E-voting pushes all the wrong buttons, claim critics

10 Feb 2004

If it’s true that politics are not black and white but are more about shades of grey, it’s a description that aptly fits the issue of e-voting. Last week, as the Government launched a €4.5m information campaign to raise awareness of e-voting ahead of its nationwide introduction for the local and European elections this June, the proposed system has come in for heavy criticism.

The shades of grey exist because this debate isn’t as simple as a pro-technology Government pitted against luddites who fear progress. In fact many opponents of the proposed e-voting system come from backgrounds in computer science and academia. Their opposition to the e-voting project hangs on the particular features of the Government’s choice of system rather than the concept of electronic voting as such.

When full electronic voting comes in, election results will be known much faster than before; as early as 3am in the morning after polls close, according to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government Martin Cullen TD. Speaking at the launch, he claimed that e-voting would make elections more accurate.

The speed of an all-electronic system may not be in question but opponents would take issue with the latter claim. They argue that without proper checking of the source code running the election software, there is no way to be certain that the machine will record the votes as they have been cast. Before and since last week’s launch, claim and counter-claim has flown around about whether the software has been sufficiently tested.

The Government’s information website, www.electronicvoting.ie, has a download section containing numerous reports that appear to testify that the systems have been rigorously tested. Not so, argue opponents. They contend that many versions of the hardware and software that underwent the testing process have been upgraded since. The Department of the Environment, which is managing the electronic voting project, has confirmed that it does not yet have the software code that will be used in the machines for the forthcoming elections, but a spokesman said this is not expected to differ materially from previous versions.

Leading the charge against the new system is the watchdog organisation Irish Citizens for Trustworthy E-voting (ICTE), an umbrella group of computer professionals, academics and concerned citizens. According to founder and computer science graduate Margaret McGaley only the source code specific to the proportional representation single transferable vote (PRSTV) system has been reviewed. However this code is linked to other elements of code that were not seen as part of the evaluation. She points out that one element of the testing took place in eight days that is an insufficient amount of time to check software for bugs. The Department disputes this, saying that the entire code will have been reviewed by the end of this month, amounting to 176 days of testing.

There are around 200,000 lines of code in the application, with close to 80,000 written specifically for the Irish version of the product.

The ICTE also favours the introduction of a voter-verified audit trail (VVAT). This is essentially a duplicate paper record of votes cast but critically it would act as proof that the voter’s preference has been recorded by the machine – something that the current system does not do. It would also act as a hard copy backup in the event that the electronic system failed.

The Department of the Environment has refuted these claims, saying that adding a paper-based element to the voting process would be an unnecessary duplication.

Opposition parties and concerned voters have also asked about gaining access to the voting software’s source code. They cite the example of Australia where members of the public were able to spot flaws in the voting code and suggest that changes be made.

The department said it doesn’t want to do this for security reasons and because there are issues around intellectual property rights of the original developers. However siliconrepublic.com understands that the developer of the code, the UK software house Powervote, would be amenable to releasing the code if asked by the Government to do so.

It’s within the Minister for the Environment’s power to decide whether to release elements of the source code or the entire program. A department spokesman indicated that this may happen after the presidential elections next October.

After every election, the data stored in the ballot modules will be kept by the Oireachtas for six months before being deleted. If this sounds like undue haste, it’s worth pointing out that under the paper system, ballots are destroyed after three months.

It’s true that the machines are easy to use. Crucially, they don’t oblige the voter to get it right first time; mistakes are easily erased before settling on the final choice and order of preferences. A high-profile cross-media campaign, backed by a nationwide roadshow, should ensure that we are all familiar with the voting apparatus come election time. As a purpose-built machine, it doesn’t rely on prior PC knowledge or indeed any technical knowhow to speak of.

Unquestionably the past few years have seen some impressive technological achievements as the country moves towards e-government. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that in this case, technology is being used to solve a problem we never had.

By Gordon Smith