Could Linux Change Democracy?

amcpherson's picture

Deb Gage at the San Francisco Chronicle recently profiled a voting machine that will be given a tryout at a mock election at Linux World, opening today. Attendees of the conference will have the ability to cast their vote for one of the two candidates on the US presidential ticket. Besides obvious political fervor of many open source devotees, what’s the connection between this machine and Linux?

Dechert and a couple of colleagues founded the Open Voting Consortium, a nonprofit group dedicated to delivering “trustable and open voting systems.” In addition to lobbying against proprietary voting machines, they have spent the last several years working with scientists and engineers around the world to design and build a voting machine of their own.

Probably many of you have heard of the Diebold voting machines that were designed for use in elections in this country. They are closed and proprietary systems, and because of that, have serious security vulnerabilities that could result in election tampering. Besides security risks (as if there needs to be anything else), these closed systems are also extremely expensive, and just like with proprietary software, are designed to lock you in. Once election officials start using these machines they are beholden to that vendor unless they decide to phase them out. Because they are closed and opaque, no one but the vendors can work on the machines. Take in contrast, these new Linux-based machines:

At a price of about $400, the new voting machine is a tenth of the cost of proprietary machines - less if made in quantity, Dechert said - because it’s simply designed and based on free software. Its workings are transparent, he said, unlike some of the electronic voting machines that California decertified for security problems.

What would you rather your government spend your tax money on?

These Linux machines started me thinking about the ideals behind Linux (and open source) and how they could be put to work within the workings of government. The ideals I’m referring to are its process: transparency, accountability and meritocracy based on contributions. Last year I was quoted in an article about Open Legislation. What if our government officials drafted laws on a wiki (like the one powering Wikipedia or the Linux Foundation site). There you could see who actually wrote pieces of the legislation. You could see that a lobbyist from Chevron actually drafted part of the energy bill and then track that your representative “signed off” and then voted for it.
Or as Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, said in Open Legislation article:

“Laws go through all kinds of markups, changes and amendments,” Leyden said. “The process has evolved from making those changes on parchment to at least using word-processing documents, but it’s not that big a step to think of moving to the next generation of tools and crafting a whole piece of legislation on a wiki.”

The next likely step would be opening up the process further so that citizens could view and comment upon legislation in the works, or even — along the lines of California state Senator Joe Simitian’s concept in his “There Oughta Be a Law” contest — submit their own ideas, Leyden added.

We have the tools now for collaborative development: this has been proven in software and editorial content. Now let’s see if we can prove it with legislation. Collaborative, transparent development produces better software (and better voting machines). I think it can also produce better government.