Open, Accurate Electronic Voting? It Can Be Done.

They said it couldn't be done. That it was impossible to hold an election on electronic voting machines that was open, accountable and accurate. But that was exactly what happened in San Luis Obisbo County, California, where the local Democratic Party held party elections in January using open-source software, meaning there was nothing secret inside the voting machines.

Here's how it happened. The non-profit Open Voting Consortium wanted to avoid the potential threat to honest, verifiable elections that is possible when proprietary, secret software and hardware is used. So it developed a simple, tamper-proof, auditable voting system, using only a PC, a mouse, paper ballot -- and open-source software, which is publicly available software that anyone can get, use or download to check for defects.

The Consortium's volunteers developed the software for the PC based Ubuntu (or Linux) operating system. Ubuntu is free and open-source and, most importantly, is publicly available. On January 12th of this year the software was successfully used in connection with an election.

A mixture of senior citizens and college students cast their votes on printed, bar-coded ballots that were deposited in a carefully guarded voting box and counted as County Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald watched. Two hundred and four people signed-in to vote and when the polls closed and the ballot box opened, there were 204 ballots to be tallied. Media representatives from newspaper and television witnessed the entire process from voting to tabulating to public scrutiny of the results.

Here's how it worked: Three voting stations were set up with old PCs, monitors, and printers. The voting software was installed on each PC. Voters lined up to have their registration confirmed and were then directed to one of the voting machines. The only interface devices were a mouse and monitor.

Viewing the ballot, they clicked on their selection, then clicked on the "print ballot" button. Nothing about the voter's selection was stored on the PC -- the vote exists only on paper. With the ballot from the printer, they put it in a privacy folder showing only a barcode on the edge and walked to the ballot box. The poll worker slid the ballot into the ballot box, thus ensuring one person, one vote.

Once the polls were closed, the ballot box was opened -- in public, of course. Several people were involved in counting the ballots. The counts were double-checked. There were 204 ballots, one for each voter.

Next a PC with the tabulation program was hooked up to a projection screen monitor so all observers could watch the vote count. The screen showed the candidate names, all with a zero next to them. The last line showed that ballot count also starting at zero. Two people scanning the barcodes sat with their backs to the screen. One would say the candidate name printed on a ballot, then the other scanned the barcode. The vote registered on the screen for all to see. Everyone saw the count.

The fact that the correct candidate selection was encoded in the barcode was proved in this process. Everyone could hear the name read and see the vote counted for the candidate. The process left absolutely no doubt about the accuracy of the count. The observers loved it, and began cheering for their candidate as a vote was added in his or her favor.

Someone questioned how well our process would scale -- or work in elections with potentially thousands or millions of voters, or dozens of contests? In a general election the ballot could be put on an overhead projector so everyone in the room could observe the count. Since only the voters' selections are printed, this could fit on one page. Then the barcode could be scanned and the counts would be tallied on another screen. With enough observers, all the vote counts could be witnessed.

The participants and observers of the open-source voting system were confident in the integrity of their vote. This was a big step taken in beginning to protect our votes. We can hold an election on electronic voting machines that are open, accountable and accurate!

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card


Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.