Archive for July, 2006

Crunch time for Electronic Voting?

Posted on July 3, 2006, under general.

So, according to the Sunday times, the Commission on Electronic Voting are going to release their second full report on Electronic Voting in Ireland tomorrow.

I can still remember how I felt over 3 years ago when I first learned, via Margaret McGaley’s paper, that the system in use in Ireland lacked an audit trail; simply astonished. A few years previously, when the system trials were announced in a different constituency to mine, I thought “hmm, I wonder how they solved the fundamental can’t-trust-a-machine-interface problem” spent a few minutes thinking about it and concluded they obviously figured out to print the vote on some kind of human-readable immutable media, were getting the voter to check it, and then storing it securely for a check.

That it took about 5 minutes to figure that out seemingly confirmed the obviousness of the solution, I thought “wow, kinda cool that we’re up to doing these things” and never really thought about it again.

Years later, with the scope of the Department of the Environment’s utter incompetence now clear, I enjoyed a conversation with Adrian Colley who went through much the same process.

Voting Machine

In May of 2003, over a full year before the 2004 election, through complete co-incidence I set up what became the Irish Citizens for Trustworthy Evoting mailing list for Margaret, and became its second subscriber. Through Mags’ persistence and excellent networking skills, the size of the group quickly ballooned, and by mid-summer we had held our first meeting and even chosen a name, and started a website. Still, progress was slow, and getting information out of the Department was not an easy process. Every Freedom of Information request cost money, and they always took as long as they could to return the information. Requests for meetings were refused, and the minister (Martin Cullen) was totally unresponsive to anything on the issue.

At the end of the summer the Irish Labour Party launched their own report on their concerns, which was enough to help kickstart a process which led to Oireachtas committee hearings in December of 2003. Understanding the events surrounding those committee hearings is key to realising just how irresponsible the present government have behaved on this issue.

At the first meeting, on December 10, Margaret McGaley and Shane Hogan made clear to fundamental and undeniable problems with the system. Such was the extent of the concern, the committee actually wrote to the Minister, asking that no money be spent on the system until there was time to further investigate the problems. Members of the committee (including Government party members) were interviewed on National Radio over the next few days, and voiced their concerns.

But just one week later, at the meeting of the December 18th it became apparent that the Department and the Minister’s interest had been awoken. Niall Callan had been drawn in from the Department and had brought along representatives of the manufacturers with him. Joe McCarthy, a chartered engineer, Fellow of the Irish Computing Society, and security expert was now also invited to outline his serious concerns with the system.

Apparantly the manufacturers had a very convincing presentation, because after going into private session the committee voted (along party lines, and with the support of Mildred Fox) to reverse their previous position and now support the position of the Minister. The contract, committing the Irish public to 40 or so million euro of expenditure, with no recourse to refund, was signed within the 24 hours.

After expert opinion, making plainly clear that the system would not, and could not work as required, Minister Martin Cullen, with the help of TD’s John Cregan, Noel Grealish, Michael Moynihan, Mildred Fox, Billy Keleher, John Moloney, Sean Power and Senators Michael Brennan and John Dardis, authorised the signing of the ridiculous contract (the utterly inept drafting of which is its own seperate problem) which got us into this whole mess. That Martin Cullen remains in office despite this, should be a source of shame for this nation.

When we met in January following the committee meetings, I estimated our chances of defeating this decision at about 10%, but somehow we prevailed. As the Department started organising the massive publicity campaign (the contract for which was awarded in a manner which itself attracted much press coverage), we picked up news of the official launch, which we decided to gatecrash.

And so in February (I think it was), we turned up at the Mansion House to hand out our own leaflets, outlining the problems with the system, and went in to see the launch itself. When the launch was over, we started asking awkward questions of the demonstrators whenever a journalist was near. When the simplicity of the question “How do I know my vote has been recorded correctly?” became apparent, with seemingly no answer other than “You just have to trust us and our tests”, some journalists started really getting it for the first time.

