Mock elections test e-voting at LinuxWorld

Computer engineer Alan Dechert didn’t like what he saw during the controversial vote tallying in Florida in 2000’s presidential election.

That was when he decided that there had to be a better way for U.S. citizens to safely and accurately cast their election ballots.

More than seven years later, Dechert is here at the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo, publicly displaying the open source e-voting system he helped develop that fixes some of the problems he and other critics saw in the nation’s voting systems almost a decade ago.

“I watched the 2000 election and I was stunned that we didn’t know how to count ballots,” Dechert said.

In Florida, where paper punch-card ballots were used at the time in many counties, the nation watched in disbelief for weeks as the presidential election came down to the wire over punch cards that were analyzed individually by hand and eye by voting officials. At issue was voter intent, as officials tried to decipher who voters had selected on the ballots, which often weren’t fully punched out by the machines that were supposed to mark the ballots.

It took analysis of those ballots and a U.S. Supreme Court decision to finally decide the winner of that election almost a month after the last polling place closed.

That December, Dechert co-founded the Granite Bay, Calif.-based Open Voting Consortium, he said, to try to help come up with a better way to vote in this country.

“This was conceived as a pilot project for Sacramento County [Calif.] in December 2000,” he said. The idea was to create an electronic voting system that allows voters to make their candidate selections on a screen, then clearly print their ballot out and have it scanned and tallied by reliable machines.

By creating such a system, Dechert said, then “there’s no ambiguity about what the voter intended,” fixing one of the most glaring problems of the old punch-card systems and poorly designed ballot layouts.

The system, which was set here at LinuxWorld for show attendees to view and vote in mock elections, runs on PCs loaded with Ubuntu Linux and the free, open source e-voting application created by the consortium.

For election officials, the system is a simple one that would allow voters to be sure of their choices before they leave the ballot casting area, Dechert said. Officials could set up and create the ballot in any elections intuitively, with a special ballot creation software tool that would add candidate names, office titles and other relevant information, without requiring major computing skills.

The application runs on standard PC architecture and requires no specialized equipment.

“They don’t have to do anything special,” Dechert said of local election officials who would use the system. “They don’t have to know anything special.”

By going to an open-source system, he said, the application’s code could be carefully and publicly analyzed for flaws and security issues, then could be fixed and made trustworthy for use. At least, that’s the position of open source advocates who think they can build a better system than those created by proprietary vendors across the nation.

“What we’re trying to advance is full public scrutiny, with many eyes on the code,” Dechert said.

The open source system aims to solve several concerns about traditional vendor-supplied e-voting systems in use across the nation, he said, including:

– By being open source, the code can be checked at any time for flaws or problems by any qualified programmer or developer, making it more transparent and trustworthy
– By using off-the-shelf PC hardware and printers and other peripherals, it’s much cheaper than custom, purpose-built e-voting consoles and equipment
– It’s usable by handicapped voters and by voters who speak languages other than English
– It contains a voter-verifiable and fully auditable paper record that is preserved and recountable

“It could be used now,” Dechert said. Some local voting jurisdictions are in talks with the group now about looking further at the system, including local officials in at least one Maryland county, he said.

For use in national elections, the system would have to be heavily analyzed and eventually certified as an election system, he said. That process is part of the group’s future goals, he said.

Here in San Francisco, for the system in display on the show floor, mock “voters” came into the individual voting cubicles and stood in front of a computer screen that lay flat in front of them on a table. The voters then used a traditional computer mouse to make their selections on the one-screen ballot and then advanced the ballot selections with on-screen arrows. Voters could also choose to go back to check or change their selections.

After completing the ballots, voters were asked to confirm their candidate or referendum question selections several times, then were able to print their ballots out completely on a printer that sat before them in the voting cubicle. The voter then put the printed paper ballot in a manila folder and walks it over to a nearby election official, who electronically tallies and scans it in front of the voter.

More than 300 people voted using the system yesterday to give it a try. Project organizers set up a ballot with the three major party candidates in this year’s presidential election, as well as several referendum questions about e-voting and other topical public issues.

Dick Turnquist, an IT manager for the Association of California Water Agencies in Sacramento, test-voted on the proposed system and said he liked what he experienced. “It certainly was easy enough to use,” Turnquist said. “I probably would prefer it” to existing e-voting systems.

Greg Simonoff, an engineer for the California Department of Transportation, said he liked using the system but would prefer a touch-screen voting mechanism rather than a mouse-based system.

Dechert said the mouse-based system is being used in the demonstration phase of the project to cut costs but would be replaced with a touch-screen system in production.

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