From Diebold's last-minute installation of uncertified software updates on its touch-screen election machines in California (leading to decertification of the company's machines in several California counties) to ethically troublesome relationships between politicians and the companies whose machines count the votes that determine their employment, the possible benefits of electronic voting seem swamped at the moment by objections (from simply prudent to caustically cynical) to its security and integrity.
Within the world of electronic voting, though, eVACS (for "Electronic Voting and Counting System") has been a rare success story both for open source development methodology and for the benefits that electronic voting can offer. The first generation of eVACS (running on Debian Linux machines) was developed starting in March 2001 in response to a request for bids by the Australian Capitol Territory Electoral Commission (ACTEC), and it was done on a budget of only AUS$200,000.
(The Australian Capitol Territory includes Australia's capitol city, Canberra, as well as surrounding suburbs and Namadgi National Park.)
Besides a respectable list of features driven by ACTEC's initial requirements (like support for 12 voting languages, and audio support for blind voters), eVACS has an advantage not enjoyed by many electronic voting systems: it's been successfully, uneventfully used to gather votes in a national election. The election in which it played a part went smoothly, and the eVACS system itself functioned as hoped.
This year, though, ACTEC asked Software Improvement to update the code for future elections, and Software Improvement decided to go them one better -- or, in the eyes of open source enthusiasts, one worse. The notes Ritchie was provided to deliver announced a change to the process under which the code is released; specifically, a switch from an open source license to something the company calls "controlled open source."
According to Software Improvement, simply releasing election-machine code under a liberal license such as the GPL is undesirable for two reasons: it means a loss of the company's intellectual property, and unfettered access could lead to a compromise of the voting system, if a determined cracker could find and exploit flaws in the code. (Software Improvement has not supplied any examples to show that this has happened, however.)
The company's use of "open source" would find little support from organizations like the Free Software Foundation or the Open Source Initiative. Software Improvement's idea of software openness is rather limited. Claiming that open source development is insufficient, even inimical to creating trust in election systems, the company now says that portions of eVACS's codebase will be released only to approved analysts, and in encrypted form, to enable viewing only for auditing purposes, rather than code contribution. Repeated viewings would be reported to the company, and only a limited number of views would be permitted before the code would self-destruct.
After delivering the prepared presentation, Ritchie took a few minutes to react to the changes it announced.
"Six hours ago, while I was reading through this on the plane," said Ritchie, "I was infuriated to read what it actually says."
Ritchie, though, is a computer-literate political science student at the University of California - Davis, and behind the Open Vote Foundation. He said he's decided to resume the project represented on that site, started with the intent to fork and bring to the U.S. the first generation, GPL'd version of eVACS.
"A long time ago, I read the first news report about Diebold, wondered why we didn't have open source election software for our voting machines. Eventually, I found out that Australia had apparently beaten us to it. It seemed like a good thing; the eVACS system was developed and released as GPL code, it was checked and rechecked by computer science people and all kinds of election officials. I said, 'Why don't we bring this to the U.S.? It's GPL, let's do it.'"
So he started the nonprofit Open Vote Foundation to bring the software to the U.S., specifically to California. Ritchie went to the meeting at the California Attorney General's office which resulted in decertification of Diebold machines in that state's 2004 election process, and his involvement in the fight against Diebold's secret-source voting machines is what led him to the open source eVACS; now he finds that the restrictions on the formerly GPL software are "even worse that that on MS's shared source. To call that open source is a bit dishonest."
"As of 6 hours ago," he said, "I've decided to start that again. It's not that hard; I mean how hard is it to say 'add one to this vote'? ... I remembered my old plan, and thought 'Let's take the old Australian code, fork it, and work from that -- and that is still an option. This is the great thing about open source software. If the old lead developer goes insane, you can always fork it, right?"