Thursday, June 18, 2009

Exporting Democracy

Democracy is generally a good thing, when compared to the alternative. However, the recent elections in Iran have vividly demonstrated a problem with democracy in tightly controlled countries - when the people in power are the ones counting the votes, it's impossible for the other side to trust the results. Note that I'm not even contesting the validity of Iran's election results (though there are certainly reasons to). The problem is that even the appearance of impropriety can cause a national crisis, the likes of which we are now seeing.

Here in America, even though we don't get this problem so much since votes are counted by a more or less impartial process, we've tried to solve this problem with technology. The result is electronic voting machines (EVMs) which are, frankly, an embarrassment. When word got out about how atrociously bad the current generation of EVMs are, how the manufacturers didn't even try to apply basic security protocols, we should have buried them in a really deep hole, and never spoken of them again, just to try to save face. (Instead, inexplicably, we keep using them in elections.)

I don't intend to talk about that today, though. Instead, I'm going to talk about what EVMs could have been.

What if we had a perfect voting machine? One that could be given to a country which is just starting out with democracy, such that even if we assume hostile individuals at every stage of the election, the machines could still come out with a perfect tally of people's votes? It's difficult to guarantee this, since in the worst case there could be armed guards forcing each person to vote a certain way. However, it's within the realm of possibility to force election fraud out into the open. If you can guarantee that a person whose vote has been somehow tampered with knows about it immediately (as in the armed guard scenario), then it makes large-scale election fraud both transparent and uneconomical.

Imagine how this could change the dynamics of elections. If the results of an election were both incontrovertible and verifiable, it would be the end of sham democracies, where those in power change the results of elections to suit their needs. We could enable truly democratic elections in places where it would be unthinkable today. We like our democracy, and we want to share it with the world, and that's all well and good. Exporting democracy by force is fine, if you happen to have the mind of a six-year-old. Instead, if we could provide the tools necessary to ensure democratic elections, we could change the world without firing a single shot.

This is great, as long as you can posit the existence of a perfect voting machine. For next week's post, I'm going to talk about the design of such a machine, along with likely attacks against such a system, and ways to address the possible attacks.


Kiriska said...

What would keep a nation from rejecting such a machine entirely? Even if there is reliable information declaring the machine perfect and completely impartial, what's to stop anyone from saying otherwise? People's opinions are easily swayed by fancy rhetoric, even when common sense comes in an irrefutable scientific equation.

P. Static said...

That's a really good question. In general, I guess you'd want to make the machines as transparent as possible - open-source software, as little custom hardware as possible, etc. It'd also be good to make the process as transparent as possible, by using a voter-verifiable paper trail.

What would be nice would be to let any individual voter verify their own vote after the fact, but this is tricky if you want to maintain the anonymity of the vote.

Here's what I'm envisioning: the machine maintains a printed record of each vote, along with a random three- or four-digit number, and shows this to the voter before they leave the voting booth. After the election, these logs could be made public, allowing for independent recounts, and letting each individual check that their vote was counted, anonymously.

This ensures that every legitimate vote is counted, roughly speaking, but it doesn't address the problem of somebody adding a ton of extra votes before or after the election has ended, or during the election in sneakyways. I'll have to think about that one some more.

Kiriska said...

My point was more that politicians that are afraid of transparency and fair voting could still convince their country that an investment in such a machine wouldn't be worth it for some arbitrary reason backed up by persuasive rhetoric. Still, I suppose if the general public can see for themselves that such a system is workable, it would be riskier and riskier for a politician to try and sway them otherwise.