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Electronic voting and Free Software

Although the subject of electronic voting is frequently raised in various countries, both for votes on a nation wide scale and votes in companies, it is rarely associated with Free Software.

In 2001 people from Tiscali company in France attempted to organize an electronic vote. The project was turned down by the syndicates and finally did not occur. What is interesting in this case is that it gave FSF France the opportunity to discuss with people involved in this project and raise the issue of Free Software in electronic voting.

The whole process of electronic voting is quite complex and years will pass before they are all solved so that it can become legal. It is even unsure if electronic voting can ever be acceptable. However, there is one point for which there can be no debate. In order for the electronic voting process to be accepted it is absolutely essential that all the software used during the operation is absolutely transparent. There cannot be one piece of software for which a relation of trust has to be established between the people who vote and the author of the software. The whole point of the voting process is to never include any component where someone (individual or organization) has to be trusted not to cheat.

It is surprising to see that companies sell non-free software for electronic voting. All non-free software is secret by nature and there is virtually no way to be sure that the software does not include a trick to change the results of the vote. At some point people using the non-free software for voting will have to assume that the author of the software was honest and this is precisely what needs to be avoided. Only Free Software can ensure total transparency. Because it can be copied by anyone, because people world wide are able to study the source code, because they can spot bugs and fix them, because they can hand it to someone else. Note that the mere fact that a software is Free Software is not enough, it is only a pre-condition.

Martine ZUBER and others from the CFDT syndicate in France studied the question and are actively working to make electronic voting a reality. Being in contact with the Free Software movement will allow the CFDT to promote the idea that electronic voting must include Free Software. Feel free to get in touch with her to get more information, it would be most interesting to coordinate this effort world wide. Martine suggested me a first reading about electronic voting in France (Le droit du travail à l'épreuve des NTIC). It contains a chapter on electronic voting with references to legal actions (TGI Paris, 21 December 2000, Cour de Cassation February 2000). The chapter does not mention Free Software but instead says that electronic voting should ensure the perfect reliability of the technical means.

Our position regarding electronic voting does not go beyond the fact that 100% of the software involved must be Free Software. At present we can't even say if electronic voting is desirable or not. We do not promote electronic voting and we do not say that it should never be done. Our uncertainty in this matter mostly lies in the fact that we know too little and that most issues are to be explored in depth before we can have an opinion. Our contribution to this exploration process is to promote the idea that only Free Software can achieve transparency.

The dangers of electronic voting is well demonstrated by a report from Belgium explaining that the failure of an electronic voting system can be explained by "the spontaneous creation of a bit at the position 13 in the memory of the computer". Belgium is already using electronic voting and the fact that the experts resort to that kind of argument to explain what could either be a bug or a malicious act shows that sophisticated technical means could be used as an efficient shelter to conceal manipulation of the voting results.

If you would like to add your contribution to this text, fix it or just declare yourself interested now and forever in this subject (:-) feel free modify this document and add new ones. If you don't have access to modify those pages, mail to FSF France.

I think that computerized voting is dangerous, and that the danger cannot be prevented by using only free software.

The danger is that someone could fiddle the software so that it cheats on the vote. You cannot prevent this by studying the source code of the program that conducts the election, because the program that actually runs during the election may be different. Someone could substitute another program to misrecord the votes or miscount the votes, and put the right program back afterwards; nobody would ever be able to prove this had occurred. There would be no way to do a recount.

So I am with those who say there should be paper ballots so that a manual recount is possible.

Richard Stallman

I'd like to add a little contribution...

One of the sites of interest in this field is GNU.FREE, the e-democracy project.

I didn't read the whole web site nor test the software myself, but interested people might give more details about its interest. Waiting for more contributions ;)

Olivier Berger

Another interesting pointer reported by Debian Weekly News :

Debian GNU/Linux to be used in Election Software.

The software developped around a Debian system is apparently Electronic Voting And Counting System (EVACS).

Olivier Berger

Another pointer on this subject, in french :

Une procédure de vote basée sur l'utilisation d'une urne électronique by ILLICO's member Philippe Allart. Note : I didn't take time to read it myself, but it seems to be interesting.

Olivier Berger


It says: In the wake of last November's election, pundits have called for more accurate voting and vote counting. To most people, this obviously means more technology. But before jumping to conclusions, let's look at the security and reliability issues surrounding voting technology.

Werner Koch


This is the site of a european-funded R&D project on the subject of electronic polling systems. No clue if it uses Free Sofware.

Olivier Berger

Pour une Ethique du Vote Automatisé:

This is a Belgian site in french is made by activist fighting about the lost of control by simple citizen when computer are used for election. It is non-technical and deal with the democratic issue, not the technical one.


AEL wiki about Electronic Voting:

Still about the Belgian situation and mostly in french. Has some technical information, link to partial belgian source code, ...

There is older version of this information work made in english.

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Updated: $Date: 2004-10-17 18:19:55 +0200 (Sun, 17 Oct 2004) $ $Author: wikifr $