Sensing pressure on the Government, about a month later, Fine Gael, Labour and the Greens got together and decided to share their time in the house on the issue and proposed a private members bill. Although it looked like the Government would initially just crush the opposition it always does, some of the mud inevitably began to stick as the stupidity of their argument became so obvious.

During the course of the month, the Irish Computing Society – a 30 year old body for computer professionals – formed an Evoting expert group who stated;

It is the unanimous view of the electronic voting committee of the Irish Computer Society that under no circumstances whatsoever should any electronic voting system be implemented which does not include a voter verified audit trail.

When an Opposition spokesperson brought this up, Minister Cullen accused the ICS of being part an anti-globalisation movement (he later apologised for this absurd remark). Sensing that maybe Minister Cullen might just be wrong on this one, his cabinet colleagues (the Minister himself was out of town) decided to concede a little and form the Commission on Electronic Voting to investigate the matters, hoping that an independent opinion would clear the air.

The Commission took to its task quickly enough. Formed of mostly the same people as the Boundary Commission (the Ombudsman being a notable exception, as she had previously criticised Evoting). Within weeks, they had a (truly excellent) website and were seeking submissions on the issue.

They received over 160, all of which can still be read online, including our 32-page submission, a document I still stand by, and which, incidentally, was produced using open source principles. We edited it in CVS (using LaTeX for formatting) and discussed it on our mailing list.

At the time of publishing, I got a hard copy of all of the submissions, and you can still find my summary of each of their positions. By my count, the vast, vast, vast majority were not in support of the proposed system. At best, I could identify only 10 that were in favour, including one each from the Department and the Vendor.

When the Commission’s preliminary report came, on the last day of April (rather than May 1st as the Government had intended, a day on which 10 new nations would be joining the EU in a ceremony in Dublin, and on which the press would probably be busy) it was a shock to most of the nation. The Commission stated that since there wasn’t even a final version of the counting software available, and that there had been no time to test and evaluate the system, they could not recommend its use. Worse, in the short time they had to perform testing, they had already found actual counting errors. Even we were astonished at that one.

Up until that day, we were actually preparing to take a High Court case against the Minister, should he have signed the order authorising the use of the system. I’m very very grateful it didn’t come to that, as the personal liability would have been enourmous.

It took another 9 months before we learned more details of the Commission’s work, in December 2004, this time in a much more detailed and excellently researched report, outlining more problems in more detail – though as ever the language was somewhat neutered in my opinion.

Now, a year and a half later, the Sunday Times article suggests that the Commission’s report will be somewhat negative in relation to the Electronic Voting system proposed and will even cover the lack of a voter verified audit trail. 18 months ago, when we met the current Minister, Dick Roche (who maintains a blog), about the issue, I asked him if he would extend the remit of the commission to cover this matter. I also pointed out the absurdity that no-one was charged with examining what was in reality the fundamental problem with the system, but he refused to be drawn on the matter.

Although Dick Roche has been much more considered on this issue, and seemingly much more informed on it, he remains responsible for 2 years of needless expenditure on the system, both for storage and testing.

The last two years have been immensly frustrating, as we’ve seen more and more money wasted on a fundamentally flawed and unworkable system.

None of the expense was neccessary. It is trivial to conclusively prove that any anonymous Electronic Voting system which lacks a voter-verified audit trail is completely unverifiable. It’s been shown time and time again, and yet we’ve had to spend millions regardless.

As computer scientists, we’re not doing a great job of explaining that while yes, computers to get faster and better from year to year, there are also fundamental rules and about how they work, things that can’t change, problems that cannot be solved, and provably so.

I enjoyed the last report of the Commission, and I’m hoping this next one contains at least much interesting new research. But more than that, I hope that this report may finally put the issue to bed – that the press and the politicians will realise that what we’re talking about here is really simple; “It’s humanly impossible to tell what’s going on inside an electronic machine”.

That would be a fitting testiment to Margaret and Joe’s tireless work. I’ve no doubt that we’ll get there eventually, since the truth is so readily verifiable, but I really wish we’d stop wasting so much money in the meantime.