Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Electronic voting

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about electronic voting – why you might, why you might not, and why it probably won’t be coming here for a while. Read on for my notes and links (warning: hilarious video!) or listen to the podcast.

Q: Electronic voting – you mean voting machines?

A: That’s one way of doing it. Another would be to vote online, although that’s even harder.

Q: How would electronic voting machines work?

A: Simple in principle – you just wire up a general-purpose computer to a simple touch screen, or maybe a panel with a set of buttons in it. And these things exist – they are widely used in the US. After the hanging chads debacle – remember 2000, everyone – Congress passed something called the Help America Vote Act which essentially pushed electronic voting machines across the country.

Q: That’s got to better than what they were using before!

A: It’s still controversial.

Q: Why?

A: Because it’s unauditable – or at least, that’s the way its been implemented in many parts of the US. The most common type of machine is made by a company called Diebold – you might have seen that name on an ATM, by the way, ATMs and voting machines are basically just PCs in a box with a special kind of screen and keyboard. The Diebold machines make it very easy for you to select the candidate you want to vote for, they can work well even if you don’t speak English well, by offering multi-lingual support just like ATMs. And then the machines automatically upload their totals to a central computer and you have an answer immediately, all untouched by human hand. But the big problem is that the machines don’t give you a paper trail. So there’s no way to go back and verify that 356 people really did vote for party A, and there’s no way for you to be certain that your vote for party A really was entered as that.

Q: How do scrutineers from the parties check the system is working?

A: They can’t – it’s a big “trust me”, basically. They can check that people go into the booths with the machines, but that’s where it stops. There’s no guarantee that whatever they do with the machine leads to the outcome they think it will.

Q: Can’t the machines themselves be audited?

A: Not really. The programs they run are treated as intellectual property – a trade secret, basically.

Q: So how can the voters know they work!

A: They can’t. This is the crux of the whole thing. I can’t help thinking that there would be enough profit in simply building the machine, but, no, Diebold want to monopolise the software as well, and the effect is that no-one can be sure if the election is fair.

Q: Is there any evidence that they have actually tried to change the result of an election?

A: Depends what you mean by evidence. Their CEO was on record as saying just before the last election that he was committed to helping his home state to delivering its electoral votes to the president, to Bush. Now, that has been spun since as an unfortunate gaffe – albeit one that the CEO committed to paper, signed and sent to a large number of people. Now, in New Zealand I’m picking that would have been a resigning mistake at the very least, if not one that lost you all your voting machine business, but apparently that’s not what happened in this case.

Q: What did happen?

A: Eight million Americans voted with Diebold machines at the last election. I don’t know how many will this time round.

Q: They don’t get a choice, right?

A: No, the voting system is run by the county they live in. You vote with what the county supplies or you don’t vote.

Q: Who makes the decision what voting systems to use?

A: In the US, that would be elected officials, I guess. It does get a bit circular, doesn’t it?

Q: You don’t think we’ll be seeing voting machines here anytime soon?

A: I’d be very surprised. New Zealand is justifiably proud of its democracy. And we have one of the highest turnouts of any country.

Q: Australia has more than we do.

A: Yes, but they fine you if you don’t. We have a huge turnout considering that we don’t force people. I think that’s partly because our system is so transparent, so people can see what impact their individual vote is having.

Q: Why can’t we vote on the Internet?

A: It would be quite cool, wouldn’t it? I don’t see it happening for while, though. It’s hard to enforce a secret ballot when the voting is done over the Internet.

Q: Because you can’t make the Internet secure?

A: No, that’s a solved problem. We had the census run quite effectively on the Internet last time. And we all do online banking; that’s pretty secure so long as you have more than just a password to get on. The problem is more about vote selling and stand-over tactics. As the voting works at the moment the scrutineers check that you go into a booth alone and that you vote alone. Then you fold your ballot to conceal your choice and put it into the ballot box. Only you know what you voted.

Q: You could tell someone

A: Of course you could, but you can’t prove to someone what you voted. That’s really important because it destroys the opportunity for someone to buy your vote – they have no way of proving that you actually voted the way they told you to. Stand-over tactics are the same problem – imagine you were intimidated by armed thugs standing in the booth with you and making it clear who they thought you should vote for.

Q: Sounds like Zimbabwe…

A: Quite. But if you allow people to vote online you break that secrecy, because someone who is trying to buy votes could literally stand over you and watch you vote, all without a scrutineer there to observe it. Or, better still, they could just buy your voting papers and vote on your behalf. No-one would be any the wiser, you’d have a few dollars in your pocket and someone would have bought an election.

Q: Voting with machines makes it easier to count.

A: It certainly does. That’s pretty much the intention of all the voting machinery out there, even the infamous punch cards that Florida was using in the 2000 presidential election. You can push the cards into a counting machine and it tallies up the vote. Just as with the Diebold machines and other similar ones, they upload their results to a central computer which counts. You can get a result immediately.

And with some modern voting systems, a computer is just about essential to get the result. I’m really talking about STV – single transferable vote here. It’s staggeringly labour intensive to run an STV election with lots of candidates and lots of votes. Even a computer takes a while.

Q: The local government election in 2004 had problems.

A: Yes, and that was held up as the voting system – but the problem wasn’t the voting system, it was getting the votes from paper ballots into a computer in the first place. I think there was an underestimate of how hard that was. And the most recent local government election went well, so someone must have learned.


A page about electronic voting security by Avi Rubin.

Story about Diebold voting machines.

Hilarious satirical video about electronic voting.

posted by colin at 11:56 am  

1 Comment

  1. […] Electronic voting – Congress passed something called the Help America Vote Act which essentially pushed electronic voting machines across the country. […]

    Pingback by Across Country » Blog Archive » Electronic voting — 26 June 2008 @ 2:52 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress