Free Country, Free Software

Written by Firas Suqi ’13

With less than a month leading up to the presidential election, the debates between both parties are really starting to heat up. This week, we took a step back from the main issues being debated, instead to discuss the influence of electronic voting in the upcoming election with Computer Science Professor Jamie Spacco.

Jaime Spacco

We use a Direct Recording Electronic voting system (DRE) that typically consists of casting your vote on a touch screen prompt, which then writes your vote and voter ID information on an electronic log that is saved to a hard drive at the polling station.

By eliminating paper votes, the DRE voting system was designed to reliably store votes. While coming out originally in the 1990s, DRE voting became more common after the controversy over lost votes in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, which George W. Bush won by a mere 537 votes.

The DRE voting system seems like a technological advancement we should be praising, right?

Well, Professor Spacco detailed the many flaws this system has as being the nation’s primary ballot recorder.

Some of the questions he raised were:

  • What happens when software/hardware fails?
  • How do we do a recount if these votes disappear?
  • How do we know the voter logs won’t be deleted?
  • Who is creating the voting programs, and who is servicing them?

It turns out that four companies own the copyrights for the DRE voting machines. This wouldn’t be problematic except for the fact that the software these machines run is proprietary, meaning that the code the software is written in is encrypted so that no outsiders are able to see or access it.

Spacco argued that proprietary software is a bad thing because it doesn’t allow for the technological community of professors and other computer geniuses to help develop these programs by finding flaws in the code. Instead, Spacco likened software companies to the service industry, calling for voting programs to be open-sourced.

In his closing remarks on Tuesday, Spacco said that in order to achieve genuine democracy, the right to software code must be freely accessible.

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