Securing our Elections with Open Source Software
If you measure an election by voter turnout, the 2020 election has to be given high marks. In the middle of a pandemic, around 160 million Americans cast their vote, and a record 78 million (and counting) made Joe Biden the next President of the United States. It has also been called “the most secure in American history” by the Department of Homeland Security.
Still, considering that voting is the foundation of our democracy, there is cause for concern. First, around a third of eligible voters still did not participate in the election despite steps to expand absentee and early voting in many states. Second, there is still rampant voter suppression aimed at decreasing turnout and engagement, particularly aimed at minority communities. Finally, the mere fact that the final election numbers are still being tallied points to another issue that I hope the Biden administration will remedy: We need open source election software to safeguard and improve our elections!
The use of open source software is one of the guiding principles at TEN7. We firmly believe being open with code encourages problem solving, transparency, security and creativity. These are all elements that we need in our elections.
When you think about it, it’s troubling that the software that we use to register and count votes is NOT open. Voting machines are black boxes with no national standards for what powers them. Private, for-profit companies develop the software, and while we hope their top priority is quality work, we also know there is always a temptation to cut corners to maximize profit.
The closed nature of these systems can undermine voter confidence when systems break down or when results are delayed. It can even feed conspiracy theories about voting machines that switch votes. There is, of course, no evidence of this, but open sourced software (and hardware too, for that matter) would allow an easy way to peek inside and audit the entire system, let alone the results.
So how could the new Biden administration implement open source election software when elections are run by the states? It’s simple: money.
In Episode 98 of The TEN7 Podcast, I spoke with Waldo Jaquith, a technologist who worked for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Obama. Jaquith said there is plenty of precedent for the federal government to enforce all kinds of regulations on voting. If Congress offered financial incentives to states to help them modernize, improve, and implement new open-source election software, the chances are high the states would sign on.
If that happens, open source election software could be a game changer. Suddenly, the incentives would change. Developers would know their work was going to be seen, so they would put their best people on the job. Contributing to election software would be a point of pride, something you can put on a resume to show you are using your skills for the greater good. Professional developers and user experience specialists would be able to collaborate with the voter in mind. States could still take the software and work with private entities to implement it, so capitalism and the free market are still in play. We’ll just get those forces working on behalf of the American people. This is exactly what we do at TEN7: use open source software to deliver high quality web applications while selling our skills to clients, not licenses to the software.
Finally, open source election software simply makes good civic sense. Taxpayer dollars are being used to develop this software, so it should belong to the people (with privacy safeguards, of course).
The federal government has taken steps before to safeguard our right to vote, whether it’s been on a large scale like the Voting Rights Act, or with smaller measures aimed at getting states to modernize voting equipment (no more hanging chads!).
On January 20, 2021, we have an opportunity to take another step forward by enacting a law that requires all election software and hardware be open source. Then, perhaps, we can put some of the chaos and angst of the 2020 election firmly behind us once and for all.