Mixed Bag: Voting System Vendors’ Rhetoric on Open Source

The current voting system vendors recently released a paper on election technology and open source. As a pleasant surprise, it is a mixed bag, in that much of the report‘s rhetoric is  asspecious as previously seen, but there are also signs of the vendors taking steps towards comprehending what the voting system market would be like, with open source digital voting technology.

For the bad and the ugly, you needn’t read further here, because Dan Wallach has already written a fine blog entry that provides excellent detailed rebuttals to the several misconceptions about election technology, open source, security, and related points of public policy. (Also, see Arstechnica’s summary). For the good, I’ll just pick one point of a handful that tend toward a more nuanced understanding of open source: "More research needs to be done on the challenges of developing an open source voting system and supporting it in the field."

One way to decode this statement is this question: "If I didn’t create and don’t own the software of a publicly owned voting system, what is my business model for being in the voting systems business?" A fine question, especially given that there is currently no worked example of of a elections IT group using open source software, delivered and supported by an organization that did not develop the software package(s) but instead has core competence in deployment and services. However, there are plenty of similar examples in other areas of government IT, with Federal systems groups of IBM, Oracle, etc. incorporating open source components in hardware/software stacks that they deploy and service for government organizations.

So the good news around this paper is the the vendors (or at least their industry consortium and lobbying arm) are slowly getting the collective head around the idea of being in business, but the services and support business, without staying on the treadmill of software development, certification, support, update, re-certification, …

Which is good for them, because we’ve already heard some early interest in the voting systems support business from a couple of the major Federal SI companies. As open source digital voting technology continues to be built, it may be that these SIs are the real competition to the existing vendors, rather than open-source anybody, including OSDV. In fact, we, with our partner organizations, just make the technology; we don’t want to sell it, because we’re not in this to get in the voting system business — which is by the way a pretty tough business in which it takes experts (like the big SIs) to operate profitably and scale up. Not our cup of tea! Now, back to the drawing board …


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