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How Electronic Voting Impacts the Trustworthiness of our Elections

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How Electronic Voting Impacts the Trustworthiness of our Elections



It is becoming increasingly clear that this 2004 Presidential Election was not without a growing list of problems.  Closed electronic voting technology has brought some significant changes to the democratic process.  The subtle nature of these changes, often prove difficult for ordinary people to understand, particularly when the technology is closed to casual examination.

The purpose of this article is not to provide answers one way or another on the issue of the election results, or allegations of fraud.  Those things are for the courts.  However, the potential solutions for reform under discussion do require a solid understanding of how electronic information technology differs from physical information technology, if we are to achieve proper reform. 

With these goals in mind, this essay aims to clarify the differences between Closed Technology and Open Technology as well as physical records and electronic records with the primary goal being to differentiate the impacts of both in a meaningful way. 

Although much of the initial discussion deals with basic technology types and their differences, the reader will find the latter discussion easier to digest as a result of the former.

Open and Closed software and data are clarified and compared via Postal Mail and E-mail, with the goal being to introduce core terminology to be used in the final discussion of the changes technology brings to the democratic process and the impact those changes have on the trustworthiness of the the process.

Finally, brief recommendations and observations are brought together with an eye toward potential reform.

How are Closed Technology and Open Technology different?

Open Technology is technology that ordinary people can observe and learn from, with the goal of understanding how it works, without having to obtain special means and or methods in order to do so.  In other words, the user of the technology does not have to obtain permission, from a controlling party in order to examine the technology. 

How successful ordinary people are in actually learning is not important, the ability for them to engage the technology in this way is.

Closed Technology generally cannot be directly examined without special means or methods.  Such means and methods are normally controlled in such a way as to limit general understanding of the inner workings of closed technology solutions.

Computer technology features two basic components, relevant to this discussion; namely, software and data. Additionally, computing technology, for the purpose of this essay, can be roughly divided into open and closed types.  The differences between these two are at the heart of many of the election problems we face today.  The nature of these differences and their real impact on the trustworthiness of our democratic process will be made clear later on.

Software is information that controls the function of the computer.  Software defines what a computer does and how it does it. 

Data is information that is manipulated by the computer, through software, to be eventually consumed by either other software, or ordinary people.

Both kinds of information can take on many different forms and structure.  These forms can range from the human readable text you see on your screen to complex non readable elements, such as the program you are using to read this text with.  It is important to note that both software and data are stored and manipulated electronically.  Unlike physical information, such as paper records, electronic information cannot be directly observed by ordinary people, without the assistance of other electronic technology.

Email and Postal Mail serve as an easy means to compare and contrast contrast electronic information and physical information.

E-mail is an example of technology that embodies enough electronic concepts to clarify the definitions presented here.  Postal mail can serve to differentiate the differences between manual information processing and computer assisted processing, in a way that has relevance to the election problems at hand.


When you use your computer to send e-mail, the part of the technology that you see embodied as the e-mail program is the software.  This software dictates how you perform the task of sending and receiving e-mail. 

The words you read or type into e-mail are the data.  Anyone can read the contents of an e-mail, provided it is written in a language they understand.  The virtual container for your words are the data format used to contain your e-mail, for transport by the software.  It is important for e-mail to be contained in a way that everyone can access with their particular choice of e-mail software, otherwise, e-mail quickly becomes useless.

When you send your e-mail, you are actually giving the software your permission to move your data through many other bits of software running on many different computers, including your own, until it reaches your desired recipient.  In this way, the data is consumed by both other software and people, as defined above.

Postal Mail

When you use the Postal Service to send regular mail, the people, and machines are roughly analogous to computer software, as is the pen.  The pen is closely related to software in that it is very difficult to render words without something to write with.

The paper and envelope represent data, with the paper holding your words written by the pen and the envelope serving to contain your words for delivery by the Postal Service.  It is also important that your words are contained and stored (written) in a way that everyone can open, or read, or Postal Services quickly become useless in the same way that e-mail would.

E-mail embodies your words in electronic form, to be handled by computer software.  Ordinary people cannot directly observe their e-mail in transit, nor can they read e-mail directly; thus, words embodied in electronic form require other electronic technology to access and make use of those words.

Ordinary physical mail, can be directly observed at every stage of the process.  While not practical, this subtle difference becomes very important where democracy is concerned.  The words embodied in to physical form do not require any additional technology to access and make use of.  This too is important in a democracy.

While it is obvious that Postal Mail is an Open Technology because of its physical nature, e-mail is more difficult to classify.  The electronic nature of e-mail is closed to us, in that we cannot directly observe the actual means and methods that embody our words, but does that difference alone make the technology closed, or open?

