Australian electoral commission eyes open source voting

Von Rodney Gedda

If bringing total democracy to electronic voting can only happen via software source code that can be viewed by all, the Australian Electoral Commission is happy to oblige with its next-generation election application.

The idea of publicly available source code for any software involved in government elections has been argued by free-software pundits for years, but as Ken Hunter, chief information officer of the AEC told Computerworld, the move away from incumbent legacy systems has made it possible.

"There is a push around to make the software open source and fundamentally we have no problem with that, but we need to consider the options," Hunter said, adding that while the open source "push" is recent, most agencies have been using open source software for a while, mostly on peripheral systems.

"We are aware of the Australian Government Information Management Office"s (AGIMO) open source procurement guide and will consider such options but we are conservative and need to be certain. It"s a serious decision we need to make in terms of support."

For the next three years, the AEC will have its hands full migrating its core systems from Adabas Natural on a mainframe and Dynix to J2EE on Sun"s Solaris.

"The AEC"s core systems are different to most enterprises," Hunter said. "RMANS (Roll Management System), houses 80 million records including histories of address changes. The election management system, dubbed ELMS, is an amalgamation of systems to manage the election places."

Hunter said the legacy systems are robust but they are "green screen". At election time the ballots are counted at the polling place, the results are then phoned through to the divisional office and entered into ELMS. From ELMS the data is fed to the national tally room, the AEC"s Web hosting service and to the media which can take the feed and put their presentation layers over it.

The application, Genesis (general enrolment election support information system) will be completely redeveloped from fundamentals and the detailed requirements are now being assessed. All up, modernizing the AEC"s applications could take up to six years to complete and should save A$1 million (US$769,000) a year. This will facilitate other advances, including remote voting.

"We are looking at remote voting now and already have an e-voting infrastructure in place," Hunter said. "Remote voting has got to come at some time as people are used to doing things online and technology is not an issue. Identity management is difficult but [remote e-voting] is no different to a postal vote."

Hunter said that although electronic voting has the potential to produce a significant ROI for the commonwealth by reducing manual labor, there is a perception of insecurity that must be overcome.

"We will look at e-voting but until we are tasked to spend resources on it, it won"t go ahead," he said.

The commission"s director of IT applications, Campbell Chittenden, said during the move to a J2EE-based application environment the open source Ingres database will be maintained.

"Ingres is used by ELMS and our staff is already familiar with it [so] we will also be able to consolidate skill sets," Chittenden said, adding both commercial and open source components will be considered for the new election application.

For now, the AEC has a limited amount of open source applications like Log for Net and Samba, which Chittenden said had "proven itself".

"Linux is on our plan to actively look at [but] there are challenges around a distributed environment like the AEC," he said. "We"ve flagged to look at an open source alternative to Lotus Notes."