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Mike Kanin is the Publisher of the Austin Monitor. As such, he doesn't report on much--aside from the workings of the Monitor--any more. In his previous life as a freelance journalist, Kanin has written for the Washington City Paper, the Washington Post's Express, the Boston Herald, Boston's Weekly Dig, the Austin Chronicle, and the Texas Observer.
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Travis County will look to open source code for election night reporting
The Travis County Commissioners Court gave its approval for County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir to explore an open source solution to replace the Travis’ election night reporting software. If the county completes such a deal, it would provide election night observers with a system that DeBeauvoir argues would be more transparent than what the county currently offers.
Travis County would be the first county in Texas to use open source software for such a task. Open source code is software that is non-proprietary and can be modified by the user.
DeBeauvoir told In Fact Daily that it could be a prelude to other like projects. “I think this is good for Travis County, and I think it’s good for the open source movement,” she said. “If we can prove that it works in a tiny application like this, then we start seeing … lessons learned here. (Then) perhaps we could apply it in other areas and we start bringing down the costs for software in other areas.”
The project would cost the county $120,000. However, the total sum for the effort would be somewhat heftier. DeBeauvoir told the court that the balance would be raised by the organization that the county will work with, California-based non-profit the Open Source Digital Vote Foundation. She said that the donations would come from “other, private sector foundations like Pew Charitable Trusts, like the Ford foundation.”
DeBeauvoir was careful to point out that the new system would only serve the county as an unofficial vote-tallying tool. It would replace the current system that the county uses to issue unofficial counts on election night.
According to its web site, the Open Source Digital Vote Foundation works “to establish and maintain a freely available, publicly owned elections and voting systems and services infrastructure.” It does so by providing software code that is non-proprietary, and is therefore less expensive (and restrictive) than commercial modules.
The group’s other projects include an effort to implement online voting in Washington, DC. DeBeauvoir told the court that this was more than the organization could handle. “I think it was one of those situations where they bit off way more than they could chew,” she said.
Indeed, the Washington Post reported that, in October 2010, “the district’s experiment with online voting got national headlines when a team of computer scientists infiltrated the system.” The Post further noted that “votes cast for registered candidates were switched to votes for evil science-fiction robots” and that “the hackers left, as their calling card, the University of Michigan fight song.”
“Needless to say,” the report continued, “election officials canceled the rollout of the pilot, planned for the Nov. 2 election.”
DeBeauvoir added that she was aware of the shortcomings of that effort. She noted that the Travis County project would be much more limited. “We are taking a very tiny, small project,” she said. “It’s only the release of unofficial results on election night.”
DeBeauvoir will give the organization until Nov. 1 to raise the additional funds necessary to complete the project. If it can’t complete that task – or if its design comes up short in anyway – the county will switch to a more traditional approach.
“We have…a second vendor that can provide us with a more standard response,” she said.
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