fall, as many as 20 percent of American voters
will be able to cast their ballots on A.T.M.-style
electronic voting machines. But to put it mildly,
these machines -- where you simply touch a screen
and a computer registers your vote -- have not
inspired much confidence lately. North Carolina
officials recently learned that a software glitch
destroyed 436 e-ballots in early voting for the
2002 general election. In a Florida state election
this past January, 134 votes apparently weren't
recorded -- and this was in a race decided by
a margin of only 12 votes. Since most of the machines
don't leave any paper trail, there's no way to
determine what actually happened. Most alarmingly,
perhaps, California's secretary of state recently
charged that Diebold -- the industry leader --
had installed uncertified voting machines and
then misled state officials about it.
voting has much to offer, but will we ever be
able to trust these buggy machines? Yes, we will
-- but only if we adopt the techniques of the
''open source'' geeks.
reason it's difficult to trust the voting software
of companies like Diebold is that the source code
remains a trade secret. A few federally approved
software experts are allowed to examine the code
and verify that it works as intended, and in some
cases, states are allowed to keep a copy in escrow.
But the public has no access, and this is troublesome.
When the Diebold source code was accidentally
posted online last year, a computer-science professor
looked at it and found it was dangerously hackable.
Diebold may have fixed its bugs, but since the
firm won't share the code publicly, there's no
way of knowing. Just trust us, the company says.
is the counting of votes -- a fundamental of democracy
-- something you want to take on faith? No, this
problem requires a more definitive solution: ending
the secrecy around the machines.
off, the government should ditch the private-sector
software makers. Then it should hire a crack team
of programmers to write new code. Then -- and
this is the crucial part -- it should put the
source code online publicly, where anyone can
critique or debug it. This honors the genius of
the open-source movement. If you show something
to a large enough group of critics, they'll notice
(and find a way to remove) almost any possible
flaw. If tens of thousands of programmers are
scrutinizing the country's voting software, it's
highly unlikely a serious bug will go uncaught.
The government's programming team would then take
the recommendations, incorporate them into an
improved code and put that online, too. This is
how the famous programmer Linus Torvalds developed
his Linux operating system, and that's precisely
why it's so rock solid -- while Microsoft's secretly
developed operating systems, Linux proponents
say, crash far more often and are easier to hack.
Already, Australians have used the open-source
strategy to build voting software for a state
election, and it ran like a well-oiled Chevy.
A group of civic-minded programmers known as the
Open Voting Consortium has written its own open-source
if our code were open, wouldn't cyberterrorists
or other outlaws be able to locate flaws and possibly
rig an election? Well, theoretically -- except
that it's highly unlikely that they could spot
an error that escaped thousands and thousands
of scrutineers. Indeed, it may be far easier to
infiltrate a private-sector company and tamper
with its software. Diebold, after all, kept quiet
about the bugs it found in its programs -- including
one that subtracted more than 16,000 votes from
Al Gore in a single Florida country during the
initial vote counting in the 2000 election. Open-source
enthusiasts, by contrast, are precisely the sort
of people you'd like to see inspecting the voting
code; they're often libertarian freaks, nuttily
suspicious of centralized power, and they'd scream
to the high heavens if they found anything wrong.
the classification of documents to the refusal
to name detainees, the Bush administration's actions
show a high regard for secrecy. In essence, it's
hiding its code, too. Inside such closed systems,
nasty things can happen, as we're learning to
our chagrin. Perhaps a blast of open-source candor
is exactly what America needs right now.
Thompson writes frequently for the magazine about
science and technology.
Posted: June 1, 2004