Baby Steps for Transparency in Voting Systems

This country’s electronic voting systems remain black boxes with no means for the public to check their accuracy and security.  To make matters worse, reports persist about election officials’ failure to protect those black boxes from mischief.  Until recently, a warehouse storing thousands of Pennsylvania’s electronic voting machines kept its door propped open, leaving the machines vulnerable to manipulation.

The news is not all doom and gloom.  To combat public concern about the reliability of its software, e-voting provider Sequoia has begun posting its code online, allowing the public to assess code that the company will put through the federal voting system certification process.  The move is one that I called for in Open Code Governance: disclosing code of proprietary election systems to permit public inspection and feedback while keeping the vendor in charge of changes to the software.  Sequoia, unfortunately, only controls a small portion of the e-voting market.  About 80 percent of voters cast their votes on black box machines manufactured by ES&S (which recently acquired Premier formerly known as Diebold).

To be sure, open code wouldn’t solve all of our voting problems.  As the recent conviction of Kentucky voting officials attest, voting manipulation can be low tech: there, voting officials trained workers to mislead voters into believing that they finished voting after punching an initial review screen when in fact voters need to verify the vote on a subsequent screen.  This allowed workers to change individuals’ votes.  Nonetheless, open code approach would facilitate greater transparency while likely enhancing the accuracy and security of systems given the feedback of interested experts.

Greg Miller of the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation recently shared his concerns about the potential for glass box voting technologies.  He remarked: “When you’re a company who has a shareholder interest to maintain, and your competitive advantage is predicated on trade secrets and other intellectual property mechanisms, then you’re going to resort to black box technology to protect your competitive advantage . . . Well, black box technology doesn’t work in a world that demands ‘glass box’ technology, and when shareholder interests collide with public interest, that’s a train wreck.”  If new legislation or administrative policy required open code, might that demand that vendors compete on other important grounds, such as the reliability of their hardware or the machines’ enhanced value to the visually impaired.  Something worth discussing.

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1 Response

  1. It certainly is a baby step, on a long road indeed. My major in college was computer engineering, so I’m not exactly biased against using computers to accomplish things, but using computers for voting does have some severe problems.

    1. The software may be open to inspection, but how do we know the software inspected is actually running on the voting machines on election night?

    2. If only an electronic record of the vote is retained, then that record may be hacked, even if originally recorded properly.

    3. A system could be genuinely secure, but not in a way the average voter would be capable of understanding, and thus, they’d have no reason to be confident of it.

    4. We need to keep in mind that we’re not just securing the ballots against outside attack, we’re securing them against *inside* attack, as well. Foolish as it may be, elections are administered in this country by political partisans.

    I would suggest that the appropriate approach is to use the electronics only as a fancy ‘pencil’ with which to fill out a standard, machine and *human* readable paper ballot, which would be the actual record of the vote. The largest problem with the “fill in the circle” paper ballots is simply the failure of the voter to properly mark the ballot. In all other respects, the paper ballot, checked for under and over votes at the time it’s inserted into the ballot box, is ideal in terms of difficulty in hacking, permanency of the physical record, and human readability.