Electoral geek supreme

Electoral-vote.com's anonymous tallier outs himself as a pioneer of open-source operating systems.

By Andrew Leonard
Published November 1, 2004 9:39PM (UTC)
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Like many another anxious poll-watcher, I get up in the morning, make coffee and check out Electoral-vote.com. Who's up, who's down? Every day it's a different kind of seizure, whether of joy or despair. But no matter how regular a part of my daily surfing habits the site became, I never really cared much who was responsible for the site.

It was obvious that a skilled computer programmer was behind the curtain: With all the discussions of methodology, of statistics, of different algorithms for crunching data, there was no question that a serious geek was at work. But the world of computer science can be excused for being at least mildly surprised when the "Votemaster" revealed himself today to be one Andrew Tanenbaum, an American-born professor of computer science currently living in Amsterdam, Netherlands.


You see, Tanenbaum has a previous claim to fame that at first glance might be as far removed from American electoral politics as it is possible to get. In the world of free and open-source software, Tanenbaum is well known for creating a piece of software called Minix, a kind of mini-operating system, that, as the legend goes, inspired a Finnish hacker named Linus Torvalds to write his own operating system, Linux, which anyone can use, modify and share as one wishes.

Linux has since grown to be a worldwide phenomenon, a threat to Microsoft profit margins and an icon to hackers and programmers across the globe who believe that sharing code is a moral and pragmatic necessity. Tanenbaum has ended up a kind of footnote to this bigger story, which may be one reason he has always seemed to look a little askance at Linux's success -- he still believes his own software to be technically superior.

But there's a geeky point to be made here. Tanenbaum never had any problem with people copying his code, playing around with it, learning from it; he never tried to take credit for Linux's success and he resisted every attempt by Microsoft-funded propagandists to insinuate that Linus Torvalds ripped him off. That's cool -- the kind of coolness, one might say, that has been in short supply at the highest levels of American government in the last four years.


Let's give professor Tanenbaum some serious props. By sharing his code, he helped create a software universe in which everyone benefits from everyone's labor. By creating Electoral-vote.com he helped educate voters and interested citizens from everywhere to understand and get involved in the American political process.

Why did he do it? Listen to his own words, posted to the site: "In a nutshell, because living abroad I know first hand what the world thinks of America and it is not a pretty picture at the moment. I want people to think of America as the land of freedom and democracy, not the land of arrogance and blind revenge. I want to be proud of America again."

Power to the people, from the code.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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2004 Elections