Thursday, March 05, 2009

German Federal Constitutional Court bans evoting machines

In a landmark ruling the German Federal Constitutional Court has banned all electronic voting machines currently being used in Germany. From [English translation of] the Court's press release (please excuse the formatting):
"The Federal Constitutional Court rendered judgment on two complaints concerning the scrutiny of an election, which were directed against the use of computer-controlled voting machines (socalled voting computers) in the 2005 Bundestag election of the 16th German Bundestag (see German press release no. 85/2008 of 25 September 2008). The Second Senate decided that the use of electronic voting machines requires that the essential steps of the voting and of the determination of the result can be examined by the citizen reliably and without any specialist knowledge of the subject. This requirement results from the principle of the public nature of elections (Article 38 in conjunction with Article 20.1 and 20.2 of the Basic Law Grundgesetz – GG)), which prescribes that all essential steps of an election are subject to the possibility of public scrutiny unless other constitutional interests justify an exception. Accordingly it is, admittedly, constitutionally unobjectionable that § 35 of the Federal Electoral Act (Bundeswahlgesetz – BWG) permits the use of voting machines. However, the Federal Voting Machines Ordinance (Bundeswahlger├Ąteverordnung) is unconstitutional because it does not ensure that only such voting machines are permitted and used which meet the constitutional requirements of the principle of the public nature of elections. According to the decision of the Federal Constitutional Court, the computer-controlled voting machines used in the election of the 16th German Bundestag did not meet the requirements which the constitution places on the use of electronic voting machines. This, however, does not result in the dissolution of the Bundestag because for lack of any indications that voting machines malfunctioned or could have been manipulated, the protection of the continued existence of the elected parliament prevails over the
electoral errors which have been ascertained. To the extent that the manner in which the German Bundestag’s Committee for the Scrutiny of Elections conducted the proceedings was objected to, the complaint for the scrutiny of an election was unsuccessful...

The use of voting machines which electronically record the voters’ votes and electronically ascertain the election result only meets the constitutional requirements if the essential steps of the voting and of the ascertainment of the result can be examined reliably and without any specialist knowledge of the subject. While in a conventional election with ballot papers, manipulations or acts of electoral fraud are, under the framework conditions of the applicable provisions, at any rate only possible with considerable effort and with a very high risk of detection, which has a preventive effect, programming errors in the software or deliberate electoral fraud committed by manipulating the software of electronic voting machines can be recognised only with difficulty. The very wide-reaching effect of possible errors of the voting machines or of deliberate electoral fraud make special precautions necessary in order to safeguard the principle of the public nature of elections.

The voters themselves must be able to understand without detailed knowledge of computer technology whether their votes cast are recorded in an unadulterated manner as the basis of vote counting, or at any rate as the basis of a later recount. If the election result is determined through computer-controlled processing of the votes stored in an electronic memory, it is not sufficient if merely the result of the calculation process carried out in the voting machine can be taken note of by means of a summarising printout or an electronic display...

Limitations of the possibility for the citizens to examine the voting cannot be compensated by an official institution testing sample machines in the context of their engineering type licensing procedure, or the very voting machines which will be used in the elections before their being used, for their compliance with specific security requirements and for their technical integrity. Also an extensive entirety of other technical and organisational security measures alone is not suited to compensate a lack of the possibility of the essential steps of the electoral procedure being examined by the citizens. For the possibility of examining the essential steps of the election
promotes justified trust in the regularity of the election only by the citizens themselves being able to reliably retrace the voting...

III. While the authorisation to issue an ordinance, which is granted by § 35 BWG, does not meet with any overriding constitutional reservations, the Federal Voting Machines Ordinance is unconstitutional because it infringes the principle of the public nature of elections...The Federal Voting Machines Ordinance does not ensure that only such voting machines are used which make it possible to reliably examine, when the vote is cast, whether the vote has been recorded in an unadulterated manner. The ordinance also does not place any concrete requirements as regards its content and procedure on a reliable later examination of the ascertainment of the result...

IV. Also the use of the above-mentioned electronic voting machines in the election to the 16th German Bundestag infringes the public nature of the election. The voting machines did not make an effective examination of the voting possible because due to the fact that the votes were exclusively recorded electronically on a vote recording module, neither voters nor electoral boards nor citizens who were present at the polling station were able to verify the unadulterated recording of the votes cast. Also the essential steps of the ascertainment of the result could not be retraced by the public. It was not sufficient that the result of the calculation process carried out in the voting machine could be taken note of by means of a summarising printout or an electronic display."
In essence the court is saying that the voting machines and associated processes are not sufficiently transparent or auditable to meet the requirements of the German constitution. In addition the limited testing of sample machines prior to an election is not an adequate substitute for transparency in order to gaurantee the integrity of the electoral process.

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