While the above point may seem somewhat esoteric, where elections are concerned, the pervasive nature of computing combined with the productivity gains it brings, demands we move forward electronically.  This, in turn, demands we understand clearly the difference between open electronic data, known as Open Standards, and closed data, known as Closed Standards, because these differences directly impact trust which lies at the core of democracy.  The same is true for Open Software and Closed Software, or code as well.

An Open Standard is an electronic data format where all necessary electronic technology and software required to make use of it is Open Technology also.  Put simply, Open Standards can be put to use, by anyone, without permission or royalty being required to do so.  This does not mean that Closed Technology cannot be used to utilize data stored in Open Standards.  It does mean that Closed Technology must not be a requirement to do so however.

Open Software is software that can be translated into a form ordinary people can read.  Again, whether or not they choose to read it, or actually understand what they are reading does not matter, but the ability to do so does, in that they may choose at any time to exercise this ability.

The answer for e-mail then depends on the particular e-mail software technology being used.  Most common e-mail software is closed in that those that create it demand a fee for use of the software, or deliver it in a form that cannot be translated for people to read.  Open e-mail software exists too. 

The actual e-mail data itself is open in that its format can be read by both open and closed e-mail software programs.  Since we must use software, in almost all but very technical cases, to make use of data, the ability for data to be made use of by Open Software, having no fee attached to its use, then makes that data qualify as an Open Standard.  In this sense e-mail is generally considered to be an Open Technology. 

Having clarified basic technology forms, terminology and differences, it is time to consider all of these in the context of an election.

What constitutes a trustworthy democratic process?

A trustworthy democratic process is one that embodies four key ideals, namely:

transparency: the ability for the people to directly observe all elements of the democratic process, from votes cast to the final tally and certification of the election,

oversight:  depends on transparency, where all elements of the process feature checks and balances designed to promote honesty and integrity and discourage fraud and manipulation,

freedom: to participate, or not without prejudice and finally,

anonymity: where a voter can cast a vote and be assured it will be added to the tally while being assured said vote is not linked to the voter in a personally identifiable way.

If any of these four ideals are missing or diminished, the trustworthiness of the democratic process becomes suspect because mutual trust depends on all four ideals to be realized.

Elections using Paper  (Physical voting records, written processes)

Until very recently, the democratic process was a process for the people and by the people in that the voter directly recorded their vote cast onto physical media (paper), and that physical record was directly used to obtain the final tally.  People were involved in all stages of the process, under the public eye; thus, maximizing the potential for trustworthy elections.  All technology used in this process is open in the way described above, in that no special means or methods are required to make use of the record of the vote. 

Pens, paper, ballots, counting and communication are all easily understood by ordinary people, using ordinary means to process the votes.  The written rules of the election, combined with the physical record of the votes cast, work together to honor the four ideals thus:

Transparency is present in that we can see the votes cast and can directly read them.  Additionally, moving the votes can be observed much as ordinary postal mail can.  Though not practical, it is possible to follow a particular vote through to the final tally.  Communication that happens via electronic means, such as a phone call, or e-mail of district sub-totals do violate the transparency ideal however, physical records combined with oversight mitigate this with records on both sides of the communication.

Oversight is very dependent upon transparency.  We cannot easily oversee what cannot be seen.  In this, democratic processes that use physical media to record the vote, combined with careful observation by multiple parties bring a high degree of trustworthiness to the process as a whole.  Mutual participation and observation together bring a shared trust to an otherwise difficult to trust process.

Freedom and anonymity are largely served by the rule of law and administrative procedure, both documented in physical forms everyone can access and understand, while those performing their tasks can be observed as well. 

Notably, anonymity is largely responsible for many of the difficult trust issues because it demands a voters vote be accounted for in the tally, while not being personally linked to the voter that cast it.

If we eliminate, electronic communication from the above, we have a process that can be fully understood by anyone while being observed by everyone, that fully embodies all four core ideals necessary for mutual trust in the process as a whole. 

This process is time-tested and is as trustworthy as the people participating desire it to be.

Elections using Electrons!  (Electronic records, encoded processes)

Electronic data moves in the form of electrons and magnetic waves and other such minute and obscure phenomena.  We cannot see them, and when they change, they leave little or no practical trace.  This is a stark difference from physical media.  Changing a mark on a ballot, for example leaves a less than perfect mark in its place, where a changed electronic vote simply is different than it was before without any evidence of it ever being otherwise.

