The Trouble with Electronic Voting
E-voting can work with the right regulatory environment in place.

January 17, 2008

One would think that in the year 2008, with flat-screen televisions in living rooms nationwide, wireless internet connections practically ubiquitous, ultra-high resolution digital cameras on sale for under $500, and washing machines that have more processing power than the mainframes of fifty years ago, it would be possible to create an electronic voting system that works. Yet, more people than ever distrust computers when it comes to the task of voting, with this newspaper even recommending that all precincts use paper ballots come November. Surely, something has gone seriously wrong—but do electronics suddenly break out of sheer apathy when they're instructed to keep track of our votes, or is something else to blame?

Despite the unending reports of vulnerable voting machines in our midst, it may come as a surprise to learn that the problem with electronic voting is not that electronics themselves are perpetually unreliable, or even that voting is an impossibly complicated process that American engineers simply can't grasp. After all, we trust electronics with mission-critical applications every day: processing our credit card transactions, launching space shuttles, scheduling airplanes, and keeping our loved ones alive in hospitals. All of these tasks are far more daunting from the perspective of a computer programmer than the simple exercise of voting. There is a key difference, however, between voting and any of the above examples. For better or for worse, voting is heavily regulated by the government—and it is regulated differently in all fifty states.

The fact of the matter is that government regulation, which has largely been put in place with the noble aims of protecting citizens and making voting machines more accessible to people with disabilities, is an insurmountable roadblock to technological progress. There's no easy way to start a company that makes voting machines, unless you happen to already make some other kind of expensive machine made out of steel. Diebold, as everyone now knows, makes Automated Teller Machines for banks. Sequoia Voting Systems is only in the game because it was making voting systems 100 years ago. There are almost no new companies in the voting machine business, because even if one figures out how to master the supply chain necessary to make a machine, there's still the process of obtaining regulatory approval from fifty Secretaries of State, and only a handful of them will be looking to buy machines at any given point in time. This stifling of entrepreneurship has had disastrous consequences, for while there has been no shortage of progressive software ideas concerning voting in the past several years, none of them have really seen the light of day for want of approved hardware to run them on.

Consequently, experts and non-experts alike have been increasingly calling for the dominant voting machine players to make their software open-source, which would make it available to the public for examination. This movement has a number of problems associated with it. One is that the voting machine companies do not necessarily have the rights to all of the code that their software requires to work, and it would do no good to see only part of their machines' inner workings. (Microsoft would have to make parts of Windows and Office open-source for us to understand all of a Diebold machine's ailments; for various reasons, that is unlikely to happen.) Secondly, though transparency is an important part of many democratic processes, and voting is certainly among them, making software open does not suddenly make it perfect. Open software has issues of its own; bugs in programs crucial to the functioning of the internet have sometimes gone undetected for years, only to be found when exploited by some clever programmer. Furthermore, there is never just one way to solve a problem; what one well-intentioned contributor might consider an asset, another might consider a liability. After all, the Diebold headphone jack that a Professor's research team used to silence the beeping of a compromised machine was the same jack that hearing-impaired users relied on to vote. Had it not been for state disability regulations, it probably would never have been there. (Why should voting machines make noise?)

Sadly, closed solutions from corrupt companies are no more likely to give voters the straightforward results they want than are open solutions from even the best programmers. Voting machine companies have no incentive to open their code, and even if they did, its utility would be questionable. For a ritual so central to our democracy as voting, it is worth questioning whether the market should really play a role at all, given the catastrophic failure it has yielded in combination with such poorly-crafted regulation.

Yet, there is hope. Our government brought the country's best scientists and engineers together to propel Americans to the moon and to create the atomic bomb, ending World War II on American terms. Rather than merely gawking at the broken nature of our current system, perhaps it's time we gave them a call once more. An effective and transparent solution is out there, and let there be no doubt: it is electronic.

Aaron Greenspan is the CEO of Think Computer Corporation and author of Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era. He is the creator of the FaceCash mobile payment system, ThinkLink business management system, and PlainSite legal transparency project.

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Josh Clark (
March 3, 2008 at 12:33 PM ST

You didn't start Facebook.


March 27, 2008 at 2:38 PM DT

Primary fix is to make the all contributions to candidates transparent- and to put a ceiling on the grants. (did you know that IBM started out with voting machines).

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