March 18th, 2010
Last week at an Open Source Digital Voting Foundation event I had the chance to meet Debra Bowen, the California Secretary of State. The Secretary of State is the elected official responsible for the integrity of the electoral process — making sure that our voting system is accurate and honest and counts every vote correctly.
After talking to Secretary Bowen I ended up quite happy that she was elected to this role. Secretary Bowen is deeply interested in transparency, openness, and privacy. She is also a strong advocate for using open source software as the basis for digital voting equipment. Not long after she was elected she commissioned an independent review of the reliability of voting equipment and the auditing process, and found some disturbing facts. She’s been active in trying to fix these to bring more accuracy and trustworthiness to our system.
It was really fun to meet an elected official who understands implicitly that software code can effect our lives in much the same way as legal codes can.
I also learned that one of the big surprises I had at my local polling place recently is due to Secretary Bowen. The average age of the people who donate their time to run the polls in California is — again according to Secretary Bowen — 77 years old. But last time I went to vote there was a young woman there. We talked to her a bit — she was a high school student. It turns out that Secretary Bowen has a program to encourage high school and college students to participate in making the voting process possible. It seems a giant step forward from how I grew up, which was simply taking the whole process for granted.
March 8th, 2010
Hundreds of millions of people rely on the accuracy of voting machines and the polling process to form our government. New voting machines are being developed, moving from paper-based ballots to electronic voting.
How accurate are those digital voting machines? How unbiased? Do they count every vote? Do they count every vote accurately and completely? How do they work? How tamper-proof are they? Is there a way to audit results? How good is the audit process? How would we know?
Right now it’s hard to tell. It turns out that how digital voting machines work is a secret. Voters are not allowed to know, to see or to test those machines or how they work. (I’ll speak of California here, as a result of talking to the California Secretary of State, but this is only an example of the problem.) We’re asked to “trust.”
The OSDV Foundation exists to change this. OSDV is a non-profit organization building open source voting machinery. This is important for several reasons:
- This allows voters to verify what our voting machines are doing. Like other open source projects, those of us with enough technical expertise can serve as consumer advocates and validate that our voting machines operate as they should.
- In voting, 1 or 2 percent is a giant amount. Many elections — at least in the US where I’m most familiar — are very, very close. A 1% to 2% margin of error may be acceptable in many business settings, but it is not acceptable in a critical election where it can change results. With open source products we can see and test and improve the quality, rather than simply trust that all is well.
- Casting and counting votes should not be a for-profit enterprise; it is the foundation of elected governments.
- Proprietary ownership of the means of voting IS a conflict of interest. According to the OSDV Foundation, right now something like 88% of the US voting infrastructure is owned by two companies, which will soon be one company.
- Good open source alternatives are likely to cause an improvement in the quality of the dominant (close to 90% market share) product offering.
OSDV is just reaching the point where its first products are just about ready for use. Having a viable alternative in the market is critical. Having a viable alternative that is open source and public-benefit is even better. OSDV is building a system that citizens can actually verify — a system we trust based on that ability to verify what is actually happening.
You can find out more about OSDV Foundation’s Trust the Vote project at trustthevote.org/background
February 26th, 2010
Last week I participated in a government sponsored delegation to Russia called the “U.S.-Russia Innovation Dialogue” This delegation was organized by the U.S. government, in cooperation with the Russian government, as part of the Presidents’ Bilateral Commission (“Presidents” means President Medvedev of the Russian Federation and President Obama of the US). The goal was to improve the ways of working together in areas with shared interests, while not ignoring areas of disagreement. One area of shared interests that has been identified in innovation, and thus the delegation.
The delegation was co-led by Howard Solomon from the National Security Council and by Jared Cohen from the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff. The delegation included John Donohoe, CEO of eBay, Padmasree Warrior, CTO of Cisco, Esther Dyson of EDventure, Jason Liebman of Howcast, Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, Shervin Pishevar, founder of Social Gaming Network, Ashton Kutcher, CEO of Katalyst, Ellis Rubinstein, President of the New York Academy of Sciences, Aneesh Chopra, U.S. Chief Technology Officer and me. We met with all sorts of people — federal and regional officials, civil society actors, educators, students, and entrepreneurs. Our focus was the role technology can play in social development.
One explicit goal of the delegation was to do more than talk, to figure out concrete steps that can be taken. We ended up with a set of items where we see possibilities for immediate collaboration. It’s a pretty meaty list, laid out in 6 themes. There are versions available in English and Russian as well as a summary in The Moscow Times.
December 2nd, 2008
Openness, transparency and massive participation are extraordinary tools for problem solving. They are also important tools for citizen engagement, providing positive alternatives to alienation and conflict.
Mozilla — like many open source projects — lives or dies by these same traits. Openness, transparency, massive participation — these are the traits that identify Mozilla. And we’ve seen success tackling problems conventional wisdom said couldn’t be solved.
During the US presidential campaign the Obama campaign expressed a clear commitment to using Internet technologies to enable increased openness, transparency and civic engagement into the government process. The Principles of Open Transition identify basic requirements for meeting these goals. We hope the Principles will be the start of a rich discussion about openness and citizen engagement. Many questions will come up over time. The Principles won’t answer them all. We hope they identify a few key, foundational elements that we need to get right for the rest to develop well.
Mozilla is an explicitly non-partisan organization. Mozilla supports citizen participation for people of different views and policy objectives. Mozilla is also an explicitly international organization. We hope that Mozilla’s experience with openness and participation directed toward effective problem solving can be of benefit to many organizations – government and otherwise — that seek to bring these approaches to their work.
November 7th, 2007
Yesterday was an election day in the part of California where I live. It was a small, municipal election (city council, city clerk, local school district), but still.
I am left in awe every time I vote. The idea that large groups of people can construct and maintain a society where every adult can participate in a peaceful decision-making process, and one that actually governs a stable, productive society is amazing. The fact that it works is breath-taking.
When I see the “vote here” symbol at a polling place it takes my breath away. That small symbol — often a picture attached to a window, or mounted on a small, portable stand — is so quiet and yet profound beyond words.
I imagine that several hundred years ago the idea the idea that people would willingly, peacefully live with decisions they disagreed with passionately because everyone had the opportunity to participate by voting would have been laughable. It’s not an obvious idea. But somehow it came to pass.