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As California goes, so goes the nation?

Calif. Secretary of State Debra Bowen on open source voting systems and digital literacy

How will the most populous state in the nation move forward with digital elections? When California secretary of state Debra Bowen endorsed open source voting systems at yesterday’s Gov 2.0 Summit, the validation naturally struck many people in O’Reilly’s community as significant, given the size and prominence of the Golden State in the world.

“Open source election software saves us a ton of money, and can be re-used in other states,” she said. Bowen’s interview with Tim O’Reilly at Gov 2.0 Summit, embedded below, featured a wide-ranging discussion of trust, digital literacy and the future of electronic voting in thousands of California’s precincts. While open source voting poses challenges in implementation, Bowen’s perspective on the subject are worth reviewing.

As a one of the country’s pioneers in open government reform, election integrity, and personal privacy rights, Debra Bowen is well positioned to comment. “How do we create an education plan in CA so that everyone has ‘access’?” she asked, focusing what a continued digital divide would pose for widespread adoption of electronic voting online or using smartphone apps. Bowen pointed to the potential for new tools and apps to engage young people and save money for government, particularly as millennials make different choices for media consumption.

Integrating more efficiencies into the system isn’t a theoretical or aspirational goal, either. As Brian Kalish reported in Nextgov, one of the silliest things is that officials in Los Angeles County will be transcribing by hand 30,000 to 40,000 voter registration forms every day in advance of Election Day in November 2. “Paying people to type data from a form is one of the silliest things we can do in 2010,” Bowen said, and the manual process naturally creates instances where mistakes enter the system as election officials try to discern names.

When I interviewed California’s Secretary of State after her conversation with Tim, she elaborated on the utility of open source software in elections and electronic voting. As California resident Alan Silberberg pointed out before our interview, Secretary Bowen de-certified electronic voting machines due to concerns over the security and validity, a decision that she enduring considerable blowback. In our conversation, she talked about on whether it will possible to deploy digital voting in California any time soon. (Spoiler: there will continue to be barriers in terms of record keeping and security in the near future.)

As California resident Ryan Alfred observed during Bowen’s conversation with Tim O’Reilly, open source voting platforms sound great in theory — but can technology increase the percentage of citizens who vote? Bowen said that it comes down to trust in the systems. In response to New York State Senate IT staffer Noel Hidalgo’s question on the role does open source have in closing state budget deficit gaps, Bowen pointed to replicability and the comparable cost of proprietary systems.

On the bigger questions of how the future of civics, the digital divide information literacy relate, Bowen reflected more about how California addressing the digital divide. Both interviews with the secretary provided fascinating insight into the state of how digital democracy will evolve.

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  • plumaslaker

    Interesting article. Related to the comment by Alan Silberberg. I’m a California resident who’s had the privilege of serving as a pool worker for every election in my county (Yuba) since 2006. The first election I served was also the first election that my county implemented Sequoia Electronic Voting Systems. I was (and still am) very impressed by those systems. In our environment, they include a paper trail that is validated by the voter prior to casting their vote. My personal experience is that they are more accurate, easier to use, and more secure than paper ballots. I believe it is unfortunate that they were “de-certified” and we are no longer allowed to use them (except for one per polling place for ADA reasons). I don’t think they are without issues, but I believe they offer better security and accuracy than paper ballots. In both cases, the weakest link to election security is the people operating the polling sites and those transporting and counting the ballots at the county.

  • http://michaelhardner.blogspot.com/ Michael Hardner

    I often hear people saying that we should increase the percentage of voters, but I almost never hear people talking about the quality of information that voters receive.

    These ideas should go hand-in-hand. We want voters to participate if they’re informed, and have an opinion. It would be better for less people to vote if those people were better informed than the larger group.

    As such, I don’t see the benefit in putting the ballot box in people’s living rooms. It only encourages more participation from voters who are too uniformed, and unmotivated to find their local polling stations and vote.