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Don't let proprietary digital voting disrupt democracy

by Zoë Kooyman Contributions Published on Jul 15, 2020 03:36 PM

Here at the Free Software Foundation (FSF), we fight for the freedom of all software users. We believe that everyone has the right to understand and study the systems that they use, and that not being able to exercise this right is a violation of our freedom. This applies to our personal software usage, but becomes even more important in processes of democracy. It is particularly relevant for the upcoming November 2020 elections in the United States.

A free country has the responsibility to make sure all of its citizens can be heard, and that voting processes are transparent and fair. So what happens if people are still self-isolating in November, in order to try and prevent a second wave of the novel coronavirus? As more of our life processes have gone online due to the pandemic, we have seen debates rise over a call for mail-in voting. This discussion seems to be clearing a path for a renewed interest in online voting software as a remote alternative to in-person voting. This is cause for grave concern.

I am arguing in this post that it is essential that software used in any part of the voting process be published free software. It is unacceptable for such an important democratic system to be placed in the hands of any for-profit, proprietary software corporation that controls the source code, data management, reporting, updates, and testing. No good can come from requiring a court order to be permitted to study the source code of voting software in order to confirm the process is fair and democratic. But additionally, I might surprise the reader by laying out arguments to say that despite supporting the wish to increase access and ease for all eligible voters, the only truly free, ethical, and democratic voting system is actually a system that steers clear from using software.

Technology can assist in the non-fundamental parts of the voting process, like speeding up simple on-site calculations or verification processes, in which case transparency is absolutely vital, and the systems used must therefore be free software. Source code should be provided freely for anyone to test the application, submit modifications that can be adopted to improve the software, and make recommendations, long before it has any opportunity to muddle with results. But digital systems have no place in the key parts of the voting system, including voter registration, casting a vote, and tallying results. The experts agree on this, and I will explain why in more detail below. Even when the source code is available, although we can compel transparency and reproducibility, we still risk unacceptable vulnerabilities.

The examples below demonstrate some of the pitfalls of using proprietary software in the voting process, and why the peddlers of proprietary software cannot be trusted with crucial democratic processes.

Tallying and the Iowa caucus fiasco

In February 2020, during the kickoff of the primary elections to determine the US presidential candidates, the Iowa caucus introduced a newly developed app designed to help tally votes and make the results faster and more accurate. It did the opposite.

The Iowa caucus failed due to shoddy design and lack of testing of the app built by Shadow Inc., a for-profit technology company that provides "smarter" technological infrastructure for Democratic party campaigns. The flaws didn't surface until the primaries, because of its proprietary nature. While the caucus results trickled in over the days following the primary, debates arose about the accuracy of its outcome, and voters started questioning the role that technology should play in our elections. This fallout successfully prompted other states to act with caution, and mostly scrap the plans to use the same app.

Online voting applications

Even before the virus broke out, jurisdictions like Delaware, Georgia, and Philadelphia had already committed to replacing existing systems with digital voting machines, despite their unacceptable risks of interference.

Voatz, Inc. the for-profit company behind the private mobile voting app by the same name, developed a pilot program in 2019, claiming they delivered "secure" digital voting. The trial for the proprietary app focused on people with disabilities and people residing overseas. Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and West Virginia signed up, but studies found that the app posed security risks like leaving votes visible and exposing them to tamperers. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reviewed the app and found an alarming number of vulnerabilities and privacy issues.

Now, in recent primaries, some states have implemented online voting using a system called OmniBallot, claiming that it offers safe remote voting during the virus. Democracy Live, the organization behind the system used in Delaware, West Virginia, and New Jersey states that the system is not really online voting, because a printed ballot is still generated when the voter's ballot is downloaded by the voting committee. But that doesn't account for the fact that the votes are still cast electronically and transmitted online, which means they are still vulnerable to tampering. In fact, OmniBallot was also reviewed by MIT, and again, the conclusion was that the system is unsafe. It proved vulnerable to manipulation, and additionally has no privacy policy to deal with the voter's sensitive information.

Vulnerabilities explained

As much as different states want to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to implement online voting systems to some degree or another, there simply is no safe way to do so. The Observer explains that an online system has to take into account too many factors, from verifying identification to creating a secret ballot, to voting and getting that vote to the committee, and then verifying it again on the other end. To make it all secure is nearly impossible.

Security experts have long been expressing concern as well. After the 2016 US presidential elections, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) conducted elaborate research into the future of voting, and published a report called "Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy." The preface of this 157-page document states: "We were constantly reminded in news stories, by congressional hearings, and through reports from the intelligence community, of the extraordinary threat from foreign actors using cyber weapons and social media to manipulate the electorate, and to target our elections and cast doubt on the integrity of the elections process."

The report mentions that in 2016, the United States presidential election was targeted by a foreign government, and voter information was captured. While the exact consequences of this invasion are still largely unclear, the fear of surveillance by outside parties and the meddling with results is obviously justified. The NAS concludes that the current system is vulnerable to internal and external threats, and recommends verifiable paper ballots, audits, and clear distinctions between different elements of the process.

Paper ballots and analog processes for democracy

Having full transparency and control is the only way in which we can verify the legitimacy of elections. Transparency is currently best accomplished by individual paper balloting. We will get the closest to fair results by working with an analog system.

If we need to do remote voting, contrary to some claims, mail-in voting is a reliable fallback. A study by Stanford University concludes that: "(1) vote-by-mail does not appear to affect either party’s share of turnout; (2) vote-by-mail does not appear to increase either party’s vote share; and (3) vote-by-mail modestly increases overall average turnout rates, in line with previous estimates. All three conclusions support the conventional wisdom of election administration experts, and contradict many popular claims in the media."

From voter registration to tallying, all steps in the voting process could hypothetically be done digitally. But voting is a highly personal, sensitive, and complicated system, one that involves some of the most powerful stakeholders imaginable, and where freedom is at stake. Free software shows us the system and allows us to improve it. It does not, however, guarantee the entire process to be unbreakable. Let's steer clear from digital systems for now, for freedom.

Here's what you can do to stand up for your voting rights

Contact your representative

If you are in the US, please contact your local representative to let them know you oppose electronic voting, and in particular proprietary electronic voting. You can copy or personalize our sample text:

"Dear [Representive], I am [Name], and I live in your district. I am very concerned about the security and integrity of our voting systems, and do not think any computer-based system is safe, especially not any proprietary system. I agree with the Free Software Foundation article about the dangers of digital proprietary voting at, and request the use of only paper ballots in upcoming elections. Please oppose any move to digital voting systems, and advocate for our right to vote analog safely. Thank you."

[Name], [City/State]

Tell your friends about the threat of digital voting on social media!

Use the tags #NoDigitalVoting and #UserFreedom on your favorite microblogging sites.

Illustration Copyright © 2020, Free Software Foundation, Inc., by Zoë Kooyman, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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