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San Francisco prepares to open source its voting system software

Will it be the first in the nation to do so in 2019?

San Francisco, home of the tech startup, is trying to show its tech credentials by becoming the first city to use open source software for elections.

The proposal to adopt a solution in time for the end of the current contract on January 1, 2017 reappeared at the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday when Supervisor Scott Wiener called for a hearing on how the city is progressing with the plan to use standard hardware and open-source software to carry out future balloting.

The hope is for the city to develop balloting systems that can compete on reliability and security in time for the November 2019 elections.

That plan has been a long time in the making. Back in 2013, a bill was passed by the California Senate and signed by the governor, allowing cities to use public funds to "research and develop a non-proprietary voting system."

Currently, a long-standing contract with Dominion, formerly Sequoia Voting Systems, has seen the city spend just under $20m in nine years, including $6.5m on hardware alone – something that advocates for change say can be drastically reduced by using open-source software and off-the-shelf components.

The Senate bill followed more than six years of efforts by San Francisco residents to move to an open-source approach after it was revealed the previous system's ancient machines could only read dark colors.

Hanging chads

After the fiasco of the 2000 presidential election (and the famous "hanging chads"), use of the old voting machines was specifically curtailed to maintain election integrity, and the city opened up to a new vendor.

There was no suitable open source election software company back in 2007, however, so the city was forced to settle for a clause that would require Dominion to open source its software within a year of an open source competitor arriving in the market. That seemingly never happened.

At the time, Supervisor Tom Ammiano also recommended that a task force be created to look into whether the city can create and sell its own voting technology.

Fast forward five years, and the San Francisco Voting Systems Task Force (VSTF) produced a report [PDF] that recommended the city move to a new open standard format (the OASIS Election Markup Language (EML)). It also recommended that it become "an active participant in the movement toward more open and transparent voting systems," including giving "strong preference to a voting system licensing structure that gives San Francisco all of the rights provided by a license approved by the Open Source Initiative (OSI), even if the system is maintained by an external party."

Or, in other words, go open source.

Move forward another four years to November 2015, and the San Francisco Elections Commission decided unanimously, 6-0, to "support the development and certification of an open source voting system running on commercial off-the-shelf hardware; and to request that the Mayor and Board of Supervisors initiate and fund a project to develop and certify such a system for use in San Francisco."

It may have taken over a decade, but suddenly there was official enthusiasm for the idea. Says the Commission report: "The development and certification of an open voting system could not only provide San Francisco with an affordable, accurate, flexible, and secure voting system, but could benefit all election jurisdictions across the country by providing them such an option."

It even talks about "copyleft," noting that using open source licenses would "ensure that everyone, including San Francisco, has free access to future changes and improvements to that software."

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