Trusting the Voting Machines

March 8th, 2010

Hundreds of millions of people rely on the accuracy of voting machines and the polling process to form our government. New voting machines are being developed, moving from paper-based ballots to electronic voting.

How accurate are those digital voting machines? How unbiased? Do they count every vote? Do they count every vote accurately and completely? How do they work? How tamper-proof are they? Is there a way to audit results? How good is the audit process? How would we know?

Right now it’s hard to tell. It turns out that how digital voting machines work is a secret. Voters are not allowed to know, to see or to test those machines or how they work. (I’ll speak of California here, as a result of talking to the California Secretary of State, but this is only an example of the problem.) We’re asked to “trust.”

The OSDV Foundation exists to change this. OSDV is a non-profit organization building open source voting machinery. This is important for several reasons:

  • This allows voters to verify what our voting machines are doing. Like other open source projects, those of us with enough technical expertise can serve as consumer advocates and validate that our voting machines operate as they should.
  • In voting, 1 or 2 percent is a giant amount. Many elections — at least in the US where I’m most familiar — are very, very close. A 1% to 2% margin of error may be acceptable in many business settings, but it is not acceptable in a critical election where it can change results. With open source products we can see and test and improve the quality, rather than simply trust that all is well.
  • Casting and counting votes should not be a for-profit enterprise; it is the foundation of elected governments.
  • Proprietary ownership of the means of voting IS a conflict of interest. According to the OSDV Foundation, right now something like 88% of the US voting infrastructure is owned by two companies, which will soon be one company.
  • Good open source alternatives are likely to cause an improvement in the quality of the dominant (close to 90% market share) product offering.

OSDV is just reaching the point where its first products are just about ready for use. Having a viable alternative in the market is critical. Having a viable alternative that is open source and public-benefit is even better. OSDV is building a system that citizens can actually verify — a system we trust based on that ability to verify what is actually happening.

You can find out more about OSDV Foundation’s Trust the Vote project at

11 comments for “Trusting the Voting Machines”

  1. 1

    Ken Saunders said on March 8th, 2010 at 6:04 pm:

    “something like 88% of the US voting infrastructure is owned by two companies, which will soon be one company.”

    That’s an unsettling thought.

    After seeing a plastic container filled with Iraqi’s ballots being dumped on a tables and spilling over onto the floor, perhaps TrustTheVote can be used in other countries too where there’s a greater chance of chaos and violence occurring if the citizens suspect corruption or inaccuracies.

    In any event, it’s a very interesting and exciting project.

  2. 2

    Adrian Kalla said on March 9th, 2010 at 8:33 am:

    I’m so happy that I live in Germany, where the Constitutional Court ruled, that every voting machine that:
    -doesn’t allow one to really check the votes again (e.g. no output on paper)
    -cannot be understand by an average (== non-IT) citizen
    is illegal.

    The old way of voting is the one you can trust most, especially, because if someone fakes the results, you are still able to trace back the original results, or at least, find out that the vote was faked.
    I wouldn’t ever trust voting machines enough, to use them in public votes. Even if they were open source.

  3. 3

    Otto de Voogd said on March 9th, 2010 at 12:53 pm:

    The last few times that I voted, I voted via the Internet. It seems to me that that has the same issues as voting machines… or worse. Though I favor the possibility to vote via the Internet as it removes barriers to participation, I really would like to see a system of voting that can provide confidence that it can’t be tampered with, one that is not merely based on “trust”. Having the voting software be open source (or at the very least open to scrutiny) seem like a no-brainer. But it’s not enough, there must also be a way to verify the result and have confidence that your vote was properly counted.

  4. 4

    Gerv said on March 10th, 2010 at 3:51 am:

    The trouble is, open source voting software can’t allow you to be sure of the integrity of a voting machine. How do you know the software running on polling day is the same version you audited last week?

    We may use electronic voting to get quick counts, but in case of dispute, what do you do? It’s all 1s and 0s, and can be manipulated without leaving a trace. Voter-verifiable paper trail is the only way to have confidence in elections.


  5. 5

    Farooq Azam said on March 15th, 2010 at 10:39 pm:

    Positive aspects of this system are:

    1) Counting process becomes fast.
    2) Avoids duplicate vote.
    3) Voters don’t have to wait in queue.

    Negative aspects of this system are:

    1) People don’t trust this new techn0logy.
    2) People don’t trust on IT administrators who control it.
    3) Prevent it from hackers.

  6. 6

    Tony Mechelynck said on March 16th, 2010 at 12:37 pm:

    Farooq, where I live, over the years several elections have been handled by voting machines, and voters still have to wait in queue: there are only so many voting booths, and if everyone arrives at the same time, well, queues happen. I agree with the rest of your comment.

  7. 7

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  9. 9

    cartney said on March 22nd, 2010 at 1:09 pm:

    i have to humbly disagree that the manual counting of votes is the best form of ballot counting. i have cash counter in my restaurants and it helps me audit and find fraud. this is similar with automation of ballot counting.

    i got friends from 3rd world countries and we do talk about this topic. turns out, most 3rd world who still use the manual counting have their election committees and high courts handle election protests and frauds due to manual counting.

  10. 10

    Tony Mechelynck said on March 23rd, 2010 at 10:51 am:

    There have been electronic frauds in the past, like (decades ago) a programmer who amassed fortunes transferring to his own account the rounding errors on bank currency conversions and interest computations (no more than 50ยข per transaction), until, after he had left the bank, his successor found out that there was a strange-looking paragraph in that program.

    The problem with electronic counting is verifiability: with paper ballots, counting is tedious, but if there is a doubt, the paper ballots are still there and can be counted again; also, political parties can send witnesses to every ballot office to verify (for instance) that the urn is empty before the first voter comes in. In electronic voting, experts can check the programs, but maybe not thoroughly; and what assurance do we have that the program used at voting time is the one the experts checked, with no “biasing” changes?

  11. 11

    DarkRedman said on April 9th, 2010 at 11:41 pm:

    I live in France, in here we feel that votes are rigged and sometimes fakes votes are added.

    I had the idea of the open-source machine, we can trust more in theses machines than current machines.

    I don’t know how it goes in your contry but in France we have as president : Nicolas Sarkozy, he controls almost all, and any way any acts against him will be in vain. So to bring this project of opensource voting machine on, it will be hard !

    (Sorry if I don’t express myself so well in english)

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