Thursday, September 12, 2013

E-voting: I don't like it, because I'm a democrat

I don't like the outcome of the election, but I do. I don't, because of my politics. I do, because we had a pretty much indisputable result, without guns, hanging chads, or Diebold fraud accusations.

I've been around computers so long my first program was written in Wang Basic, and the first computer I had at home was a Tandy TRS-80, and I don't think that e-voting fills the requirements of democracy. It's an efficient vote counter that steals the process from the citizen.

So what are my requirements for electronic voting?

  1. Anonymous

The system has to be as anonymous as Australia's current electoral system. No “proof of ID” at the polling place, because that opens the door to intimidation. Yes, there is a gateway to fraud, but it's so minor that in 30 years, Australia has never had a seat result overturned in the High Court (which has the Court of Disputed Returns jurisdiction) because of fraud.

  1. Open to scrutineers

The computer system has to be as open to scrutineering as the current system. That is: every party that wishes to argue over the intent of the voter, must have the same opportunity in the future system.

  1. Accurate

The system has to record every voter's intent accurately. If the voter intends to cast an informal vote, it has to be recorded as such without penalty. Which goes back to “anonymity”. If the elector intends to drop a blank ballot in the box, so be it.

  1. Secure

In case you haven't noticed, security is a thing at the moment. Snowden, the NSA and all that? And no, I don't believe freedom-from-spooks was so great even before the Snowden leaks.

  1. Accessible and inclusive

Every single step of the electoral process in Australia can be understood by anyone who can tell the number 1 from the number 2. That's not everyone, but we have a system which, by world standards, is astonishingly inclusive. If you can work shoelaces, recite the alphabet, and you're considered not a danger to the system, you're probably eligible to take part in the process.

It's easy to make systems that are usable by the electors. But in Australia, you don't need “special sauce” to be part of the process.

Right now, if there was an enormous sunspot that destroyed every computer on the planet, Australia's process would survive. The whole thing could be handled manually (albeit slowly), and at the end of it, there would be reasonable confidence in the final result. Because the process is so simple:

  • I enter the polling place, and my name is checked off on a list
  • I vote and stick my ballot in a box that's supervised by AEC officials
  • At the end of the day, they tabulate votes.
  • The disinterested (AEC vote counters) are watched over by the interested (party scrutineers)
  • The count is reported

And after the count is reported, the AEC then re-checks everything (which is how the “Indi error” was found), not on the assumption of fraud, but on the assumption of error.

  • Verifiable

Everyone has to verify that what was supposed to happen, happened.

Other bits of the process

Meanwhile, other officials cross-check the voter lists (with computers but it could be done on paper if necessary) to detect if someone's name was checked off at more than one location.

And there's still other ways to detect fraud – if not a specific instance, a trend suggesting fraud can be discovered with statistics. Psephologists are well-versed in identifying anomalies in trends, saying “we think this booth was gamed”, because they have a long experience in analysing swings, even big ones.

I truly believe in democracy – and it only works if every elector has the opportunity to participate in any given stage of the process.

To take any part of the process, and exclude electors from it, is to turn electors into passive recipients of the offerings of others.

I have a great regard for meritocracies such as the IETF. That body has bestowed on the world an Internet that works.

Think of it like this: democracy is a meritocracy in which “merit” means “functioning citizen”.

Democracy means everyone is included, everywhere. Regrettably, it might even include people we think are idiots because they can't read code or solve a DNS issue without help. It doesn't matter: democracy doesn't just mean “everyone votes”, it means “everyone know how voting works”.

In Australia, voting works. It has imperfections and holes and one of the reasons exploits fail is that the system is sound and trusted.

Geeks – or vendors – have no right to appropriate part of the process to themselves. If you can't give both the ballot paper and the electoral process to those you disdain, you're not a democrat.

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