Is E-Voting Safe?

Is Open Source the Answer?

If voters don't trust paperless machines to do what they're supposed to, there's one possible remedy: Open-source the code for the machines. Election officials for the Australian Capital Territory (the southeastern region of the country that includes Canberra) designed a Linux-based voting machine, posted the code for public review, and then hired local vendor Software Improvements to build the machines, which were tested at 10 percent of polling places in ACT's 2001 regional election.

The diskless machines run on 386 or higher PC hardware and connect to a RAID server at the polling place.

Eric Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative, says open-sourcing the code could eliminate obvious errors and insider tricks. But he also warns that "there is no foolproof protection against bugs and hacks." For example, insiders could still replace the code loaded onto the machines.

Does the open-source approach work? Deputy Electoral Commissioner Alison Purvis says most voters don't know or care that the machines are open source, but "those voters and political participants that do know about open source have commented very favorably about this aspect." More important, techies aren't shouting that the machines are an unknown risk. As a result, Aussie voters haven't demanded a paper audit trail for the machines.

San Francisco-based freelance writer Paul Boutin has contributed to Slate, Wired, the New York Times, and MSNBC.

Subscribe to the Power Tips Newsletter

Comments