Belgian region's decision to use new voting machines reignites e-voting debate

Electronic voting is not transparant and should stop, critics say

Despite vocal mistrust of e-voting, 151 Flemish municipalities in Belgium will use new electronic voting machines in October 14 elections.

More than 60 percent of the country's Flemish citizens as well as voters in the Brussels region will choose their local and provincial leaders using a newly developed Linux-based e-voting system made by Venezuelan company Smartmatic.

Belgium has been experimenting with e-voting systems since 1991 and is one of the few European countries that is still using a form of electronic voting.

The Netherlands, for instance, banned the use of electronic voting machines in 2008 after a group of activists successfully demonstrated that both types of electronic voting machines then in use could be tampered with. The Federal Constitutional Court in Germany decided in 2009 to stop using electronic voting machines because results from the machines were not verifiable.

There were some experiments with e-voting in the U.K., but bigger projects never got a foothold, said a Belgian government report detailing the history of e-voting in Europe.

Meanwhile, while a wide variety of voting machines are used in the U.S. and about 20 percent of the population of Estonia votes via the Internet, Belgium is one of the few European countries that still invests in new e-voting technology.

Belgians themselves are divided about the usefulness of e-voting. In Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, only 39 of the 262 of the municipalities have voted electronically. They have been allowed by the regional government to continue the practice at their own expense, using machines put in place before the adoption of the Smartmatic machines in the Flemish municipalities. The rest of Wallonia will vote using paper and pencil because that system is cheaper, local newspapers reported.

A crucial issue involved in voting-machine usage is the ability to verify votes, said Kerstin Goos, a junior researcher at the Competence Center Emerging Technologies at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research in Germany, who studies e-voting in Europe. Paper trails are used quite often for verification, using printed voting records that can be recounted manually if necessary. Those paper trails were not used in Germany and the Netherlands, making it impossible to verify the elections manually.

Security issues arise even when paper trails are used, according to Goos.

"Critics argue that systems still can be manipulated in a way that the printed version is different from the cast vote," said Goos. "One main concern about possible fraud enabled by electronic means is that its scale could be much larger and possibly undetected compared to traditional voting methods," she said, adding that the combination of improved accuracy and speed of the tallying process is typically given as a primary reason to use e-voting.

The Smartmatic system being used by the Flemish municipalities print ballots on paper that resemble supermarket receipts. The voters' choices are displayed in normal printed text and in machine-readable bar code. The voter has to fold the paper, scan the receipt and put the ballot in a box.

The Smartmatic system differs from the one used until 2006 because it adds a paper trail. Until 2006, Belgians voted using a light pen on a screen and votes were loaded on a magnet stripe card that had to be brought to the ballot box and fed into a slot to vote. This system will still be used in the Walloon municipalities that choose to continue electronic voting.

"We have had an incident with impossible results emerging every election since we have been voting electronically," said Kommer Kleijn, the spokesman for VoorEVA.be, an organization that consists of 10 active core members who reject the e-voting system because "it deprives voters from effectively verifying the elections in which they partake."

In the town of Schaarbeek in 2003, for instance, voting machines counted 4,096 more votes more than there were registered voters, according to a study conducted by seven Belgian universities and issued by the federal government.

Another incident followed in 2004, when it was accidentally discovered that the results of 20 polling stations were not correctly read, said Kleijn. And in Liège in 2006, some candidates had a higher intermediate result than their end result, he added.

"Thus, there are bugs," said Kleijn, adding that one of the big problems with electronic voting machines is the lack of bug fixing. "Every piece of software is only enhanced by bug fixing," he said.

Election secrecy means that it is not possible for independent groups to verify voting results. "Therefore you will never know if your vote is added to the count," Kleijn said.

The Smartmatic system was tested by more than 6,000 people in October last year and despite "some" technical problems the tests were "very successful," the federal government said at the time.

Kleijn and his organization, however, still have doubts about Smartmatic system despite the added paper trail. For one thing, people are unable to read the bar code on the printed ballot, so they are unable to see if the computer-generated vote corresponds with the vote that is in printed text on the ballot, he said.

In addition, no one is able to verify the source code of the software before the election to verify the process, because the code is published in the week after the election, Kleijn said.

Any general distrust of e-voting could have a great impact, according to the Fraunhofer Institute's Goos. "A crucial factor in the case of e-voting is the trust people have in the voting system," Goos said. "If this is not given, voter turnout could even decrease. How strong citizens' influence can be was impressively demonstrated in the Netherlands, where a citizens initiative initiated the ban of voting machines."

A computer-assisted voting system that Kleijn devised could work better, Kleijn said. Voters would still use a touchscreen voting machine, which would then print an A4-sized piece of paper with the vote in readable text. This piece of paper would be folded by the voter and put in the ballot box. At the end of voting the ballot boxes would be emptied and the ballots scanned by a simple document scanner.

"Computers shouldn't have a problem with printed text," he said, adding that in this way, people can see their vote, while the paper ballots make a recount possible. While "this is not perfect," this sort of computer-assisted voting is preferable to the Smartmatic system, Kleijn said.

However, another issue related to machines is that they are expensive, because they are costly and are only used once every two years, Kleijn said.

The Belgian government paid ¬36.4 million (US$47 million) for the new Smartmatic hardware, said Tom Doesselaere, project leader of the local elections in the Flemish part of Belgium.

Both the local governments and VoorEVA will be closely watching the outcome for the Smartmatic machines. It is a "big risk" to roll out a new IT system all at once, Doesselaere said, adding that this is not something that is recommended by any IT management guidelines. "It was a political decision," he said. But after thoroughly testing the systems he hopes that everything will work out as planned.

VoorEVA will keep close tabs on the elections and will thoroughly analyze the machine's source code afterward. "Of course we are going to watch this closely," said Kleijn, who added that his society is not against electronic voting per se. "But in our opinion, the current technology is not developed enough to do that in a responsible way, so that is why it should stop."

Loek covers all things tech for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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