Is e-voting reliable and secure?

One of the leading manufacturers of electronic voting systems, Diebold has had another embarrassment – their site got hacked. Ethical hacker Bev Harris managed to download 1.8GB of files, including the tallied results from halfway through one election off their server. This is not the first embarrassment Diebold have suffered.

While geeks have advocated replacing most mechanical things in life with a digital equivalent, voting is often not one of them. There is some serious academic opposition to the holding votes electronically.

I number myself as one of the geeks who oppose e-voting. It’s well argued that pen-and-paper elections can be hacked as well (inded they can be), but the difference with computer-based elections is that the hacking is far more distributable. In order to hijack an election in one constituency, I would have to interfere with every ballot box at every polling station (or employ an evil army of minions to do it for me), or try and interfere the count of the vote, whilst under the watchful eye of observers and journalists. And that’s just for one constituency. With a computer, if a security flaw was found, I could interfere with every polling station nationwide in far less time, with no need to be physically anywhere near the ballot boxes, and even if I were, it would take a very technically-proficient person to be able to work out what I was doing.

Of course, this does not make paper ineherently more secure, paper ballots can be rigged or made misleading. As a result, amongst the tech community, e-voting has a few proponents.

There are numerous good arguments for e-voting as a concept – it makes voting easier, more accessible (e.g. you can have ballot boxes for the blind with voice interfaces) and of course, it makes the counting a lot easier. And it’s already worked, for example, in Brazil – hardly a nation as e-savvy as Britain or the US – all 115 million people voted electronically in its last presidential election.

The Brazilian system has been lauded as it was designed openly and came with paper backups and auditing – although as only 3% of the votes are audited post-election I still believe there is an opportunity for undetectable fraud. This is contrasted with e-voting in the US (where us Brits now always take our lead from), where the systems rely on ‘security by obscurity’ – keeping everything secret, not disclosing the code to any third-party scrutiny, and crossing your fingers that it works.

It doesn’t help that the CEO of Diebold recently openly campaigned for the Republican Party, and e-voting systems have recently been shown to have ‘glitches’ and mistakenly award elections to the wrong person. Given the Blair’s Government passion for all things new and shiny, and their thrall to big business, what’s stopping something similar happening here in a few years time?

One final thought in this absurdly long blog entry, and that’s Armando Ianucci’s joke from his show Gash – that the BNP had won council control in areas with text-message voting, as it was by far the easiest thing to type into your phone. e-voting may expand democracy, but does it expand informed democracy?