Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Germans wise up to e-voting

Flickr Picture by fabnie of Nedap Voting Machine
Germany has gone back to the paper ballot today with a decision by the German Federal Constitutional Court to immediately cease the use of electronic voting machines, in particular the Nedap ESD1 and ESD2. The Court said its decision was based on the evidence that the current technology had defects and was difficult to control. The devices were felt to contradict the principle of public elections with vote transparency as their defects make it possible to lose secrecy and control over the counting of the votes. The case was brought based on the 2005 Bundestag election in Karlsruhe, however the court ruled on this aspect stating that they were no hints of errors and left the results of this election stand.

The case was brought forward by a father and son team. Joachim Wiesner, a retired policital scientist and his son, Ulrich Wiesner, a software developer. An expert witness against e-voting was Professor Wolfgang Lawer from Bonn. He spoke to the court and stated his concerns about a ``a vacuum of control after the act of voting'' and the misplaced ``blind faith'' that the electorate had for these machines. He felt this threatened free and open elections where counts could be seem by all and were less easily manipulated.

Germany first used electronic voting in 1999 with differing acceptance by states. The last election using this technology was held in a local election for Brandenburg in September 2008. There are currently 39 of 299 election districts using this type of technology, in particular the states of Brandenburg, Hesse, Nordrhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Pfalz and Saxony-Anhalt.

Experts pointed out that whilst software modification could be discovered afterwards, hardware modifications to the actual device were much more difficult to trace. This type of hardware manipulation was demonstrated by the Chaos Computer Club who modified the innards of an Nedap machine in approximately one minute.

This ruling has not completely banned e-voting. Andreas Voaykule, vice president for the Federal Constitutional Court clarified the ruling stating that ``the tenor of the decision could lead people to the conclusion that the court was hostile towards the technology and had misgivings about the challenges and opportunities of the digital age''. The use of other voting machines is possible and he also pointed out that the court has not banned the possibilities of internet voting. The presiding judge, Justice Rudolf Mellinghoff, did ask about the option of a vote verified trail using a printed ballot. This resulted in an agreement between Nedap and the parliament (Bundestag), in principle to offer this option as one mechanism with a parallel computer and paper count for elections. This may be one possibility for the re-introduction of modified Nedap machines in the future. Professor Wolfgang Lower remarked on the paper option, ``We must ask where is the advantage of the computer as part of the election in this case?'' referred to the idea of having separate and parallel paper and computer counts. (Editing Note: My German is not bad so I think this is a fairly accurate translation, however I do stand open to corrections).

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