Jorge Villalobos
Ideas, technology and the occasional rant

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Electoral technology used right

I've been incredibly busy lately with some side projects I'm working on, plus college assignments and that thing... what do you call it? Oh, yeah: life. Yeah, whatever. I'll try to add something else soon; those projects I mentioned will be an important part of this blog, but they have been delayed for various reasons, one of them being that I'm a deranged obsessive-compulsive that can't have his mistakes publicized, even on a blog with no readers.
Yesterday my English verbal skills were put to the test. One of my classes involves having debates about certain controversial issues related to technology. Yesterday, some classmates and I opened the debate series, with a debate on the electronic electoral system that's currently implemented in the United States. Luckily I was assigned to the side that had to say it sucked.
FYI, it does.
Sometimes you wonder why is it that government (on pretty much any (western?) country) makes such poor decisions on technology. I guess the problem is that most decision-makers are just too old. They grew up in a time when television, computers and such were seen with kind of an awe. They're the kind of people that think computers can actually think. That's very scary. So, they think that throwing in computers anywhere is an improvement. I know better. I trust computers with many things, my career included, but I get nervous every time I make an online purchase or access my bank account online. I would be seriously scared if my life depended on a computer program of any sort. "Programs? Are you crazy? I've made those!"
I won't be very redundant about the evidence found against the current electronic systems, particularly Diebold's system, which was used on 80% of the last 2 US presidential elections and is based on (drumroll, please) Microsoft Windows XP! When your tears are dry, read some of these:
  • Maryland House votes to oust Diebold machines (also on Slashdot). In this case, the state pulled the plug on a $90 million dollar investment because of confirmed irregularities and lack of a paper trail.
  • Forum at (also on Slashdot). Evidence was found of tampering with the machines prior to the elections.
  • State rebuffs raw vote demand (also on Slashdot). My favorite by far. The election database was refused to be turned in because it was stored in a proprietary format. God forbid they lose their competitive advantage by releasing their already leaked Microsoft Access 3 column table.
  • The Bombay Ballot. Plenty of Canadians and English voiced on Slashdot how they have traditional systems and they work just fine. This one's another alternative, implemented in India. It's a cool system, definitely better than the one currently implemented here. The key: simplicity. Beautiful. I don't think that would work here, though, due to additional requirements.
The amount of errors in the system is surprising, considering Diebold's original business was ATM machines. To sum things up: (1) the voter is alone with the machine that holds previous votes, making hacking feasible and tempting; (2) the voter gets no solid confirmation that the vote was correctly registered; (3) the machines are networked and running on top of a customized, general-purpose operating system; (4) the software used is closed-source and, apparently, has commercial interests; (5) there is no way of verifying the system works correctly, except trusting the system itself.
Reliability and security are the main priorities of the elections process, and they were completely trampled with this electronic system. For what? They gained some efficiency, plus some advantages I have to admit are important: accessibility, internationalization and elimination of invalid votes. Still, I think sacrifices must be done to maintain some minimal standards of trust in one of the most critical processes in the world.
So, all of this comes down to what I think the best system should be. How can I not give it a shot? It's my blog! I'm no expert in electoral systems, but I have a brain, so here it goes, the ideal electronic system:
  • Accessibility and internationalization are key requirements, specially for this country, so the computer assisted part should not be trashed. I think the system should assist the voters to make their choices, but ultimately the vote should be printed out, so that the voter can verify it and deposit it outside in an old-fashioned ballot box.
  • The computer may optionally keep record of each vote. The results in the machines could be used to produce a quick, unofficial result. The official result will depend on the paper votes, which should be hand counted. The computer counts serve as confirmation for the hand counts. Large inconsistencies should be analyzed on both systems.
  • The voter should only have access to the interface of the system: screen, speakers, vote printer, etc. The CPU must be located in a separate room, out of reach, and the cables that go to the CPU should be protected as much as possible. The CPU should not be connected to any network or any other computer.
  • Now, the system. It should be as simple as possible. The problem lies in that the interface is potentially quite complex, so a solid OS is required. I would argue in favor of a modular, open-source, reliable operating system. The modularity is required to construct a minimal system. The source should be open to scrutiny to increase transparency and reliability. I would go with OpenBSD. I've heard those guys are crazy about their security. I also heard they're running out of cash. So, now you know it. If you're rich, send me money. Screw them. I can... do... stuff.
  • If the machine keeps record of the votes, it should be stored in an open format. That Alaska thing is ridiculous.
The debate went pretty well. I was satisfied with my English performance. Slashdot was very, very useful for my research. I love it how you can post a positive or negative comment about anything and you'll have someone contradicting you in a second (Note: I didn't incite any flamewar, I just read the existing ones). It's an excellent way of finding arguments for all viewpoints. Gotta love those flamewars.
Next week's debate will be quite the opposite. I'm defending the RIAA and the MPAA. Now that's just evil. I don't condone piracy, but only for myself. I don't agree with a rabid copy police going around screwing with random people and threatening everyone. Not even Slashdot can help me with this. Oh well, college. I'll do my best.

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