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San Francisco could lead on open source voting

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If San Francisco moves forward in developing an open source voting system, paper ballots could be a thing of the past. (Connor Hunt/ Special to SF Examiner)

Nowhere in the United States is there an open source voting system.

While Los Angeles and Travis County, Texas, are working on open source voting systems, San Francisco could emerge as a leader.

But only if there is the political will and the funding.

Open source voting systems offer increased transparency by using nonproprietary software open to the public to review the source code, which counts the ballots and issues election results. Supporters say open source voting is needed to safeguard against election tampering.

The debate over shifting to an open source voting system comes to City Hall as the current contract with Dominion’s voting machines expires in December 2016.

The Board of Supervisors has already signaled its support of creating a new open source voting system through the unanimous approval last year of a resolution introduced by Supervisor Scott Wiener. Mayor Ed Lee returned it unsigned.

Supporters also say it saves money and creates a more secure, reliable and transparent voting system that will allow for easier adaption to keep up with technology advancement and changing voting laws.

Gregory Miller, director of the nonprofit-founded OSET Foundation, a collection of Silicon Valley executives from companies like Apple, Facebook and Google, is among those working on an open source voting system.

“Our goal here is to really challenge the status quo of everything,” Miller told the Elections Commission last week. “Every now and again you run into systemic conditions that just don’t allow for innovation. This market is clearly one of them.” Miller said.

Miller estimated his group could have an open source system that could be ready in two years. “When you have open data you have a framework you can very quickly prototype and build proofs of concepts to see other things you can do,” Miller added.

In the 2000 presidential election the hanging chads debacle prompted the federal government to provide funding for a new wave of technology voting systems. But since then there’s been little advancement. There are only three companies that produce certified voting systems in California: Dominion, ES&S and Hart Intercivic.

On Friday, the Local Agency Formation Commission, on which sit members of the Board of Supervisors, adopted the “Study on Open Source Voting Systems,” a report conducted by LAFCO director Jason Fried analyzing the open source issue.

“Several ongoing voting system projects can be adopted, and provide an opportunity for the [City and County of San Francisco] to expedite the development of an open source voting system, if the [City and County of San Francisco] chooses to develop their own voting system,” the report said.

If San Francisco opted to build its own system it could cost between $4 million and $18 million, the report said. Models would do away with the conventional paper ballots at polling stations and have people vote on tablets with printout ballot receipts.

The current contract with Dominion, entered into in 2008, will have cost The City nearly $20 million come December 2016, according to the report.

The proprietary source code is key in the debate. “The source code, which determines how the voting system machines are run, is unknown to the public,” the report said. “There is no way to confirm that the system is free of serious security vulnerabilities. Additionally, the types of election reports that are available and their data format is limited to what the vendor has decided to implement.”

Owning its own system would come with other added benefits. The City could make changes as it saw fit. For example, some have supported a ranked choice voting system where all candidates are ranked instead of the top three choices, but the current machines wouldn’t support ranking more.

“San Francisco County has the wherewithal and the community and the working knowledge available right here to do this and to lead the state and country,” said Brett Turner, of the California Association of Voting Officials, a group advocating for open source.

The Elections Commission signaled its support of an open source voting system last week, but stopped short of taking a vote to recommend implementing the system by a certain date. The commission is expected to discuss the issue again at its next yet to be scheduled meeting.

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