August 3, 2007

Electronic Voting? Just Say "No"

Because Ka-Ping Yee was involved, and because I have a professional interest in information security, I have been keeping my eye on the California Secretary of State's investigation into electronic voting machines. I'm afraid the initial results are not at all promising for the future of American democracy. Here's the most telling quote from the source code review of the Sequoia system:
Of particular concern is that virtually every software mechanism related to counting votes is exposed, directly or indirectly, to compromise through tampering with equipment that is deployed in the field. In many cases, tampering sufficient to cause compromise requires only brief physical access and may leave behind little or no evidence.
This is hardly a surprise to those who have studied computer intrusion techniques, but clearly wasn't taken into account by the system's designers. The list of vulnerabilities makes me wonder whether the people who designed the system actually had any security training at all. Yet I just know, before I look for it, that the inevitable response of the vendors involved will be to try to minimize the impact of the security issues, just like Microsoft used to (they know better now).

As far as the voting public is concerned all of this might just as well not have happened, since they are neither educated nor encouraged to value their participation in democracy. As a result I fully expect that electronic voting systems of dubious security and with no paper audit trail will be even more widely deployed in the next election, with the result that victory will go to the least scrupulous, and no challeneg will be mounted by an apathetic populace.

The depressing thing is that the majority of voters (hey, aren't they supposed to decide who gets elected?) would rather leave the dirty business of politics to someone else. It's easier to keep their heads buried in the sand than engage with the endemic corruption of the democratic process. Perhaps you really do get the government you deserve.

Because I live in the USA I can't really claim to be disinterested, but for the record I am at present merely a disenfranchised immigrant. So I am asking all the citizens I know to take an interest in these issues and force the politicos and bureaucrats to implement a more rigorous and respectful approach to secure voting. There would be a real value to open source voting machines.


Tucanae Services said...


I agree with you. But since you stepped to the podium first I let you lead the charge :)

But seriously, I do believe that there is enough interest in the software community that is the call rang out that an effort could be mounted in very short order to produce the code that was not only secure but cross platform compatible. Smells like a Pythonic opportunity doesn't it? Maybe the EFF should lead the charge? They have sufficient standing to get the traction for such an effort mobilized.

Oh and don't be too down on the body politic. The Founders designed the system relatively fool proof. They also I believe realized that politics is not the ration-de-jeure for America hence we only vote every 4 years generally rather than annually. Most folks are just too busy trying to make a living.

Go to the water cooler and ask a political opinion. Most aren't shy, they all have one. So its not lack of interest, just time.

Anonymous said...


It's way too late. There hasn't been an honest national election in at least 50 years - and probably for longer than that.

Even if the elections were 'fair', it wouldn't make a whole lot of difference. The majority of national-level elections are decided on media-created buzz, bought by the candidates. There's an incredible disconnect between what people believe and who they vote for. (The pollsters don't help either - reading the texts of the questions make it quite clear that they're looking to get specific answers.)

Yes, we've gotten the government we deserve, God help us all.

Steve said...

Well, given President Bush's latest attack on civil liberties we have to assume that the "land of the free and the home of the brave" has become the land of the oppressed and the home of the fearful.

It's really sad - America has such potential, but in practice is an object lesson in how to abuse power and render the populace politically impotent.