In 2006, John Seles and Gregory Miller hatched a plan to rescue democracy. At the time, the United States was pumping nearly $4 billion into new voting machines, spurred on by Florida’s 2000 presidential election fiasco. But the shift to machines built by companies such as Election Systems & Software and Sequoia Voting Systems (now called Dominion Voting Systems) had introduced all sorts of new problems. Academics were finding deep flaws in the systems, and during every election, they seemed to fail somewhere. Earlier in 2006, voting machine problems marred primary elections in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where officials scrambled to hire temp workers to reprocess thousands of unreadable optical-scan ballots. For Seles and Miller, the answer was open source software. As employees at Netscape in the late 1990s, they had helped usher in the internet age, and now they were eying another tech revolution. Voting machines seemed to be a perfect place for open source software to do what it does best: create standard pieces of technology everyone can freely share, review, and improve.
With the support of their families, Miller and Seles quit their day jobs and launched a project dubbed Trust the Vote. They created a nonprofit, the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation, to manage the effort. And they started assembling the building blocks of an election system — ballot design programs, voter registration services, and election-night reporting software. In 2009, they shipped their first code.
Then the revolution stalled. The Open Source Digital Voting Foundation spent the next four years in a kind of government-induced limbo as the Internal Revenue Service delayed processing of its application for nonprofit status. That delay cost the operation an untold amount of grant and donation dollars, and though the project has produced some software, it still hasn’t begun work on important things like ballot-counting and tabulation devices and accessible voting machines.
The delay is part of a much larger issue swirling around the IRS. This spring, an Inspector General report revealed that the agency was closely scrutinizing tax-exempt applications from conservative groups, many affiliated with the Tea Party, and the admission drew complaints nationwide. But the Tea Party is hardly the only organization affected. Progressive groups, health care data exchanges, and medical marijuana growers were cited by the IRS — and so were many open source software projects, including the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation.
The good news is the Foundation has emerged from IRS limbo. Two weeks ago, the IRS finally approved its application, ending a six-and-a-half-year review, during which the project filed hundreds of pages of documents and responses to agency interrogatories. “We’re happy about our deserved designation,” Miller says, “and yet we are so freaking angry at the IRS for what they made us go through and the damage they’ve caused us.”
The decision from the IRS may finally breathe life into their voting-machine crusade, but it also may provide a roadmap for other open source projects wondering what it takes to achieve 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status these days.