Never mind the ballots, here’s
e-voting


4 Feb 2004

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As the Government prepares to launch a major publicity campaign for its new electronic voting system later today, opponents have expressed strong concerns that the technology has not been sufficiently tested and is being introduced too soon.

A €4.5m public relations campaign will be officially unveiled at the Mansion House in Dublin this morning but many critics of the e-voting system are also due to attend and will be questioning the need to adopt the system with such haste and raising the issue of security.

Under the Government’s plan, electronic voting machines will come into widespread use at the local and European elections to be held in June. They were tested in some constituencies during the 2002 general election and the Nice referendum. The new publicity campaign is intended to raise awareness of e-voting among the wider public.

The voting machine at the centre of the debate is a stand-alone box containing a system that runs election software. This is in turn connected to a ballot module containing information on every candidate and ballot details. This module stores votes once they have been cast. After the polls are closed, the information is sealed in the ballot module which is then removed for counting. The voting machine contains a backup ballot module so that if the original is lost or damaged, the second has a store of the votes which can be used in its place. The machine also has a dry cell battery in the event of a power failure.

The Department of the Environment commissioned the Irish security consultancy Zerflow to assess the security of electronic voting machines in March 2002. In its unpublished report, seen by siliconrepublic.com, the firm concluded that the voting machine was unsecured and identified several weaknesses in its design. It also recommended that a third-party audit be put in place to test the system on polling day in the next election.

However, the department claimed that the voting machines have since been refined and that Zerflow approved of these changes in September last year.

Nonetheless critics argue that the system still comes up short on a number of counts. They have called for a voter-verified audit trail (VVAT) – essentially a duplicate paper record of votes cast – saying it is vital to ensuring that e-voting is transparent and above board. The Department of the Environment has refuted these claims, saying that a paper-based audit trail is unnecessary. “It would duplicate the process of a manual system and remove the benefits that you get from an electronic system,” said David Walsh, assistant principal in the franchise section at the Department of the Environment.

The department has also rejected calls for printers to be attached to machines to allow citizens to check that their votes were properly cast. “The problem is that you’re reliant on a printer that’s going to print thousands of forms; do you stop voting if the printer breaks down? You’re bringing more uncertainties into the system,” said Walsh.

The department said that the software running the e-voting machines has been independently tested. A new website set up by the Government as part of the information campaign contains several reports available for download which verify that the system works as it is supposed to, said Walsh.

For example, an Irish software company called Natheon Technologies reviewed the source code and tested all of the versions used so far. “We feel we’ve done more than enough testing,” said Walsh. The Department of the Environment has also run mock elections to test the system further.

Opposition parties and concerned voters have also asked about gaining access to the voting software’s source code. The department said it doesn’t want to release the code for security reasons and because there are issues around intellectual property rights of the original developers.

The Minister for the Environment may decide to release elements of the source code or the entire program after the presidential elections next October, which will be the last chance to finalise the processes. 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 Electoral Reform Society in the UK has run tests of the Irish system, using a database of historical elections and checking that the results match. The organisation’s report, which the department said approved of the system, will also be available to download from the electronic voting awareness website. Walsh confirmed that none of the firms that undertook testing of any element of the e-voting system have any ties to Nedap/Powervote, the company chosen by the Government to supply the e-voting system.

However, according to Margaret McGaley, a representative of Irish Citizens for Trustworthy E-voting (ICTE), many of the reports about the safety of the system are incomplete or refer to elements of the technology that have been changed in the meantime.

Only the source code specific to the proportional representation single transferable vote system was reviewed, she said. This code is linked to other elements of code that were not seen as part of the evaluation. She added that the testing took place in eight days, which was an insufficient amount of time. “No test went right through from beginning to end,” she said. “They’re planning to test it in a real election and that’s not adequate.”

Last year McGaley co-authored a report that outlined criteria for any electronic voting system to meet in order to be an acceptable replacement for the current paper-based ballot system. The report further demonstrated that the Government’s preferred choice of technology did not meet these standards. “I know from experience that computers can do unexpected things and can be programmed to do unexpected things,” McGaley told siliconrepublic.com. “All of the advantages of electronic voting will be there with a paper trail,” she added. “We use printing and scanning technology in all sorts of fields, such as lottery tickets or ATMs. There are backup solutions for when the machine breaks down, so why can’t there be the same for printers?”

A wide cross-section of opposition parties has also come out strongly against the Government’s move and called on e-voting plans to be suspended until further reforms can be introduced. Labour has said the system “seriously flawed” and Fine Gael added that neither the political system nor the public had been adequately consulted.

McGaley said that she was not against e-voting per se, but with the cost of the system estimated at more than €40m and with many IT professionals urging caution over a system without sufficient security procedures, she questioned the haste in adopting the current system. “We don’t have a consensus. It’s been piloted twice and now they’re going to use it forevermore. I can’t understand the rush.”

By Gordon Smith