A US company that makes software for electronic voting machines has taken the unprecedented decision to make public all its proprietary computer code. It hopes this will assuage the fears of voters and computer experts that the technology cannot be trusted to carry out free and fair elections.
VoteHere, based in Washington State, has placed the software used to control some e-voting machines on its website for free downloading. A "voting machine simulation" is also included that lets programmers see precisely how the code would work in practice.
"You can actually program it to cheat, and you can watch where the protocol detects where your ballot was changed," company founder Jim Adler, told MSNBC. "Now it's up to the world to take a look and dig in and give us their opinion."
Prior to releasing its source code, VoteHere had it examined by an outside consultancy firm called Plus Five. A statement from Plus Five founder Robert Baldwin describes the code as written "in a professional and consistent style, making it easy to understand and review".
VoteHere's software has yet to be used in any official elections and the company's code includes a list of improvements that it plans to make. But Dan Wallach at Rice University in Texas says releasing it is an important decision. "I applaud VoteHere," Wallach told New Scientist. "Releasing the code is important for the transparency of any election using the technology."
Electronic voting devices hold the promise of making elections faster, cheaper and less prone to the disputes over ballot papers that marred the 2001 US presidential elections.
However, many experts maintain no electronic voting system can be considered secure unless there is also a back-up paper trail, which no existing systems currently provide. "The paper trail is the only way we know to work around the risk of someone tampering with the code itself," Wallach says.
E-voting technology has been controversial from the start. In July 2003, academics including Wallach and others at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, claimed to have discovered serious flaws in the computer code used to operate the most popular US e-voting machines, made by Ohio-based company Diebold.
The code was taken from the company's website and posted online without permission and Diebold has always maintained that it was unfinished. Despite such concerns, Diebold's e-voting machines were certified for use in September 2003.
Experts also expressed concern in January 2004 when some of Diebold's voting machines were revealed to be designed to enable the wireless transmission of votes. They warned that this could make the devices more vulnerable to outside tampering.
In the same month the Pentagon also cancelled an online voting experiment after a group of academics concluded that no internet-based election system could be completely secure. New Scientist