California’s First Open Source Election System: Maybe not!

Image of LA County Registrar Office

OSI Affiliate Member, California Association of Voting Officials (CAVO), has expressed concerns that a recent announcement by Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk (Dean Logan) and the State of California's Secretary of State (Alex Padilla) was not accurate in their descriptions of a newly certified elections tally system, "Voting System For All People" (VSAP), as using "open source technology."

Both the Los Angeles County and California Secretary of State announcements stated the elections system was, "the first publicly-owned, open-source election tally system certified under the California voting systems standards" [emphasis added].

Initially, the OSI expressed praise for the announcements from California,

@CountyofLA's vote tally system is California’s first certified #elections system to use #opensource technology. This publicly-owned technology represents a significant step in the future of elections in California and across the country. https://t.co/GZ3aWZgu83 pic.twitter.com/Vn66CtplgP

— OpenSourceInitiative (@OpenSourceOrg) August 27, 2018

The announcement appeared to be the culmination of several years of work by LA County in developing an open source voting system. Yet almost immediately after the news broke of the open source election tally system, doubts were raised. StateScoop reported, Los Angeles County's new 'open source' vote tallying system isn't open source just yet, The StateScoop article included a comment by John Sebes, chief technology officer of the Open Source Election Technology Institute, "My takeaway is that their intention is to make it freely available to other organizations, but today it's not. It's open source in the sense that it was paid for by public funds and the intent is to share it."  In a comment to the OSI, Tim Mayer, President of CAVO ofered, "Los Angeles County must share their code publicly now. They have a history of not collaborating with the open source voting pioneers and community members. In order for it to be open source they must meet the standards."

Chris Jerdonek, San Francisco Elections Commissioner and Chair of San Francisco's Open Source Voting System Technical Advisory Committee, requested a copy of the source code for VSAP. In response, while LA County, "determined that there are responsive records to [Jerdonek's] request," the county stated that the records are exempt from disclosure as the records:

  • are, "prohibited from disclosure by federal or state-law",
  • relate to, "information technology systems of a public agency", and
  • "the facts of the particular case dictate that the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record."

All three of these responses conflict with global expectations of software described as open source, and contradict the specific benefits (i.e. "Linus's Law") extolled by Padilla and Logan for developing an open source elections system...

With security on the minds of elections officials and the public, open-source technology has the potential to further modernize election administration, security, and transparency.”
- Secretary of State, Alex Padilla.

We observed what took place in the last decade with this heightened awareness and sensitivity to voting technology at the same time as this kind of evolution of open-source.
- LA County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, Dean Logan

“Open source software” is a defined term, that is, software distributed with an OSI-Approved Open Source License. Each of these licenses are certified based on the Open Source Definition. The OSI's License Review Process guarantees software freedom though approved licensees, providing "permission in advance" to study, use, modify and redistribute the software.

For the Open Source Initiate, our concerns revolve around the apparent lack of regard for the open source label by county and state officials―its affordances and value―although perhaps the current state of the project is simply due to a lack of experience with, or in, open source communities of practice. Authenticity in principles and practice is of the utmost importance to the OSI in our efforts to promote and protect open source software, development and communities. Misuse (innocent or nefarious) dilutes the value, weakens trust, confuses the public, and reduces the efficacy of open source licensed software.

Both CAVO and the OSI have requested from the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, the open source software code and the OSI-Approved Open Source License distributed with the related project certification. CAVO has also requested a web link to a demonstration site and other surrounding information. As of today, neither organization has received a response from LA County, although the OSI has been assured a reply is forthcoming.

"We want to assure the open source community that Los Angeles' representations are being addressed with appropriate scrutiny," stated CAVO Secretary Brent Turner. "We will not allow 'open-washing' to interfere with our efforts toward the national security."

Although concerned at this point with the communications around, the "first publicly owned, open source election tally system certified under the California voting systems standards," we at the OSI are extremely enthusiastic that there is apparently interest and efforts underway to deliver open source voting systems. We are hopeful that these initial shortcomings are simply gaps in process and practice inherent to bureaucracies and operations as they evolve, adopt new technologies, and update policies.

The OSI and CAVO stand ready, and offer our support and expertise to Los Angeles County and the State of California to help develop, deploy and build community around their elections software.