California Mulls Open Source

Sarah Lacy

In some ways, it's not quite as bold as Massachusetts plan to replace parts of Microsoft Office with OpenDocument by 2007, but this Wednesday, the State of California is holding a hearing to discuss the pros and cons of open source software too. There's no formal proposal but Senator Debra Bowen (D-Redondo Beach) wants more information. She's chairwoman of the committee that governs Senate elections and is concerned by polls that show that nationwide only 48% of people are confident their votes are counted accurately. Would they feel better if they could see the nuts and bolts of how the votes are being collected and reported, as opposed to just trusting a traditional vendor like Diebold?

We are a pretty techy state, but I'm not sure how many people will care. Most people don't even realize when they're using open source software. But for those who will weigh in, I'm expecting warring conspiracy theories.

There's the usual fear, uncertainty and doubt about open source. That it's unreliable, hard to implement with hidden costs, and not something to trust absolutely mission critical applications with quite yet. I'd call election results pretty mission critical to a state.

On the other hand, as Bowen notes in the link above, many have been concerned about the accuracy of electronic voting systems, the lack of a paper trail, and potential partisan conflicts of interest. To them, software that's open with a lot of eyes on it probably seems a safer option.

And there are other potential benefits. Say California implements a fantastic electronic voting system. If it's based on open source code, arguably other states, cities, or even emerging democracies could borrow it. The more locales using it, probably the bigger the developer base, tweaking and scrutinizing the software-- making sure it can't be hacked or forged. Of course, most open source software is less expensive and that too is a plus when we're talking government spending.

And there's a certain poetic justice to it. Open source grew out of the free software movement-- meaning freedom to view and access the source code, not free as in price.

But, I wonder, is there enough broad confidence in open source to trust it with election outcomes? I tend to think when it comes to something like this open source is better than one proprietary vendor. Call me a dinosaur, but the lack of a paper trail greatly worries me. I think my precinct offers both paper and electronic ballots and I opt for paper every time. Would open source ease my concerns? Not enough to go electronic, given the option. But if that option is going to be taken away at some point, I'm glad the state is looking beyond proprietary vendors.

I know a lot of open source boosters read "Tech Beat," so I imagine a good deal of you share this view. But I’m curious if anyone is worried about open source software counting your votes? Is my view of the software getting skewed by hearing one too many open source success stories from CIOs?

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