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Its Our Birthday! A Reflection on How We Do What We Do

Wow.  How time flies.  Its our birthday this week! (Monday the 17th to be precise; it was a Friday in November 2006.)  We are 8-years old!  You know, that's a long life by the measure of most commercial technology ventures.  But a bit different as a non-profit technology venture. So, we wanted to post something today in honor of our birthday and the progress we've made.  Please read on...

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Expanding Our Leadership Assures Our Potential

So, by now you may have seen the news.  We were stoked on Tuesday to announce former Facebook executive Chris Kelly has joined our Foundation’s Board of Directors while the former U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra has joined as a strategic adviser.  Today, I want to share some more about what this means for us, and for the TrustTheVote Project.

In short, this is a big deal.  In many ways.

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A New Name; The Same Mission

Many of you are learning the news, and its true: our Foundation’s name is changing, but the mission remains the same.  Here’s the story.

I’d like to officially introduce you all to our new name: theOpen Source Election Technology Foundation, or as we’re referring to it, the “OSET Foundation” (“Oh-Set”). 

I can tell you we’ve selected WordPress as our platform for all of our web sites going forward, thanks to the generous support of Matt Mullenweg, who has generously backed the Foundation before, and is stepping up again, this time with WordPress development resources to help us publish a world class set of sites and resources for our stakeholders (elections officials), supporters, and you.  We deeply appreciate Matt’s support.  But I digress.  Let’s get back to the naming thing.

What’s in a Name?
When we got our start back in late 2006 we chose a name, somewhat intentionally provocative, to reflect what we believed then our mission should be: addressing the pressing need for innovation in machinery used to administer an election.  To us, and many we spoke with in that first year, “digital voting” meant the use of computers in the act(s) of voting.  The cries to rethink DREs (“digital recording electronics”) were reaching a crescendo and we were tired of writing about their woes and decided we should form a team to rethink the machinery… but in a way to bring more transparency at least, and more accuracy, verification and security in the process. So…

“Open Source,” from our experiences in the Silicon Valley (notably the Mozilla Project, as some of us were by then Netscape alumni) was potentially the “jam cracker” to inject innovation into a stagnant industry where there is no business incentive to perform the R&D necessary to address the mandates of verification, accuracy, security and transparency.  Thus we branded ourselves the “Open Source Digital Voting” or “OSDV” Foundation.

Fast forward to 2010 when, during the midst of our battle to earn our tax exempt status, we learned from our PR team that consumer research revealed a startling fact.  In that first 4 years while we were learning the ins and outs of elections administration and related processes, policies, politics, and people, the iPod and iPhone had reshaped popular perception and “digital” now meant “Internet” to many consumers.

Of course, that resulted in a terrible misconception of what we’re doing because our work has nothing to do with Internet Voting — a concept given today’s Internet that is simply not viable by our measure in terms of simultaneously assuring privacy and security of ballot data.

More importantly, our work had progressed to the point that we realized the opportunity to develop an entire elections administration framework, and that to be successful, our cause needs to address the entire voting ecosystem.

So, it became clear that “OSDV” as a name had become obsolete and a new name was required.  That name, a phrase that far more accurately explains what our non-profit mission is about, is the Open Source Election Technology or OSET Foundation.

Importantly, our flagship effort, the TrustTheVote Project, remains the main thing and vehicle of our mission to bring publicly owned innovation to our Nation’s critical democracy infrastructure.  We have refreshed the TrustTheVote Project brand as you can see to the left here, which can also be seen by visiting either of our Twitter presences @OSET or@TrustTheTheVote.  However, nothing else about the Project has or will change — save a new web site on the way this summer.

In short, we’re pleased to introduce the OSET Foundation with its on-going mission via the TrustTheVote Project to “improve confidence in elections and their outcomes.”

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Free at Last: We Earn Our 501(c)(3) Tax Exempt Status

I am pleased to announce to our readers that the IRS has granted our 7-year old organization full unbridled tax exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code as a public charity.  This brings to a close an application review that consumed over 6 years—one of the longest for a public benefits non-profit organization.  Our Chief Development Officer, Gregory Miller has already offered his insight this morning, but I want to offer a couple of thoughts from my view point (which I know he shares). By now, you may have seen the WIRED Magazine article that was published this morning.  Others here will surely offer some additional comment of their own in separate posts.  But it does set the context for my brief remarks here.

First, to be sure,  this is a milestone in our existence because the Foundation’s fund raising efforts and corresponding work on behalf of elections officials and their jurisdictions nationwide has been largely on hold since we filed our original IRS Form 1023 application back in February 2007.

The Foundation has managed to remain active through what self-funding we could afford, and through generous grants from individuals and collaborating organizations that continued to support the “TrustTheVote™ Project” despite our "pending" status.

A heartfelt "thank you" to Mitch Kapor, Heather Smith and Rock the Vote, Alec Totic, Matt Mullenweg, Pito Salas, the Gregory Miller family and the E. John Sebes family (to name a few of the those who so believed in us early on to offer their generous support).  The same thanks goes to those who wished to remain anonymous in their support.

