E-voting is too important to leave to politicians

Talking about elections when none are due is like watching a Christmas TV advert in August. Yet things are stirring in the dust-dry world of political ballots, and the outcome will affect us all

In the US, electronic voting machine company Diebold is at the heart of a growing controversy. A large cache of documents and code, apparently covering the development of its voting systems, has found its way onto various Web sites. Diebold is trying to get them removed under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In turn, the Electronic Freedom Foundation is supporting a move to protect the publication of the documents, saying that as the files apparently show irregularities in both process and programming, it's in the public interest that they be openly debated.

There are a whole host of stories connected with Diebold and other companies in the field, few of them savoury. At heart, though, the systems are proprietary, the official certification process obscure -- even to the officials charged with monitoring the election process -- and the political ramifications enormous. It doesn't help that Diebold's CEO, Walden O'Dell, is a major fundraiser for the Republican Party and said in a letter that he is "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." Would you trust anyone that partisan to run your voting system?

A world away, the Australians are doing it differently. Following a close election in 1998, where investigations revealed significant errors in the hand-counted paper ballot, the Australian Capital Territory authorities decided to investigate electronic voting. Already concerned about reliability, security and openness, the events in the US 2000 elections made them doubly cautious. In the end, they settled on a system called eVACS. The design and implementation was carried out by a private company, but in public -- documents and code were made available for public debate and scrutiny, as well as for formal analysis. Trials showed that eVACS performed as specified, and complaints about error or fraud are absent. The system runs on Linux and as lead engineer, Matt Quinn, told Wired Magazine: "Any transparency you can add [to the e-voting process] is going to enhance the democracy and, conversely, any information you remove from that process is going to undermine your democracy." Doesn't that seem a more trustworthy approach?

He's not alone in feeling that way. Everyone outside the e-voting companies and their lobbyists wants systems that are at least as open as the current paper systems. They have to be auditable -- no point in having a recount if you just press a button and the same number appears -- and they have to protect the privacy of the individual and the publicity of the counting process. Simple requests, and you can't help but question anybody who says otherwise.

So why bother? There is no question that a properly implemented e-voting system can be more accurate than a paper system: not perfect, but better. It can also be much more convenient, if the many caveats about phone and Internet voting are assuaged. You can also tie in a lot of the other aspects of democracy -- informed debate, access to historical information and access to the politicians -- which is currently filtered through the thoroughly unopen partisan monsters of the media.

But wait, as they say on QVC. There's more. Electronic voting has the potential to transcend the physical and political boundaries that we fondly assume are laws of nature, just because they've always been like that. To take one example: the decisions of the President of the United States affect me and you directly, wherever we are in the world. Sometimes the effects are as obvious as a cruise missile demolishing the house next door: more often, the nature of the influence is hidden away in trade agreements and other political deals. As Quinn told the Wired reporter: "After all, we've all got a stake in who's in the White House these days. I'm actually prone to think that the rest of the world should get a vote in your elections."

That won't happen in my lifetime: the US, like the UK, has enough problems getting its own citizens to vote. But a proper, audited, open electronic voting system could be run by anyone, not just the politicians who incidently also run the countries. Done right, there would be no question of opinion poll-style bias or rigging: it could run in parallel with national elections or other events of importance. Although there'd be no legal requirement for anyone in power to take account of the results, any system that could reliably deliver the true opinion of masses of people will inevitably influence those who rely on their official votes -- and it would act as a fascinating counterweight in situations where the official ballot is questioned.

As Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Nobody in their right mind would invent our current political environment from scratch, even if its current denizens profess to like it. Freed of its artificial constraints and the random limits placed by history and special interests on the limits of our democratic voice, the evolution of an international e-voting system may be the only way to reflect the changing nature of our increasingly interconnected world. Truly open systems aren't just there to look at, they're open for anyone to use. We don't need anyone's permission: we just have to make it so.