Electronic voting was introduced on a trial basis at the last general election and will be used throughout the country for the forthcoming elections in 2004. There have been many arguments for and against electronic voting. Most of them have been superficial. On the pro side they argue that electronic voting will give a positive image of the country as technologically progressive and that it will woo the disaffected youth to return to the polling booths. The antis argue that we will lose the unique excitement of the manual count and the tallymen, and that the instant presentation of results is cruel and unusual punishment for those candidates who fail to make the grade. These issues have nothing to do with the actual process itself.
The practical benefits of electronic voting are many. It is more efficient, more accurate, and more economical and allows greater accountability and greater accessibility. It removes the need for manual counters, reduces the risk of human error and supports proper distribution of surplus votes under the proportional representation system. It can support quick and easy distribution of results, allow voters to verify and validate their votes and provide greater potential for statistical analysis.
However, all these benefits are dependent on two things: the implementation of a proper electronic voting system and the trust of the people in that system. Neither of these exists in Ireland at present.
In fact, it's worse. The system as implemented, while providing few of the potential advantages listed above, will undermine the trust of the people in the democratic system.
Many of us play the Lotto every week. Even though we describe ourselves as technophobes we have few problems understanding and trusting the computer network that the lotto system carries our dreams on. Our numbers go into the system, we receive our receipt, turn on the TV, our numbers pop out of the basket, we present our receipt, collect our winnings and retire to a place where we don't have to worry about incompetent governments. It's nice and simple and all very transparent. You don't need a degree in Computer Science to figure out how it works.
Not so with our electronic voting system. We enter our choices into the machine, press the button and hope for the best. Our vote disappears into the electronic maze and that's the last we see of it. It's like buying a lotto ticket without getting a receipt.
Computer experts argue that making the source code of the computer programs available to the public for scrutiny would go a long way to strengthen confidence in the system. The source code essentially describes how the system works. It is the series of instructions that the computer follows. By examining it closely we can ensure that there are no faults or fraud built into the system --that votes for one candidate are not counted for another or counted twice or discarded entirely, for example.
Currently even the government doesn't have access to the source code. They bought the system off-the-shelf from a company in the Netherlands. So if marijuana, prostitution and euthanasia become legal in Ireland next year, you'll know why.
Joking aside, making the source code available to all is probably necessary to ensure transparency (and to fulfil constitutional obligations to candidates). It is also a useful means of finding faults and errors in the system. The system runs on Microsoft Windows with an Access database storing the votes and despite Microsoft's great track record for quality you never know when something could go wrong.
However, making the source code public will do little to enhance voter confidence in the system. The whole concept of source code is alien to most of us and, as can be seen from the lotto system, we have no problem placing our trust in computer systems that we cannot see the inside of as long as the process is transparent and accountable.
If a system like the Lotto was introduced, whereby the voter received a paper receipt with their preferences printed and an anonymous serial number that they could use to trace their vote as it passed through the system then that would go some way to establishing confidence in the system. If, after the votes are counted and the results are in, I can walk up to a machine, type in my serial number and verify that my vote was counted correctly then I would have a real sense of involvement in the process.
Computers are good at that sort of thing, and that's what they should be used for. They should be used to enhance the process rather than undermine it for the sake of 'progress'. It is ironic to think that our voting system, the foundation of our democracy, is now perceived as being more open to chance and luck than the lottery.
About the Author
The author is in the rare position of having more experience voting in elections than buying Lotto tickets. This has nothing to do with the price of Lotto tickets. As we are often told, we pay a high price for democracy. The author prefers the quick pick method but has occasionally uses birthdays and anniversaries as a guide and sometimes uses the same numbers as his father and grandfather before him.