In addition to our being set free to move full speed ahead on our charter, I think this is interesting news for another reason: this project, which has a clear charitable cause with a compelling public benefit, was caught up in an IRS review perhaps mostly for having the wrong words in its corporate name.

Our case became entangled in the so-called “Bolo-Gate” scandal at the IRS Exempt Division.  And we unintentionally became a poster child for be-on-the-lookout reviews as such applied to entities involved in open source technology.

In sum and substance, our case required 6 years and 4 months for the IRS to decide.  The Service ultimately dragged us into our final administrative remedy, the "conference-of-right" we participated in last November, following their "intent to deny" letter in March of last year.  Then it took the IRS another 220 days to finally decide the case, albeit in our favor, but not before we had a] filed close to 260 pages of interrogatory responses, of which 182 were under affidavits; b] developed nearly 1,600 pages of total content; and c] ran up a total bill for legal and accounting fees over those years in excess of $100,000.

We’ve definitely learned some things about how to handle a tax exempt application process for an organization trying to provide public benefit in the form of software technology, although frankly, we have no intentions or interest in ever preparing another.

But there is a story yet to be told about what it took for us to achieve our 501(c)(3) standing—a status that every single attorney, CPA, or tax expert who reviewed our case over the years believed we deserved.   That noted, we are very grateful to our outside tax counsel team at Caplin Drysdale led by Marc Owen, who helped us press our case.

I am also deeply relieved that we need not raise a legal defense fund, but instead can finally start turning dollars towards the real mission: developing accurate, transparent, verifiable, and more secure elections technology for public benefit rather than commercial gain.  Its not lost on us, nor should it be on you, how we could've spent the money we need to pay to our lawyers and accountants on advancing the substantive cause of the TrustTheVote Project.

So, now its time to focus ahead, get to work, and raise awareness of the TrustTheVote Project and the improvements it can bring to public elections.

We're a legitimate legally recognized 501(c)(3) tax exempt public benefits corporation.  And with that you will begin to see marked changes in our web sites, our activities.  Stay tuned.  We're still happily reeling a bit from the result, but wrapping our heads around what we need to do now that we have the designation we fought for 6 years to have in order to fund the work our beneficiaries -- elections jurisdictions nationwide -- so deserve.

Please join me in acknowledging this major step and consider supporting our work going forward.  After all, now it really can be tax deductible (see your accountant and lawyer for details).

Best Regards, Christine M. Santoro Secretary, General Counsel

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The Gift Has Arrived: Our Exempt Status After 6 Years

Today is a bit of a historical point for us: we can publicly announce the news of the IRS finally granting our tax exempt status. The digital age is wreaking havoc, however, on the PR and news processes.  In fact, we knew about this nearly 2 weeks ago, but due to a number of legal and procedural issues and a story we were being interviewed for, we were on hold in making this important announcement.  And we're still struggling to get this out on the wires (mostly due to a change our of our PR Agency at the most inopportune moment).

The result: WIRED Magazine actually got the jump on us (oh, the power of digital publishing), and now hours after their article posting, we're finally getting our own press release to the world.

I have to observe, that notwithstanding a paper-chase of near epic proportions with the IRS in granting us what we know our charter deserves to do foster the good work we intend, at the end of the day, 501(c)(3) status is a gift from the government.  And we cannot lose sight of that.

So, for the ultimate outcome we are deeply grateful, please make no mistake about that.  The ways  and means of getting there was exhausting... emotionally, financially, and intellectually.  And I notice that the WIRED article makes a showcase of a remark I made in one of the many  interviews and exchanges leading up to that story about being "angry."

I am (or was) angry at the process because 6 years to ask and re-ask us many of the same questions, and perform what I humbly believe at some point amounted to intellectual naval gazing, was crazy.  I can't help but feel like we were being bled.  I fear there are many other valuable public benefit efforts, which involve intangible assets, striving for the ability to raise public funds to do public good, who are caught up in this same struggle.

What's sad, is that it took the guidance and expertise (and lots of money that could be spent on delivering the on our mission) of high powered Washington D.C. lawyers to negotiate this to successful conclusion.  That's sad, because the vast majority of projects cannot afford to do that.  Had we not been so resolute in our determination, and willing to risk our own financial stability to see this through, the TrustTheVote Project would have withered and died in prosecution of our tax exempt status over 6 years and 4 months.

Specifically, it took the expertise and experience of Caplin Drysdale lawyers Michael Durham and Marc Owen himself (who actually ran the IRS Tax Exempt Division for 10 years).  If you can find a way to afford them, you can do no better.

There is so much that could be shared about what it took and what we learned from issues of technology licensing, to nuances of what constitutes public benefit in terms of IRS regulations -- not just what seems obvious.  Perhaps we'll do so another time.  I note for instance that attorney Michael Durham was a computer science major and software engineer before becoming a tax lawyer.  I too have a very similar combination background of computer science and intellectual property law, and it turned out to be hugely helpful to have this interdisciplinary view -- just odd that such would be critical to a tax exempt determination case.

