Specifying Democracy

The Open Rights Group (ORG) is a organisation dedicated to raising awareness of the issues surrounding privacy and civil liberties in the digital age. I’m one of the Founding 1000 supporters (hence the badge at top right) and on Tuesday I attended a screening of the HBO film Hacking Democracy, at the nicely-named Gustav Tuck lecture theatre at University College London, followed by a panel discussion and of course the obligatory ‘drinks in the pub’ (a bonus level if you collect all the tokens) at the Jeremy Bentham. This was all because the UK government is strongly considering the use of e-voting, with apparently little caution regarding the risks. The ORG has a special campaign underway to keep an eye on this.

The film was very interesting, albeit in a rather sensationalist way, with ominous music during the bits where they reveal some corruption. But, I suppose that is necessary when you’re dealing with such an important subject, and with television audiences – keep ’em riveted. The film had a lot in it that I was aware of, and also some welcome details of the stories behind the bOINGbOING posts. It had a rather sad ending, with hundreds of brand-new voting machines being delivered from Diebold (pron. DEE-bold, as it turns out). Diebold are the biggest provider of U.S. electronic voting “solutions”. “Solutions” – like elections are a problem. They came out of the film looking pretty bad, but with no change in Federal policy. One amusing part was a part of the Diebold system called The Central Tabulator – a reference to Frank Zappa?

After the film, some luminaries took the stage for a discussion, and after some initial statements took questions from the audience. The panel consisted of (left to right) Jon Pugh MP (Lid-Dem, Southport), Russell Michaels, co-director of the film, Jason Kitcat, the host and a researcher in e-voting, and Dr Rebecca Mercuri PhD, a computer science expert, who makes this statement regarding e-voting.

During a lively debate, I asked the question, “Is there a written standard or specification for what constitutes a free, fair, and secure election system, be it paper or electronic, and do these new e-voting systems comply?”. The short answer to that is No, and No.

The longer answer is of course more complex. The way we vote now in the UK, with paper and pencil and ballot box and human counting, is not perfect, but it has come about through hundreds of years of evolution, and it is pretty robust. The level of security and reliability is something to aim for. So when e-voting systems aren’t secure (as was shown in the film), or reliable, and when the hasty introduction of them breaks all of the processes and activities built around paper ballots, there is something very wrong.

Perhaps what is needed is an open statement of requirements for e-voting, peer-reviewed by all who care to take a look. If, and only if, a system can be proven to comply with every one of the agreed requirements, then maybe we can go ahead. This statement would include requirements governing reliability, security, the human processes surrounding the ballot, the transparency of the systems used, the independence of any and all private companies involved, etc. Perhaps ORG can help write this up? It certainly shouldn’t happen behind closed, locked, legally guarded doors.