E-voting and Open Source

There has been yet another electronic voting problem that cropped up recently. Sequoia doesn’t seem to like the way one New Jersey county wanted to vet their machines. It seems that allowing an “unauthorized” third party look at them would violate the license agreement, and endanger their intellectual property.

Any major voting system is going to have problems, and any new technology is going to have naysayers following it around with the proverbial pitchfork. But, when it comes to electronic voting machines, I’m less opposed to the machines themselves as I am with the secrecy surrounding them. I’m coming at this from a very simple perspective: nothing about the way we vote should be hidden from the public. The very idea that a company can simply refuse to allow someone access to the program code in voting machines used in our elections is fundamentally opposed to the concept of an open democracy. The solution is so simple, that I can’t even begin to wonder why this hasn’t already been legislated: mandate that all voting machine software be made open source.

It never ceases to amaze me how many people fear open source software for the very reason why it’s better than closed source software: security. People make the assumption that, if you open up a program’s code, all the holes and security flaws will shine through, and no one will ever be able to make such software secure. I won’t deny that that’s probably true, in the case of Windows (which had an innumerable amount of holes from the start). The moment Microsoft sends out a patch to fix a security flaw, someone reverse engineers it, and starts sending out viruses to exploit all the people who haven’t patched their systems yet. But, that doesn’t happen nearly as often with well supported open source software. When a security flaw is seen, it gets patched almost immediately. What’s more, there are a lot fewer security flaws to begin with, because so many more people are analyzing the code for such flaws.

Yes, opening a voting machine’s software would expose all of the security flaws in the code. But that’s the point, isn’t it? We want to know where the flaws are so we can fix them.

In the case of Sequoia specifically: I really don’t understand what their problem is. It’s not like counting votes should be all that complicated of a program. Any first year CS major knows how to write a counting program. Hell, you don’t even need a full year; most learn it in the first week or two. The only complicated aspect, I suppose, would be how that program interacts with the hardware. Even that shouldn’t be all that complicated; every cash register at Wal-Mart counts the number of products that go through. One really begins to wonder what it is Sequoia thinks their protecting.

And that, more than anything else, is why people lack confidence in these voting machines. They shouldn’t be all that complicated, and yet, the manufactures are so secretive about how they work, that people can’t help but wonder if they’re doing things they shouldn’t. There are clear and documented instances where electronic voting machines have provided incorrect answers, and yet the public is forbidden to find out why due to copyright law. I can’t express in words how fundamentally idiotic I think that is.

I used to oppose the idea of electronic voting machines, because I thought it would consolidate the votes too much. I don’t worry about that anymore, because I learned that the old paper system we had already did that. Like I said, any voting system is going to be flawed. My opposition now, however, is based on my opposition the idea that I’m not even allowed to know how my vote is being counted. Like I pointed out, it shouldn’t be a complicated procedure, and yet, the companies making these machines are protecting their closed software as if it is. That simply doesn’t make sense to me.

Common sense states that, if these companies want to allay suspicion of wrongdoing, then all they need to do is open their code. Their refusal to do so, or even to allow scrutiny from people they don’t like, suggests that there is some form of illegal activity at work.

This needs immediate legislative action, in my opinion.


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