Cliff Wulfman, Sr. Member of Technical Staff
John Sebes, Chief Technology Officer

The topic of "open source" (the information technology industry phrase for "publicly available") has become a hot, at times confusing, and even contentious topic in the domain of election technology.  It is time for an intellectually honest pragmatic examination of the potential for open source to bring about innovation in election technology. 

The OSET Institute was founded on the idea that election technology infrastructure is a critical component of government IT; so critical in fact, that it should arguably be a public asset on which the commercial industry (or election organizations themselves if properly resourced) can build and deliver finished open standards, open data, and, accordingly, open-source based systems.  Historically inherent in our name, OSET (“Oh-Set”) are a pair of words, “open” and “source.”  We have always maintained that open source is neither necessary nor sufficient for higher integrity, lower cost, easier to use election administration systems.  However, publicly available technology (i.e., open source) is an important ingredient to ensuring transparency and trust in the technology.  In the decade since the Institute’s founding, “open source” as a phrase used in conjunction with voting systems has grown to be a provocative and even in some limited situations, controversial topic.  It should not be.

Open source does not mean “free source.”  Open source primarily addresses transparency, as the phrase elements imply.  Open source is both a process of development and a means of distribution.  Applying technology to elections, the objective is elections whose processes are Verifiable, Accurate, Secure, and Transparent (a principle called the “VAST mandate.”)  If voting technology can be developed transparently, and made available in an unencumbered manner with incentive to continually innovate while taking care to rapidly identify errors, flaws, and vulnerabilities, then there is a higher probability for public elections achieving the VAST mandate.

Therefore, we believe it is essential to understand what exactly open source technology is and is not; can and cannot do; and the appropriate uses of open source methods and means in mission-critical government computing, particularly election administration, which has become a matter of national security.  

In this paper, Dr. Clifford Wulfman, a senior member of technical staff at the OSET Institute, and John Sebes, co-founder and CTO, explain just that.  We hope it is helpful to your continuing pursuit of innovation in this vital aspect of democracy administration.