Votingcomputers – the bugs are not the problem

You voted - or not?While the use of voting computers in the Netherlands has been banned for over half a year, even for water board elections, there remains a fundamental misunderstanding of the essence of the problem with voting machines.

While the many clumsy security problems (video) or the absence of the source code of the software (in the case of Nedap and SDU voting computers), are an excellent opportunity to develop the topic through the media and in the political agenda, these issues are not core of the problem. And although the voting computer dossier at the Ministry of Home Affairs is now labelled with a bright fluorescent sticker: ‘radioactive, do not touch!", there is still a risk that local authorities or suppliers continue to feel that voting by computer is best "if we can just iron out a few little bugs”.

The real objections are more fundamental and have little to do with security bugs or open source code. They are the fundamental principles of the reasons why we have democracy, which the use of voting computers threatens. In the many discussions on mailing lists and web forums it seems that people lose sight of the fundamental principles.

In the first year of operations of the wedonttrustvotingcomputers work group, there were many statements by government and suppliers that we should not be so suspicious. The Netherlands is a great country after all and the suggestion that someone is committing fraud with something so fundamental as the election was considered ridiculous. It was simply unthinkable and further discussion or justification about it was not necessary. This attitude demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the essence of democracy. That is not a question of trust but distrust of organized power.

Through trial and error we have learned over the past few thousand years that power corrupts, and absolute power can corrupt absolutely. An enlightened dictator can be an efficient form of government but how do you ensure they remain enlightened once they have the power?? To solve this problem we have evolved a complex system of temporary mandate (four years), with checks and balances as th need arises. You can only gain power if many people have said that they really want you there, and even then you will be closely monitored by 150 other people who are also only be allowed to do so because of the vote of thousands of fellow citizens. The system is far from perfect and is plagued by inertia and a focus on what is hot in the media, but we have yet to invent something better. This system makes it difficult to take important decisions publicly without authorisation. And a king or president cannot simply on a whim ruin the country or violate the fundamental rights of citizens – unless those citizens and their representatives agree to it by inaction, but then they only have themselves to blame.

The abuse of power cannot be solved by having online the the source code of a voting computer because citizens cannot determine whether the published source code actually runs on the specific voting computers in their neighborhood. Even more important is the fact that 99.99% of the population cannot audit the code. It still comes down again to having confidence in a very small group of technical experts. And having to trust a very small group (any small group whatsoever!) is precisely what we no longer want. If we have small groups of technicians whom we trust, we might as well make up the parliament based on a sample of a research firm. That saves a lot of time and paper and there is probably a good TV night to build around.

It has often been said that paper ballots can also be fraudulent, with the recent election in Zimbabwe cited. The important aspect here is not the possibility of fraud but its detectability when it happens. Large-scale, and therefore effective, fraud in a paper voting system is impossible to keep secret and that makes it possible to intervene when small groups try to exploit the system. In most cases, fraud with voting computers is impossible to prove afterwards. The records are then erased and there are no ballot papers available for another recount. This proved once more painful when a local election where the candidate gemeenteraadsid also operator of the voice computer was. In the polling station where he was present he was unlikely many more votes than all other locations in the municipality. Yet no matter OM could get around this potential fraudster to lack of evidence. The man can this lack of evidence but never convincingly prove his innocence. The result is therefore a situation where the integrity of the process itself is called into question, and thus the legitimacy of the ballot. The distinction is thus the detectability of fraud, not the (im)possibility of it.

Voting computers do not solve any major problems for the Netherlands, are more expensive to use than paper and undermine the legitimacy of democratic governments. And as Churchill said: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’