by Jay Lyman
Calif. State Senator Debra Bowen (D-Redondo Beach) knows about making government and technology more open. She also knows her brother, a US Navy programmer, could code a program to rig an election in 20 minutes.
After putting the Golden State's legislation, public records, legislator records, and more online in 1993, Bowen is now looking to make transparency in voting front and center in her campaign for Calif. Secretary of State. Bowen, who chairs the state's Election Committee, is overseeing hearings this month on whether the state should move toward using electronic voting systems that rely on open source software, as well as how voting systems are tested and certified. The hearings have featured electronic voting and open source experts, including Red Hat Vice President of Corporate Development Michael Evans, and highlight whether and how the public can see the code and the process of voting.
"It's a huge issue," Bowen says. "The integrity of the voting process is critical to the functioning of a democracy."
Bowen refers to her own track record on transparency -- available to the public thanks in part to her work -- and indicates her 13 years in the state legislature, her position on the state's Election Committee, and her technology tendencies suit her well for the issue. Bowen recalls putting the state's legislation online in the early 1990s, when she met with Apple and others from the Silicon Valley to make it happen.
"Now we're focused on voting," she says, referring to past experience on IT architecture, security, spam, phishing, RFID, encryption, and other technology matters. "My perspective on this comes from years of doing and overseeing large IT projects in California's state government."
Open Voting Consortium President and CEO Alan Dechert is also focused on a more open, transparent vote, and backs not only Bowen and her bid for Calif. Secretary of State, but also state legislation to be introduced soon that requires disclosure of voting code and systems. Calif. Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg pushed legislation requiring consideration of open source software for electronic voting systems in 2004 as well.
Dechert explains that while it seemed incumbent Secretary of State Bruce McPherson was in agreement with open source and transparency advocates, there has been no action out of McPherson's office.
McPherson's office did not respond to a request for comment, but a source from the office who requested anonymity explained it was less a case of the office dragging its feet, and more a result of the confusion and complexity of the leadership change brought by former Calif. Secretary of State Kevin Shelley's resignation a year ago. Shelley, who did move to de-certify proprietary Diebold systems and expressed interest in open source e-voting possibilities, resigned last February after an an ethics scandal, prompting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to select McPherson.
The source conceded McPherson's office has been "slow to engage" on voting machines and related issues, and while McPherson is described as somewhat skeptical regarding open code, he is in favor of more transparency in voting. Still, the source indicates the old vendor institutional habits still have their influence.
"There's a long tradition of keeping the key vendor's proprietary information confidential," the source says. "I don't know if the Secretary of State is willing to begin to change that. Within that, though, he wants everything about it to be as open and above board as possible."
For Bowen, what constitutes a truly transparent, electronic voting machine remains undefined, hence the hearings, she explains. Her definition of a trustworthy election does, however, center on open source code -- not only for voting, but also for tallying -- which should be easily viewed and critiqued by the public and experts.
"In places we use computers to tally votes, they all need to be transparent," she says.
In response to her stated preference and interest in open source e-voting code, Bowen says there has been skepticism about security, and a general apprehension about something different than the proprietary vendors that dominate the polls today. The deep transparency sought must also avoid conflict with the right to privacy in voting, Bowen says, adding difficulty to an already complex challenge. "We have a particular challenge with voting because we require it to be private."
Still, Bowen believes one of the critical components to a trusted, transparent voting system, along with the ability to verify and audit, is open source software. The hearings this month focus on OSS and its use in elections, and also on the process of voting system certification in the state, which has come into question in California, as well as North Carolina, where lawmakers are requiring comprehensive code review, and other states.
Bowen says that because of its novelty and the complexity of voting matters, an open source alternative is not yet ready and will not be possible by the 2006 Calif. primary election in November.
"But that doesn't mean that's where we shouldn't go," she says. "Some education is going to be required at the beginning."
An open code-based machine that has been certified by a more rigorous standard than today's federal certification is the longer-term objective, and Bowen says open source has its usual advantage in the all-important categories of time and money.
"We want to find out about learning some of this -- who's doing what, where there are parts of an open source system that really exists," she says. "That's the nice thing about open source, we don't have to do the programming all over again. We need to find that out."
1. "Debra Bowen" - http://democrats.sen.ca.gov/templates/SDCTemplate.asp?cp=MemberPage&pg=s...
2. "move" - http://www.senate.ca.gov/ftp/SEN/COMMITTEE/STANDING/EL/_home/HearingAgen...
3. "how voting systems are tested and certified" - http://www.senate.ca.gov/ftp/SEN/COMMITTEE/STANDING/EL/_home/HearingAgen...
4. "Open Voting Consortium" - http://www.openvotingconsortium.org/
5. "Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg" - http://democrats.assembly.ca.gov/members/a45/
6. "legislation" - http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/postquery?bill_number=acr_242&sess=PRE...
7. "comprehensive code review" - http://trends.newsforge.com/article.pl?sid=06/01/13/1759225&tid=136