In association with heise online

08 May 2009, 10:43

Electronic voting

Free software and transparency are not enough

by Richard Hillesley

Last month the US Election Technology Council (a trade association of US voting system manufacturers) released a white paper on open source and voting systems titled "Open Source - Understanding its application in the voting industry". The report came to the conclusion that the use of open source software for democratic elections is probably a bad thing - although the reasons given were less than convincing.

Diebold voting machine
Diebold electronic voting machine
How we vote and the transparency and integrity of our vote are vital to the success of our democracy, and voting by machine has not had a good history. The application of computing to the vote can take many forms, machines can be used to register, count and store the vote. Remote voting can be accomplished using mobile phones, or online using laptops or PCs. Whichever form it takes the basic requirements are transparency, accuracy and anonymity - reassuring the voter that the vote is secret and fair and that each vote has counted towards the final result.

Democracy relies on the trust of the voters and the transparency of the vote. It is hard to argue that proprietary closed source code provides any guarantee of trust beyond the manufacturers assurances and their conformity to the bare bones of the regulatory structure. The one thing we can know with confidence is that computer systems are fallible, and no system is fault proof.

A pencil stub

Robin Cook
The late Robin Cook
Source: DoD
The concept of online voting, casting our votes while on the move using text or phone, email, blog or tweet offers the promise of convenience for the voter and is often argued for by politicians in the hope that "new technology" can "be used to entice the under-40s back to the polling booths." To this end, the late Robin Cook told the Guardian in February 2002 that the current system of voting by pen and paper was "astonishingly quaint", and speculated that "for anybody under 40, polling day is the only point in the year when they actually see a pencil stub, and that's probably why it's tied to a piece of string, because it's so rare and they might pocket it as a souvenir."

Cook held out the promise of online voting in UK elections by 2006. This didn't happen, despite a series of trials in local elections, because the problems have so far outweighed the benefits.

Next: Slipping card feeds and hanging chads

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