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Voting Machines Still Rare in Germany

Ranty Islam, DW-WORLD.DE
September 6, 2005

Several million Germans will be using machines to cast their votes on Sept. 18. But many still eye the method with suspicion. So far, only one company has managed to comply with Germany's stringent rules.

Unlike most Americans, Germans generally write on their ballotsImage: AP

When Germans head to the polls on Sept. 18 to decide who will be their new chancellor, many voters won't place their mark on a ballot paper. Instead, they will be confronted with a primitive keyboard and a little screen not unlike those that were pictured in the news surrounding the chaotic vote count in the 2000 US presidential elections.

About five million Germans out of almost 62 million eligible voters will be using electronic voting machines (EVMs): 65 municipalities have decided to use EVMs this time round and a total of some 2,100 EVMs will be in operation.

"The decision of whether and what type of voting technology to use is entirely that of the towns and local authorities that administer the respective electoral districts," said a spokesman for the federal elections director. The only condition is that vote counting complies with the extensive rules on security and verification that are part of the federal election laws.

Landtagswahl im Saarland mit Wahlmaschine
Mechanical voting machines are used in the southwestern state of SaarlandImage: dpa - Fotoreport

"These rules comprise over a hundred pages - enough to make most vendors of voting technology turn on their heels and walk out of the door," said Thomas Bronder who works for the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt. The federal agency normally tests one-armed bandits and gambling machinery to ensure they have not been fixed to unduly rip-off soldiers of fortune. But the agency also tests EVMs for compliance with the stringent federal rules.

So far only one model -- the "ESD" voting machine produced by a Dutch company -- has been approved and will be used in the forthcoming elections.

Only basic machines allowed

On the surface it looks similar to other voting machines. It has a simple keyboard consisting of buttons that are embedded in a mask depicting an actual paper ballot.

Elektronische Stimmabgabe
A woman casts her vote via voting machine in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt in the 2002 electionImage: ZB - Fotoreport

A person intending to vote for a particular candidate or party simply presses the button located next to her choice. A small screen then confirms the choice and the ballot is cast and stored electronically on a memory module. When voting closes at 6 p.m., every machine prints out the number of votes cast for each party or candidate.

What makes this machine very different are the goings-on inside. And they are anything but high-tech.

Primitive technology?

"The law demands that voting machines do not contain any technology or functionality beyond the bare minimum needed to fulfill its task of tallying votes," Bronder said.

This rules out any PC-based machinery. EVMs are also not allowed to run extensive operating systems like Windows. That's because Microsoft keeps the source code under lock and key and so it cannot be inspected.

The ESD machine tested by Bronder is more of an electronic counting machine rather than a computer used to count votes.

Diebold Elektronische Wahlmaschine Touch-screen electronic voting machine, photo US-Wahlen 2004
Electronic voting machine in the USImage: Ap

"We spent over a year testing the software and frequently got back to the manufacturer demanding changes which they quickly implemented," he said. "The data transmitted onto the memory modules is so primitive -- you couldn't even call it programming -- that it's basically impossible to influence the vote by loading manipulated data onto the memory modules. It would show up immediately and the voting machine would shut down."

Security concerns

But what guarantee do Bronder and his colleagues have that all EVMs are the same as the prototype they tested so thoroughly?

"A combination of known checksums tells the local voting administrators about the version of the software running in a particular machine," Bronder said, adding that the checksums would be changed by manipulations.

And while this is not a definite guarantee, "why would a company deliberately manipulate and run the risk of ruining their hard earned reputation after getting approval for the strict rules of the German market?" he said.

So, all is well and safe then? Not quite, said Hubertus Buchstein, professor of politics at Greifswald University in northeastern Germany.

Wahlen in den USA
Voters cast their ballots on new touch screen voting machines in GeorgiaImage: AP

"The machines produce no paper trail," he said. This is a problem that had also gained notoriety in the context of the use of EVMs in the US. Lacking a paper printout confirming the vote, there is no way of proving that the tally stored in the machine really corresponds to the votes cast.

The way of the future?

A solution could be that individual paper receipts confirming the vote are shown to the voter before being dumped in a separate ballot box.

"These would only need to be counted if controversy arose about the result spewed out by the electronic tally," Buchstein said.

Also, random checks in a number of voting districts across the country could be used to make sure the stored vote count matches the paper trail. Only in these cases a parallel count of the paper ballot would be necessary, still saving the enormous cost of manually counting paper ballots for the whole electorate.

Voting via the Internet

Frau mit Handy SMS
Will people be able to vote via cell phone text messages while on vacation in the future?Image: dpa

Cost reduction is just one motive for towns and local authorities to switch to EVMs. In the long term this could be followed by a move towards "online-voting," Buchstein said.

"Voting from the comfort of your home via Internet or cell phone text messaging could help tap into new voter contingents," he said. But security remains the overwhelming obstacle to realizing this vision just yet.

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