in open-source voting. Anybody want to make a prediction on that?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  June 22, 2010; 11:57 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture , Policy and politics  
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Sorry, but a dysfunctional city that can't tell you how many public school students are in its system is not likely to be successful with online ANYTHING.

Posted by: perryneheum | June 22, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Petey Green for Mayor!

Posted by: joebananas1 | June 22, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Auditable software is great, but how do they really know you are out of town? I envision fraudsters paying the homeless to sign up and vote absentee, similar to how they are paid to join protests at construction sites.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | June 22, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

This is not auditable. Auditable means someone can review all the ballots by hand later to see if the system counted the ballots accurately. When all ballots are simply digital, how can we be sure? Ballots could simply be substituted, and we'd never know.

Open Source, yes. Online? No. Bad idea. Vote by paper and count both by hand and by machine. It's easy to rig a count done only one way. It's nearly impossible to rig two different counting systems to come out the same way.

Nightmare. Say goodbye, Democracy.

Posted by: OneForAll | June 22, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

And how exactly do you assure that {say} Richard Daley's henchman is not behind you, watching you cast the ballot he wants? There is a REASON we have a secret ballot in this country, and this is not one.

Posted by: j_oper | June 22, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Would anybody like to offer a critique that does not also apply to analog absentee voting? Remember, if I'm filling out a paper ballot before sending it in, that choice of technology does not ensure that it's me holding the pen, that somebody isn't standing behind me as I vote, or that the count won't be done wrong.

Talk to me... (if I may borrow a reference from @joebananas1)

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | June 22, 2010 6:35 PM | Report abuse

This proposed system is an excellent way to provide uniformed service members and others abroad an appropriate OPTION for casting their vote. Having been overseas in a war zone, I understand how difficult it can be for civilians and service members to access standard voting methods. Kudos to DC for providing this service!

Posted by: voreason | June 23, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse

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