However, in summary, I was taught at a very young age and through several life lessons that only patience and perseverance empower prevailing.  I guess its just the way I, and all of us on this project are wired.

Cheers GAM | out

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A New Voice

Hello - My name is Christine Santoro, the Foundation's General Counsel.  Although you probably have never heard from me before (well, at least read my writing here anyway), I am responsible for the legal machinery underneath the OSDV Foundation and TrustTheVote Project.  We've heard from our readers that they would like to read more from us on issues of law and policy concerning elections and voting technology.  So, I've decided to start voicing my thoughts and musings on topics of interest to our readership ranging from election law to issues of technology policy related to voting systems and machinery.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you, and more importantly, reading your comments and feedback and engaging in a conversation.  If you have anything in particular that you would like us to talk about let me know.  Talk to you soon.

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Help Wanted; The Search is On

Greetings All-
Sorry we've been away from the podium here for a couple of weeks.  We're heads-down on some very exciting projects.  But not nearly as exciting as what I have to announce today.  Let's get right to it.

The time has comeSome might argue it’s overdue.  Growth of the activities and work here, and the need for speed in advancing the agenda of open source elections technology triggers today’s announcement:

The OSDV Foundation Leadership Team is growing, and we're officially recruiting for a new Chief Executive Director.

The search is on, and we want your help in locating an absolute “A-player” to lead the next level of growth for the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation.

Wait a minute,” you say. “Wait a minute!  Doesn’t the Foundation already have an Executive Director… or actually like two of them?”  Oh, definitely—you're right, two of them.  John Sebes and myself, co-founders and co-executive directors (as mandated by the Foundation’s by-laws), have been tirelessly leading and managing this 4-year effort since Day 1 with the generous support and advice of our Board.

We have also have been managing all aspects of Foundation development (read: funding) and technology work (e.g., the TrustTheVote Project).  And the workload has become overwhelming.  We each need to now focus on our particular domain expertise in order to sustain and accelerate the momentum the TrustTheVote Project is gaining.

So, it is time for both of us to narrow our respective scope of efforts.  For myself, this means focusing on stakeholder community development, public outreach, adoption and deployment, and strategic alliances and backing.  In the commercial world, this might be akin to the kind of role I’ve played in the tech sector for about 1/2 of my career: running marketing and business development.

For John, this means the heavy responsibility for leading the core mission of the non-profit: open source elections technology design and development efforts. This is aligned with his commercial world experience: as an engineering manager and chief technology officer.

What’s left are all of the activities associated with day-to-day operational leadership, to effectively manage and grow the Foundation.  This includes executive leadership in major fund raising from all sources, accounting, finance, administration, legal affairs, and public relations.  It is in the commercial world, a CEO role.  In other words, with the growth in activities and work, the leadership team must expand and bring in the right talent to take this to the next level.

We’ve successfully been managing what essentially amounts to nearly a $1.0M  operation; a tiny start-up by commercial comparison, but significant by some non-profit comparisons.  We realize that we must now elevate this to a $7-10M annual operation in order to maintain the momentum we’re generating and be the kind of change agent for public elections integrity and trust according to our Charter.

And we’re experienced enough to appreciate that neither of us is well suited to provide that non-profit leadership and somehow keep doing what we do best.

The details of technology architecture and building the stakeholder community are more than full-time efforts alone.  To be sure, both John and I have managed commercial technology operations greater than $10M per year (but in those cases had staffing and resources commensurate with the size of operation).  However, the nuances of a non-profit operation, its methods of funding, and the need for our acquired domain expertise on elections technology, flat out prohibits us from trying to do it all any longer.

So, Here We Go.
We’ve uploaded a position description on the TrustTheVote Wiki.  You will find it here. And there is a companion document that provides some background, here.  We’ve engaged with our Board, an Executive Recruiter, and our advisers to expand the search.

With today’s announcement, we look to you, our backers, supporter, stakeholders, and other interested onlookers to join in the search for our ideal candidate to lead this exciting and important project blending the best in technology innovation, with the imperative agenda of “critical democracy infrastructure.”

And it’s a helluva lot of fun working to be the change agent for accuracy, transparency, verification, and security of public elections technology in a digital age.  To be sure, there's a bunch of great stuff going on here: the digital poll book project based on the Apple iPad; the election night reporting system project using open data and web services distribution; work with the Federal Elections Assistance Commission on component-level certification for the open source Tabulator we're building; and working with the IEEE 1622 Standards Group on our proposed standard for open election data formats.

Please spread the word; the search is ON.  If you know of an ideal candidate, or even think you might be one yourself, we want to hear from you.  Ping us.  You can also drop a note to "edsearch" sent to our Foundation web site domain.

Onward.
GAM|out

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