[link to index of press clippings]

The Age (Melbourne)

Linux: The electoral test that pencil and paper meet


When Carol Boughton's Canberra consultancy, Software Improvements, won a $200,000 contract to provide an electronic voting system for the ACT's October election, it was critically important her team got the technology right.

The only platform that provided robustness and voter confidence was GNU Debian Linux, with all source code released under the General Public License (GPL).

Douglas Jones, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa, in testimony in January on voting technology before the US Civil Rights Commission, adopted the axiom, "trust no one".

"Classical voting systems, notably the Australian paper ballot, are designed precisely on such anti-trust grounds," Jones said. "We simply assume from the start that each and every participant in the system is a partisan with a vested interest in doing everything possible to help his or her favorite candidates."

He said paper and pencil voting systems, such as that first used in Victoria in 1858, meet this test. Electronic voting does not.

He said open source goes much of the way towards code audit accountability, especially when combined with strict version control so that code doesn't change from inspection to deployment.

Truly open source systems are valuable, but they pose threats, too, because anyone can get and modify the code. "(W)hen you're writing in an open source environment, you're forced to write for at least a degree of auditability. Proprietary code need not pass such a simple test and I suspect that much of the commercial PC software would not pass this test."

Proprietary data formats, such as Adobe's Portable Document Format or Microsoft Office, should be avoided.

"You cannot tell what is transmitted along with the data you intend to transmit, you cannot tell how secure it is, and you cannot tell how resistant to corruption it is," he said.

The Australian Electoral Commission, along with all state electoral commissions, is evaluating the ACT trial. Assistant commissioner (IT) Tim Pickering has no preference for proprietary or open code systems.