Evoting pioneer plays politics with open source

Electronic voting will be expanded in the upcoming ACT elections, but the developers of the world-leading e-voting software will not publish the source code of future releases under the general public license.

Canberra-based Software Improvements wrote the software that was piloted in the last ACT elections in 2001. It was the first time e-voting had been used in an election in Australia.

At the time, the Australian Capital Territory Electoral Commission (ACTEC) ordered that the software be open source. This was to avoid criticism that the software might be rigged.

Accordingly, Software Improvements' electronic voting and counting system (eVACS) code is available publicly under the GNU general public license (GPL).

eVACS has received two contributions from the open source community, according to Software Improvements managing director Carol Boughton. One such contribution, from the Australian National University late last year, resulted in a patch, she said.

The Australian system has taken on world-leader status after similar efforts in the US resulted only in controversy.

However, Software Improvements has decided not to make future versions of its software available under the GPL.

"We need to find a way that still ensures transparency and access, but protects our intellectual property," Boughton said.

ACTEC paid Software Improvements for the development of eVACS. However, the software's release under the GPL means it can be used by others for commercial gain.

Software Improvements allowed this, as eVACS is ACT-specific, said Boughton.

The company is now working on versions of its software for the world market that cater to a range of election systems.

This software will be available via 'controlled open source', according to the company.

Under this approach, only authorised persons will have permission to view the source code.

"Election software is no less important than medical software," Boughton said. "It needs to be done to the same levels of integrity."

"We've asked ourselves, how do we do it so it becomes [commercially] viable, but transparent?"

She said that while eVACS was developed with open source tools, it was not developed by the open source community.

"It was strictly controlled and audited. It was open source in terms of being released," she said.

Boughton said she was adamant that to be trusted future e-voting software had to be freely available, but the extent to which it was freely available could be reduced to protect intellectual property (IP).

"There's always going to be a proportion of the community that's interested in making sure it's accurate," she said.

"But the community has to rely on a [software] literate group to demonstrate that.”

The GPL was inadequate for meeting the high integrity aspects of election system source code whilst still maintaining transparency, according to company director Dr Clive Boughton.

"I guess one of the questions we're asking is 'can this be done in an open-source environment?'," said Carol Boughton.

ACT Electoral Commissioner Phillip Green said that while he was sensitive to the issue of IP, an organisation like ACTEC had to have a system that was open enough to withstand a legal challenge.

"I think it's very important that it's transparent," he said.

Not only is eVACS open source, but ACTEC ensures the code is independently audited, as well as tested by a reference group consisting of interest groups such as political parties.

The catalyst for the e-voting system stems from the 1998 ACT election, Green said. A results dispute forced a recount, which took three weeks to complete.

"We said then, we couldn't go through that again," said Green.

Electronic voting offers an indication of the final outcome much sooner, he said.

As a result, the last ACT election saw about 16,500 people cast their vote electronically.

Green expects this will increase second time around. This election's pre-poll will run a week longer than the last, running for three weeks from September 27.

Each pre-poll centre will have at least 15 horizontal-screen terminals, according to Green.

Voters who opt for the electronic system are given a barcode once their attendance is registered.

After selecting their language at the terminal, voters swipe their barcode to display the appropriate ballot paper for their electorate.

Once they've selected their candidates, they swipe the barcode again to send the votes to the server.

One improvement of the eVACS software for this election will be that the cursor's initial position on each screen will be randomised.

"We've also found that electronic voting reduced the number of informal votes," said Green.

"The computer system won't let you stuff-up, it forces you to make a choice."

On the hardware side, the elections will use a number of tablet PCs for the first time. The advantages of the compact units are the greatest technological drivers to the spread of e-voting.

"It's like a polling place solution that we could roll-out to all centres," said Green.

"We hope that by 2008 it will be affordable to roll-out everywhere."

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