More on e-voting

The announcement of the result for the Mayor of London occurred at 12:30 a.m. on Saturday morning; this was about six hours later than expected, 26½ hours after the polls closed and legally a day late. It was also 6 hours after the first GLA member’s result was declared. I hope we find out what the delay was caused by and we should remember the legal fire-drill in 2012 when Boris and the Tories wobbled and thought they might actually lose which raised questions of accuracy. Uniquely in the UK, the London elections are counted by machine[1], I wonder if that was part of the problem since the use of electronic counting & voting systems is controversial around the world.

The issue in e-voting is that it becomes a black box, as and it’s not always wise to quote monsters from history, but, from Stalin, we have,

It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.

In this worrying light, Facebook’s staff have considered if they should take a stand on the current US Presidential election, this article at gizmodo deals with it well and points out that Facebook have no duty other than their bottom line and certainly no duty of fairness to candidates or the electorate. I am unsure what Facebook will do, but my reasons for pointing at this story is to reinforce the point that software does, mostly, what its authors want, and what it does is invisible to observers other than by result. It’s one of the reasons that the transition from requirements to code should be one of the most tested but it’s hard and expensive and is not done well in most places. We should also note that elections are run by the incumbents, or employees of the incumbents. Elections must be transparent, and proprietary software is not!

Another story on biased software, although in this case fictional is inspired by events in the USA, Bruce Schneier points at a Dilbert cartoon, where they company has won a contract to supply voting machines and Dilbert asks the pointy haired boss who he wants to win.

More seriously in a 2004 essay, Schneier states that electronic voting systems need to be accurate, fast, scalable and anonymous. He argues that the number of steps between the voter and the final translation and summing is the key source of inaccuracy, and in the USA, despite having voting machines, they often involves an analogue reader which is a source of error. (Hanging chads anyone?) This he argues militates against accuracy, but the demand to use machines in the US is based on speed and scalability.

In the USA, unlike in London, they often use machines to record the votes. Schneier argues that the US should ensure that voting machines should print the ballot paper allowing voter’s to review their vote and that a second set of machines are used to ingest/scan and count the ballots. (How this would work with remote balloting I am not so sure, nor how one would allow multiple votes with only the last one counted, a key defence against coercion, I don’t know either.)

To me, the argument about scalability, is important and not one I have previously considered. Last week’s events show that e-counting, and e-voting is not necessarily quicker, it’s not cheaper, it’s not more accurate and is not more transparent. (The London system is anonymous, since the audit data is not held electronically.)

On top of this, the research undertaken around the world doesn’t suggest that turn out is higher; if anything, it reinforces the facts behind the folklore that the old vote more than the young. If you ask the electoral reform society, they say it’s the politics that need to be reformed; people need to think it makes a difference and matters.

Despite this, Schneier’s proposal that one uses a printed ballot paper as the statement of authority by voters is important.

Let’s wait and see if the London returning officer will shed more light on this


[1] There are a number of controls on the system, including counting some ballot boxes/polling stations by hand as a control. The adjudication of spoilt ballots is also done by people, which given that the London Mayor is done by supplementary vote it’s an easier ballot to spoil, and so this check is important.

Image Credit (CC) a derived work, by me, CC BY 2016 from League of Women voters @flickr CC BY 2010 & Gamaliel Espinoza Macedo @flickr CC BY-NC 2008

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