By Charlie Ban.

With counties staring down eventual replacement of their election management systems, some in California and Texas are leading the charge for an alternative that could save counties a lot of money and change an industry.​​

Open-source voting would use software designed by counties, which could run on inexpensive computer terminals to design, print and count paper ballots. All of which purportedly increases transparency and security, Most of the savings would come from eliminating the software license fees charged for management system vendors’ proprietary programs.

Twelve years after the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) mandated new voting technology, the machines and software are reaching the end of their usable lives in counties nationwide, and voting officials are feeling pressure.

Travis County, Texas’ machines have generally been reliably operational — though a few have begun freezing — but County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said she is worried they won’t remain in working order for long. HAVA’s $3.5 billion that helped fund the new election management systems will likely not be replenished to help replace them.

“It’s the same urgency we all feel in counties everywhere,” she said. “We all bought new voting systems at the same time and now we’re all watching them approach their ends-of-life at the same time. Counties just don’t have multi-millions to pay for new voting systems.”

Inyo County, Calif., with fewer than 19,000 residents, doesn’t have the money. Kammi Foote, the county’s clerk-recorder and registrar of voters, serves as the president of the California Association of Voting Officials and National Association of Voting Officials, which advocate for the use of open source-voting systems in public elections. Inyo is partnering with several other small California counties to release a request for proposals to build an open-source system for their use.

“The voting machine vendors were helpful when every voting district in the country needed to buy new machines in a hurry, but election officials don’t like to be rushed,” she said. “We need options so that doesn’t happen again.”

The key to open-source voting systems’ savings is that the software could be run on any computer, and Foote estimates that the $4,000 to $5,000 price tag for Inyo’s voting machines, with the voting system license and terminal, could be cut to a $200 to $300 cost for a tablet computer. Likewise, DeBeauvoir compared wholesale replacement of Travis County’s election management systems — cost $14 million — to an estimated $8 million to put an open-source system in place. Of that $8 million, $5 million would go toward software development, and $3 million would pay for computers and tablets.

“It’s the most cost effective and sustainable solution,” Foote said. “This could affect every voting jurisdiction in the United States, and many are little tiny counties like mine. They need to have a solution they can actually afford.”

How this could happen varies by state. Travis County did not need any statutory changes to pursue its system in Texas, but the California Assembly had to pass Senate Bill 360 for Inyo and Los Angeles counties to pursue theirs. Now, only the secretary of state needs to approve new voting systems, eliminating required approval from state regulators and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

The secretary of state’s requirements are similar to the federal approval process, so Foote said the change eliminated extra layers of bureaucracy while retaining attention to security.

The phrase “open source” raises questions about the method’s security, but DeBeauvoir said the reality is more complicated than the term makes it seem.

“Most of the time people talk about ‘open source,’ it refers to the general public being able to improve a program, but with election software, it’s a much smaller group that’s involved, just election officials,” she said. “There won’t be any 13-year-old programmers at home tweaking the software.”

Foote said the normal security measures common to county government systems — cryptography for example — could be added on top of the new election management system.

“The transparency that the system affords goes a long way to ensuring its accuracy,” she said. “Everyone who needs to know how the system works, does, because it’s not a proprietary system that’s a mystery to anyone besides the developer.”

All of this puts counties in a position to change an entire industry. As administrators of the country’s elections, the direction counties take will determine the fate of the election management system vendors.

Efrain Escobedo, manager of governmental and legislative affairs for Los Angeles County’s registrar-recorder, said the county’s election system has been subject to its vendor’s whims with little room for change.

“We spend $1.8 million annually on maintenance for our systems, and we can’t find another firm to do the work that’s cheaper,” he said. Los Angeles County is hoping to release an RFP for its open-source system in the next few months.

“It’s safe to say we’ll have more ability to negotiate savings by the sheer reality that we won’t be tied to a single vendor,” Escobedo added.

Though the county-vendor relationship would change as more counties adopt open-source voting systems, it would not necessarily end the relationship. Vendors aren’t expendable, DeBeauvior said, and she expected many of them to respond to various RFPs from different counties.

“We’ll still need someone to take over management of upgrades and testing,” she said. “You can’t just remove the vendor. We don’t want to throw away that base of knowledge.”

Foote said it rearranges the power dynamic in holding elections.

“There are only a few vendors that were selling voting machines when HAVA went into effect,” she said. “They were building systems and hoping election districts bought them, they were looking for a return on investment. Now we’ll be in a position where we’ll be part of a fee-for-service model and dictating what we need. Government can be in a leadership role in how those systems operate.”

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Originally posted at NACO.