Earlier this year, there was an important legal dispute in Germany, about whether electronic voting machines were legal for use in German government elections. The dispute was decided by the German Constitutional Court (similar to the U.S. Supreme Court), and the short answer was “no.” Now, we have available an official English translation of the ruling.  As I had been told before, the ruling really does seem to ban any kind of computing equipment from being used in German elections. The legal reasoning was interesting enough that I thought I’d share one reflection on it.

The basis for the ruling was the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (similar in function to the U.S. Constitution) and the principle that “all essential steps in the elections are subject to public examinability.” Extending this notion of examinability to electronic voting:

When electronic voting machines are deployed, it must be possible for the citizen to check the essential steps in the election act and in the ascertainment of the results reliably and without special expert knowledge.

Given that basis in law, why is it that “electronic voting machines” may not be used? At the risk of oversimplifying the ruling, I would say that the reason is this:  “electronic voting machines” are computers that, like all computers, are essentially opaque to citizens who do not have “special expert knowledge” about computers. The judgment has — as it should — many specific examples of current voting-machine operations that are opaque. But as I look at these specifics, I see a more general point: any kind of computing system would fail the basic test of whether any ordinary citizen (without expert knowledge) could examine the system to see whether it is operating correctly.

The ruling seems to require the use of paper ballots, and seems to allow the use of electronic systems to record votes from paper ballots. But it’s also clear that the digitally produced vote totals can’t be regarded as definitive, for the same reason that the electronic systems that created them are opaque to non-experts. The ruling also describes some other goals of elections, e.g. rapid results, as being subsidiary to the constitutional requirement for citizen examinability. Nothing seems to be more important than this requirement, and nothing could justify a situation in which electronic data is regarded as the definitive election result. I’ll close with a quote from the ruling that I found inspirational:

In a republic, elections are a matter for the entire people and a joint concern of all citizens. Consequently, the monitoring of the election procedure must also be a matter for and a task of the citizen. Each citizen must be able to comprehend and verify the central steps in the elections.

Well stated — “amen, Bruder!”

— EJS