Wednesday, April 18, 2007
In France, voting has traditionally been a low-tech experience: voters isolate themselves in a booth, put a pre-printed sheet of paper indicating their candidate of choice into an envelope. After officials verify the voter’s identity, the voter drops the envelope into the ballot box and signs the voting roll. French electoral law rather strictly codifies the proceedings. Since 1988, ballot boxes must be transparent so that voters and observers can witness that no envelopes are present at the start of the vote and that no envelopes are added except those of the duly counted and authorized voters. Candidates can send representatives to witness every part of the process. In the evening, votes are counted by volunteers under heavy supervision, following specific procedures.
In the past, voting machines, though authorized by law, were scarce. But this year, during presidential elections (the first round was April 22, the second is on May 6), the country is shaken by controversy about the machines intended to count about 1.5 million votes.
As in the United States, there is a group of academic computer scientists that oppose voting machines. They argue that voting machines replace a public, easily understandable counting process, where large-scale fraud would entail large-scale corruption, by an opaque process where votes are counted by machines that voters have to blindly trust. Voting machines have to be approved by the Ministry of the Interior, but this approval is based on confidential reports by private companies. Opponents to the machines point out that the Ministry was long held by Nicolas Sarkozy, who happens to be the leading candidate. Opponents also list a number of weaknesses and discrepancies that have occurred in other countries using voting machines.
All main political parties except UMP, Mr Sarkozy’s ruling party, oppose the voting machines. Some citizens have filed for court injunctions against the voting machines. Opponents have given detailed instructions that voting witnesses should check whether the machines correspond exactly to an approved type, including software versions, and fulfill all legal conditions. In a sign of the frenzy over the issue, on April 12 the Ministry of the Interior issued a last-minute authorization for a specific model (hardware, firmware). The stakes are high: votes on unapproved machines should be canceled by the Constitutional Council for the official count.
The opposition has crystallized on the Paris suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux. Issy’s mayor, André Santini is a well-known technophile; his city organizes a “World E-Gov Forum”. Here too, last minute fixes are at work. The machines delivered to the city are of a yet-to-be-approved type. The manufacturer, the American company ES&S voting systems, is now delivering older 2005 machines. Le Monde reports that other municipalities have already replaced their recent machines by an older, approved, model.
Proponents of the machines, such as the French company France Élection, claim they are being defamed and dispute the competence of their critics. Elected officials supporting the machines claim the machines save on paper, time, and the need to find volunteers to count votes.