In this week’s news we have a classic example of how transparency (a.k.a. “open government”) has enormous potential to defuse some thorny political issues that can rise to the highest heights of U.S. political news.  The news is about Karl Rove’s involvement in Bush-administration actions to dismiss some U.S. Attorneys, including David Iglesias.

A New York Times article E-Mail Reveals Rove’s Key Role in ’06 Dismissals describes how Iglesias lost favor with the Bush Administration as a result of being perceived to be slack in pursuing cases of possible voter fraud.  In a PBS Interview, Mr. Iglesias described exactly what type of voter fraud was at issue, and how his investigation indeed sought, but did not find evidence of fraud to be prosecuted.  And the connection with voter registration?  The potential fraud in question was voter registration fraud. Mr. Iglesias said that New Mexico state GOP officials

singled out ACORN  as an entity that they thought was engaging in … a plan to register individuals who were not legally entitled to vote… under-aged people, people who perhaps were felons, people who perhaps were not American citizens.

The concern was that if such fraud were occurring, then it would enable the further fraud of actual voting by people who were fraudulently registered and had no legal right to vote. If that were to occur, the election result could be swung — particularly of concern in NM, where the 2000 presidential election hung on 344 votes — and even worse, one couldn’t be sure because of the inability to know after the fact how these hypothetical illegal voters actually cast their ballot.

That’s serious stuff. Again, you may be asking what’s the connection to voter registration systems technology. Well, consider the effect of lack of transparency. Mr. Iglesias’ efforts were based on information not readily available to the public, or to his detractors inside the beltway. As a result, there was real angst over ACORN’s activities and a possible conspiracy to swing a Presidential election. And that information vacuum was a factor in feeding the conspiracy theorists who may eventually have helped the process of sacking Iglesias.

Now, imagine a world in which there is, in fact, quite readily available information about [a] the entire stream of voter registration requests, [b] source of requests (e.g., individuals, ACORN, Rock the Vote, etc.), [c] county officials’ adjudication of those requests, [d] results of adjudication, etc. Suppose that a state could easily generate reports about this stream for officials (e.g., States’ A.G. or Federal DoJ,), and even openly publish redacted versions of these reports or even the raw data.

Well, that’s what we’re building in the TrustTheVote Project. And that transparency is (and should be) what “open government” is about.  If that transparency had been the case in NM a couple years ago, then the information vacuum would not have existed, except as willful refusal to examine readily available information.

And that’s where open-source, open-data, operationally transparent, “people’s technology” can be the basis for real IT systems that can fill information vacuums and defuse conspiracy theories — helping to increase the health of public discourse. Yes, it sounds a bit highfalutin, idealistic, so don’t take it from me — let us prove it with real running code and stuff people can see, touch, and try.

— EJS