Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Electronic voting makes it into TED

Mr. Bismark during his talk. Photo: TED

Since 1990 TED has held conferences in different cities of the United States to address an array of topics related to Technology, Entertainment and Design. Using a rather informal setting, guest speakers present ideas and demonstrate their expertise in presentations lasting 18 minutes at most. 

In July, 2010, David Bismark attended TED to present a system he designed along with some colleagues, to guarantee transparent and verifiable elections. According to Bismark, the problem his e-voting system addresses is the difficulty each voter encounters to know that his/her vote was recorded accurately and that it actually counted correctly, while remaining anonymous. 

This new system relies on the use of a Precinct Count Optical Scanner machine to capture the intention of the voter. What is innovative about it is the design and particularities of the printed ballot it uses. Voters receive a ballot in which candidates are on the left side, and the ovals/square to mark the preference and a 2D encryption bar are on the right side. Once the voter marks his option, he/she proceeds to tear the ballot through the middle. The right part of the ballot, where options are marked, is scanned and then returned to the voter to keep as a registry of the vote. Now, not all ballots are the same. Candidates are randomly organized in the left side of the ballots, so once the ballot is divided into two separate pieces, nobody can tell for which candidate the marked vote is related to.

Although the system is quite inventive, it does not address many of the issues that are important in a electronic voting system. From the moment the voter arrives to the precinct, to the moment results are announced, an election involves 7 main steps: Authentication of the voter, activation of the voting session, voting, counting of the votes, results collection, consolidation and proclamation. 

During Bismark's presentation, he failed to mention any special mechanisms to address security in the results collection, consolidation and proclamation processes. If in fact, his system has solved security issues in those steps, the authentication and session activation are still manual processes prompt to suffer human error, be it involuntary or intentional.

Also, by utilizing PCOS, the voter cannot be completely sure the vote was properly accounted for. As opposed to machines that directly record the vote, a scanner works as an interpreter. Interpreters open the possibility for error. 

One last inconvenience we see in this system is the fact that ballot printing is one of the most onerous costs for electoral commissions. Printing different models of ballots so that the right side of the ballot cannot be associated to any candidate, once separated into two, represents a heavy burden for the finances of the elections commissions.