Electronic voting machines follow procedures that may not reflect the written rule of law.  Voting machines, that operate using Closed Software are closed to everyone, but their creators.  This is enforced by the obscure nature of software, and the written rule of law, such that even those that possess sufficient technology to interpret the software and verify its function and process, cannot legally do so.

People do a similar thing when counting the vote.  If someone changes their mental count, it simply is changed.  However, physical records, bring oversight to the problem in that the count can be challenged, or done by more than one person and records of the count can be maintained at both ends of a communication of the count, necessary to build the final tally.

When computers count, there is nobody to watch them.  If they are counting electronic votes, the count cannot be challenged.  Additionally, the record of the vote cannot be confirmed to be representative of the actual votes cast! 

Electronic processes differ considerably from the physical ones in that ordinary people cannot observe the process in action and in their behavior where changes and communication are concerned.  These differences together have significant impact on the electronic processes ability to honor the core ideals of transparency, oversight, anonymity, and freedom thus:

Transparency is sharply diminished when electronic machines are used to count paper votes and communicate them to build the final tally.  This lack of transparency directly impacts oversight, in that other means, such as exit polls and paper recounts and audits are required to maintain an acceptable level of mutual trust in the process as a whole.  Electronic machines counting electronic votes eliminate transparency entirely, making all but the most cursory oversight impossible.  This lack of oversight prevents an acceptable level of trust from ever being reached.

Roughly 30 percent of the votes cast in this 2004 Presidential Election were cast electronically and counted electronically.


All but a small percentage of the remaining paper vote was counted electronically as well.

Oversight of electronic voting machines and the votes cast on them is limited in two key ways, namely, all but a very small percentage of electronic machines in use today, operate on Closed Software and also store the votes cast on electronic media, such as memory cards, in Closed data standards.

Practical oversight is impossible because the closed software cannot be analyzed without extraordinary means and the force of law prevents their use, unless permission is granted by the software author / owner.  This oversight is further hampered by the inability for ordinary people to verify their vote cast is the vote recorded and counted.  Finally, almost all electronic machines provide for the option to be equipped with a paper record.  However, this record is not directly verified by the voter, making the value of said record questionable at best.

It should be noted that electronic voting machines that use Open Software are available.  They are an improvement in that their software can be examined by anyone, however this facility is largely useless unless accurate and trustworthy paper records can be kept.  These records must be voter-verified in order to have any value where trust is concerned.

Electronic voting machines, as we see them today, honor freedom in the same way manual voting methods do.  Voters are free to vote or not and can, for the most part, choose another method, such as absentee, of voting.  For a select few, the machines offer a freedom denied in that voters with disabilities can vote on their own, using audio prompts, for example.

Current touch screen voting machines honor anonymity as paper ballots do.  Some proponents of electronic voting, want to extend the idea to the Internet.  This will be hard to do without personal identification of the voter to the votes they cast.  That is a problem limited to the military, for the time being however.  Given the ready option of absentee voting, Internet voting remains a low priority problem.


Electronic voting machines that use Closed Software and electronic voting records violate the two strongest of the core ideals necessary for mutual trust in an election.  These ideals of transparency and oversight are time tested and necessary.  Without voter-verified paper record facilities attached, these machines are unacceptable for use in any election.  Their use should be discontinued, until such facilities are properly equipped and  functional.

Ideally, we should be considering the use of electronic voting machines built upon Open technologies and equipped with a voter-verified paper trail.  These machines have additional economic advantages beyond the trust issues detailed here.

Hybrid physical vote, electronic count systems, such as Optical Scan, have clear advantages in that they utilize voter-verified paper records directly, which eliminate many of the trust issues inherent in pure electronic solutions.  Problems with the count can be identified and rectified with manual counting if indicated.  These systems, already in wide use, combined with standardized ballots, are a mature, cost effective solution that remains viable, provided audits are properly performed to oversee the count. 

Electronic information is vastly different from physical information.  These differences, though obscure, have tremendous impact on our democratic process.  The mounting problem reports we continue to see from this last Presidential Election reflect that reality directly.

The volume of incidents already reported, clearly indicate the need for reform.  Those directly involved in the reform process must consider the differences between electronic voting and manual voting and act accordingly to avoid future election problems.  Additionally, the American people are strongly urged to consider the information presented here and make their voice heard until proper reform is achieved. 

Doug Dingus doug@opengeek.org  Age 36.  Married, 4 kids, currently living in Portland , Oregon is a systems engineer/ consultant in the engineering process improvement field who strongly advocates the use of Open Technology and Open Standards where possible. Voting needs to be open; thus, this paper! His blog is at http://www.opengeek.org.  Permission to forward is encouraged!

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