On Electronic Voting

There was a recent letter to the editor in the online edition of the Windsor Star that criticized the decision to use electronic voting machines in several local communities. I wrote up a comment to the piece, and thought I’d reproduce it here.

I’m a Computer Scientist by training, and a software engineer by profession, and I agree with the gist of what is being said here.

There’s too much that can happen from when you press the button to when the vote gets tallied, and the entire process is near-invisible for the majority of the population. With pencil-and-paper voting, the process is simple and transparent: the papers get put into a box and counted. With electronic systems (especially closed ones - systems where the “source code” for the program is unavailable for scrutiny) the window for tampering is huge! Just off the top of my head: if the company developing the software has a certain political bias, they can easily rig the software to intentionally miscount or misassign votes. Since we can’t see the actual code that does the tallying, how can we ever be sure our votes are being accurately accounted for?

If we are headed toward a future where all voting is done electronically, we must take certain steps in order to maintain the integrity of the process. First, any software developed for the purpose of voting should be freely available for interested parties to read. Nothing is as transparent as a physical paper trail, but if we can’t even see what instructions the computer program is executing, we’ll have no chance in hell understanding the process. Secondly, all voting hardware and software should be developed in Canada. I highly doubt a municipal election would be a candidate for outside tampering, but again, if we’re putting our blind trust in computer programs that we cannot understand, that window stays open. I’m not implying that every voting member of society should be versed enough in technology to understand the inner workings of these systems, but by making them transparent it allows any interested person to perform their own 3rd-party audit of the system. The more eyes we have looking at a piece of hardware/software, the more glitches (whether accidental or intentional) will be found. Keeping the process closed is indeed an assault on our democratic process.

All in all I am willing to entertain the concept of electronic voting, but until the system is as transparent as our current pencil-and-paper method, I will stand firmly against it.

I am definitely not what you would call a technophobe (my research interests are in artificial intelligence) but I feel that any technology used in the public sector - especially technology used for something so fundamental to the well-being of our democracy, such as voting - needs to be open and transparent. By using closed, black-box systems - systems that cannot be audited and inspected by the general populace - to handle such basic democratic responsibilities we forfeit our right to a representative government, as ultimately the electoral results will come down to the honesty of the company who supplies the machines.

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