Electronic Voting, and Why I Dislike It

There has been a lot of talk lately of moving toward Electronic Voting, where we’ll use computer displays to select our candidates and have it tallied by computer. In theory, the idea sounds great. However, rather than have an open development process of such systems, the state governments who’ve gone this route have turned the software (and hardware!) over to companies who refuse to reveal any details of how their devices work.

This will never be okay. How are we, as voters, supposed to feel that our votes are counted correctly when the process is a black box we have no hope to see within? As Ed Felten revealed, how are we to trust these machines, when they can’t even agree on their own counts? And, when asked for explanation and independent analysis, the companies make threats?

Software has bugs. All processes do, really. Things that don’t work as they’re intended. In systems designed by humans, these bugs can be caused by ignorance, sloppiness, even graft. The voting process is one that we need to be particularly careful about graft, as the voting process is supposed to ensure that we get the candidate who will do what we, the people ,want. Dan Wallach, another Freedom to Tinker blogger, argues that perhaps it’s time we eliminate the privacy of individual votes. I’m not sure how I feel about that idea, as I’m sure there are still people out there who could get in trouble for their votes, and making laws against prejudicial action based on voting history isn’t necessarily going to help. However, such a system would at least expose the process to public scrutiny and verification.

And the companies are treating these problems like any other software problem. Voting machines need to be engineered like the Space Shuttle, fault tolerant and tested to the point of being unbreakable. They should be developed in the open, with the code available for perusal, and testing. I should be able to use the same system for my club elections as the government uses for the presidential elections, if nothing else than to verify that the system works.

The solution is open voting. The technology can’t be hidden. The paper trail must be visible. Nearly all government processes should be transparent to the people for the system to function. Voting is one of the most important of these processes and we must ensure that it is kept fair first, or else the entire damn system simply doesn’t matter anymore.