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Open-source electronic voting

A group is advocating the use of open-source software and a unique tablet PC and printer as a solution to concerns surrounding voting integrity.

It is pretty much agreed that electronic voting systems need to provide a paper receipt for auditing, but what if instead the electronic voting system printed out a unique ballot that could be scanned and tallied before the voter left the polling station?

On Thursday Alan Dechert, president and CEO of the Open Voting Consortium, Brian J. Fox and Parker Abercrombie of The Okori Group, and Brent Turner, met with CNET News and offered a peek at a different kind of electronic voting system to be demonstrated live at this year's LinuxWorld in San Francisco.

Currently private companies provide electronic voting machines and services throughout the country, among them Premier Elections Solutions (formerly Diebold) and Sequoia Voting Systems. But doubt exists about the accuracy of these systems, in part, because the companies refused to allow third-party scrutiny. In 2007, the California Secretary of State Debra Bowen instituted a third-party review of the electronic voting systems used in the state and found various irregularities. In 2004, former California Secretary of State Kevin Shelly decertified several voting systems under increasing concerns over the integrity of those systems.

The Open Voting Consortium advocates the use of open-source tools to provide election officials with accurate electronic voting systems, systems they say will save countries nearly 90 percent of the cost of current electronic voting machines. They are currently concentrating their efforts within California. They hope to announce soon adoption by at least one large county in the state and perhaps be in a position to provide services to the entire state in time for the 2012 presidential election.

The Okori Group has designed a Web-enabled service for county officials to create their ballot design, with templates for multiple candidates, yes or no propositions, and other contests likely to appear in an election. Drawing upon a database of eligible local candidates and issues, an election official creates a ballot with the Okori Group's online tool.

Dechert said that the Open Voting Consortium system would allow for unique read-only discs to be burned for each machine within each precinct and ward. The local poll worker would load the bootable disc into a special computer and printer hybrid that is yet to be designed.

For the purposes of the demonstration at CNET, Dechert used a laptop and an inkjet printer. But what Dechert envisions is a touch-screen tablet PC physically attached to an inkjet printer with a single DVD-drive. He envisions such a machine costing around $400 to produce, and said that a production model could also be offered to consumers as well.

To vote, a person would use the touch-screen to make selections, as is the case with conventional electronic voting systems.

The difference, said Dechert, is that the machine would print out the final choices along with a unique bar code. The paper ballot would then be inserted into a sleeve with only the bar code exposed.

An election worker would then scan the bar code to record the vote. At the end of the election or at choice points during the day, a tally sheet could be printed, also with a barcode. The barcode uses Open Source PDF-417, a standard that is also used in identification cards and inventory systems and can be read by most scanners. Within the two-dimensional bar code is a numerical-coded sequence that shows how a person voted. There is also a unique identifier so that the ballot cannot be counted a second time. The printed ballot cannot be linked with a specific person, but the ballot can be associated with the electronic tally stored in the computer.

Dechert says his system is better because it doesn't use fancy cryptography, it uses a simple chain of custody.

Once the bar code has been scanned, the vote entered, the paper ballot is put into a box. Later the paper ballots can be tallied if need be.

Attendees at this year's LinuxWorld will have the opportunity use this open-source voting system to cast a mock ballot for the 2008 presidential election. They'll also see first-hand how the votes are tallied every half hour and made available for recount using this system. LinuxWorld will take place August 4-7 at San Francisco's Moscone Center.