Followup on the voting machines

It looks like I have been too optimistic about my country’s commitment to paper ballots… For the next presidential election (the most influential one, or at least the most “popular” one), 1.5 million votes will take place using these voting machines.

As a citizen, I am appalled of this daylight robbery of my rights, and as a developer, I am truly frightened.

For the citizen part, as I stated earlier, I really like the fact that we, as a people, have a role in the process. Even though it is technically possible to cheat the results, we are still asked to verify that everything follows the rules. Maybe sometimes we can’t see it through. But if I am physically present, I can use my right to challenge the results if they don’t match with what I saw, at least locally. That is something that will not be possible with voting machines : I won’t be able to access the hardware, the software, or anything except the output. If something’s crooked, I have no way of telling the difference. That is fundamentally wrong.

As a developer, we all know that any piece of software larger than a simple “Hello World” program is bound to have bugs or weaknesses. For the operating system alone, I have yet to see a clean install that has zero problem. Even though I am a fervent evangelist for UNIX based systems (Mac OS X being on top of the list, for various reasons I don’t want to develop here), I can’t honestly say any of them is foolproof. As for closed systems such as Windows, I simply won’t even try. When there is a problem, there is absolutely no way to see exactly where it comes from or how to solve it.

If the OS can’t be trusted for this, how can any application running on top of them be foolproof? And even if the software is perfect (which is next to impossible), how can we be sure that it will manage any contingency the hardware will throw at it? What happens when someone trips (let alone purposely yank) on the power cord? What happens if the system runs outside of the optimum humidity and temperature ranges? What if one button stops working? What if one buttons is stuck and sends continuously the same vote?

The storage space being finite, how can we guarantee it will be possible to verify step by step that there were absolutely no error? Computer programs aren’t responsible for disasters. Their developers are. In some sci-fi stories, the computer takes the role of referee, or judge, being gifted with the power to be incorruptible. While a computer can’t invent its own rules, it can’t ignore the ones that exist, even if they are stupid. Today’s computers are yesterday’s golems. Tell them to do something while forgetting to lay out the simple ending circumstances, and you’ll see they keep at it until manually stopped.

I heard plenty of people asking for the voting machines to be open sourced. I wholeheartedly support that. But that’s no guarantee either. If you push the paranoia a little further, who’s to say the loaded program will be the known program?

The day a computer will have the ultimate say on any aspect of my life, without being able to appeal to a sensible human being is the day I’ll change job/country/planet.

[UPDATE] Of course, propaganda has always been important on touchy subjects, and I witnessed a very touching segment on last night’s newscast : they were prepping the old people in a retirement house. They brought a shiny voting machine and taught them how to press the correct button. Now that’s rather sweet and everything, but the audio commentary was appalling. “You can’t slow down Progress” (Hell, that’s not progress, that’s gadgetization), “it’s safer to vote that way, no one can coerce us” (More so than in a closed voting booth? How about mistakes? “Oops m’am, you wanted to vote for than one? sorry, I tripped and pushed the other one for you. Tell me the candidate you were going to vote for, and I’ll rectify that, promise”), or “there’s even a failsafe! You have to push the confirm button once you’ve seen the name of the candidate on the screen” (Frankly, who is going to spend a lot of time verifying? With paper, you know what ballot you put in… They even send them by mail, in case the ones in the voting center don’t suit you) were the key highlights, but I’m pretty sure I forget some real savvy quotes. I guess we won’t have the opposite point of view there, we have to watch the specialized shows, generally late at night.



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