On this election night, I can’t resist pointing out the irony of the USPTO’s news of the day for Election Day earlier: “Patenting Your Vote,” a nice little article about patents on voting technology. It’s also a nice complement to our recent posting on the other form of intellectual property protection on election technology — trade secrets. In fact, there is some interesting news of the day about how intellectual property protections won’t (as some feared) inhibit the use of election technology in Florida.
For recent readers, let’s be clear again about what election technology is, and our mission. Election technology is any form of computing — “software ‘n’ stuff” — used by election officials to carry out their administrative duties (like voter registration databases), or by voters to cast a ballot (like an opscan machine for recording votes off of a paper ballot), or by election officials to prepare for an election (like defining ballots), or to conduct an election (like scanning absentee ballots), or to inform the public (like election results reporting). That covers a lot of ground for “election technology.”
With the definition, it’s reasonable to say that “Election Technology ‘R’ Us” is what the TrustTheVote Project is about, and why the OSDV Foundation exists to support it. And about intellectual property protection? I think we’re clear on the pros and cons:
- CON: trade secrets and software licenses that protect them. These create “black box” for-profit election technology that seems to decrease rather than increase public confidence.
- PRO: open source software licenses. These enable government organizations to [A] adopt election technology with a well-defined legal framework, without which the adoption cannot happen; and [B] enjoy the fruits of the perpetual harvest made possible by virtue of open source efforts.
- PRO: patent applications on election technology. As in today’s news, the USPTO can make clear which aspects of voting technology can or can’t be protected with patents that could inhibit election officials from using the technology, or require them to pay licensing fees.
- ZERO SUM: granted patents on techniques or business processes (used in election administration or the conduct of elections) in favor of for-profit companies. Downside: can increase costs of election technology adoption by governments. Upside: if the companies do have something innovative, they are entitled to I.P. protection, and it may motivate investment in innovation. Downside: we haven’t actually seen much innovation by voting system product vendors, or contract software development organizations used by election administration organizations.
- PRO: granted patents to non-profit organizations. To the extent that there are innovations that non-profits come up with, patents can be used to protect the innovations so that for-profits can’t nab the I.P., and charge license fees back to governments running open source software that embodies the innovations.
All that stated, the practical upshot as of today seems to be this: there isn’t much innovation in election technology, and that may be why for-profits try to use trade secret protection rather than patents.
That underscores our practical view at the TrustTheVote Project: a lot of election technology isn’t actually hard, but rather simply detailed and burdensome to get right — a burden beyond the scope of all but a few do-it-ourself elections offices’ I.T. groups.
That’s why our “Election Technology ‘R’ Us” role is to understand what the real election officials actually need, and then to (please pardon me) “Git ‘er done.”
What we’re “getting done” is the derivation of blue prints and reference implementations of an elections technology framework that can be adopted, adapted, and deployed by any jurisdiction with common open data formats, processes, and verification and accountability loops designed-in from the get-go. This derivation is based on the collective input of elections experts nationwide, from every jurisdiction and every political process point of view. And the real beauty: whereas no single jurisdiction could possibly ever afford (in terms of resources, time or money) to achieve this on their own, by virtue of the collective effort, they can because everyone benefits — not just from the initial outcomes, but from the on-going improvements and innovations contributed by all.
We believe (and so do the many who support this effort) that the public benefit is obvious and enormous: from every citizen who deserve their ballots counted as cast, to every local election official who must have an elections management service layer with complete fault tolerance in a transparent, secure, and verifiable manner.
From what we’ve been told, this certainly lifts a load of responsibility off the shoulders of elections officials and allows it to be more comfortably distributed. But what’s more, regardless of how our efforts may lighten their burden, the enlightenment that comes from this clearinghouse effect is of enormous benefit to everyone by itself.
So, at the end of the day, what we all benefit from is a way forward for publicly owned critical democracy infrastructure. That is, that “thing” in our process of democracy that causes long lines and insecurities, which the President noted we need to fix during his victory speech tonight. Sure, its about a lot of process. But where there will inevitably be technology involved, well that would be the TrustTheVote Project.