Monday, October 30, 2006

Voting should not be a black box affair

The cliche goes, "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail". As computer professionals, that means that every problem tends to give us an itch to develop a computer-based solution. This is unfortunate, part of an educational process that emphasizes programming skills, technology, and narrow theory over problem solving. When we're confronted with a problem or process, we first need to concentrate on really understanding the existing situation. What is the current goal? What is the problem? Who are the stakeholders? What aspects of the system are important to the different stakeholders? Only then can we take the first step in solving the problem: identifying the appropriate range of solutions, which may not involve computer technology.

A case in point is our elections system. The problems with electronic voting systems are so rampant that I'll not even bother to link to articles on the web. What are their advantages? According to Wikipedia (not that that's the final source on this matter), the primary advantages of electronic voting systems are saved paper, easier accessibility for people with disabilities, and the possibility of faster counting. Wikipedia also mentions the possibility of cryptographic verification, but so few people understand what that is -- likely, many computer professionals don't -- that I wouldn't consider it a practical advantage. After all, how can you expect someone to consider their vote "verified" if they don't understand the verification process? Verification then becomes another word for "trust us; we're experts" or "the magic box says that everything is fine". There's only one problem with any of the above advantages: they have nothing to do with the most important problems of paper ballots.

A recent talk at my school by Bev Harris, founder of Black Box Voting, I think very clearly pointed out the fallacy of a technological fix to the problems of paper ballots. Ms. Harris is not a technologist, and it behooves us to listen carefully to what people like her have to say. She spent much of her talk discussing one horror story after another related to electronic voting systems: conflicts of interest (putting it in the best light possible) with candidates owning interest in companies that manufacture the machines that count their ballots, lax software development security allowing anyone to access -- or even modify -- voting machine software via the Internet, software with back doors, hardware that allows anyone with a little knowledge to pre-load bogus voting information, etc. Other than ownership of electronic voting equipment manufacturers by governments considered unfriendly, these issues curiously don't seem to concern incumbent politicians that much.

And then she made what was to me an eye-opening statement (which I'll paraphrase because I didn't write it down at the time). The problem with electronic voting systems is that they, on the one hand, lack transparency, and thus make it more difficult to detect fraud, and on the other hand, reduce the number of people needed to commit a fraud. The lack of transparency arises in two ways: only a few people observe even part of the process (much of it is automated, and thus completely unobserved) and only a few people have the expertise to understand the different ways the count could go wrong. Electronic voting systems also make fraud easier, by reducing the number of people who need to be "in the know".

The most important attribute of any voting system is that its users -- the general population -- have confidence in its integrity. All other considerations are secondary. Even the presence of fraud is secondary, because confidence can only flow from ease of true verification, which by definition makes it likely that fraud will be detected. I would assert that electronic voting systems can never engender as much public confidence as paper ballots. Any proposed solution to voting problems must take this into account. That's why I'm especially impressed with Black Box Voting's Citizen's Tool Kit, which empowers "ordinary people" to oversee how their votes are counted, to demand that all methods see the light of day, and to generally make themselves a pain in the rear of anyone in government who would rather that the unwashed masses leave the process to the "professionals".

Some problems do not have technological solutions.

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