Many designs for trustworthy electronic elections use cryptography to assure participants that the result is accurate. However, it is a system’s software engineering that ensures a result is declared at all. Both good software engineering and cryptography are thus necessary, but so far cryptography has drawn more attention. In fact, the software engineering aspects could be just as challenging, because election systems have a number of properties which make them almost a pathological case for robust design, implementation, testing and deployment.
Currently deployed systems are lacking in both software robustness and cryptographic assurance — as evidenced by the English electronic election fiasco. Here, in some cases the result was late and in others the electronic count was abandoned due to system failures resulting from poor software engineering. However, even where a result was returned, the black-box nature of auditless electronic elections brought the accuracy of the count into doubt. In the few cases where cryptography was used it was poorly explained and didn’t help verify the result either.
End-to-end cryptographically assured elections have generated considerable research interest and the resulting systems, such as Punchscan and Prêt à Voter, allow voters to verify the result while maintaining their privacy (provided they understand the maths, that is — the rest of us will have to trust the cryptographers). These systems will permit an erroneous result to be detected after the election, whether caused by maliciousness or more mundane software flaws. However should this occur, or if a result is failed to be returned at all, the election may need to fall back on paper backups or even be re-run — a highly disruptive and expensive failure.
Good software engineering is necessary but, in the case of voting systems, may be especially difficult to achieve. In fact, such systems have more similarities to the software behind rocket launches than more conventional business productivity software. We should thus expect the consequential high costs and, despite all this extra effort, that the occasional catastrophe will be inevitable. The remainder of this post will discuss why I think this is the case, and how manually-counted paper ballots circumvent many of these difficulties.