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Newsletter 3 - 19 August 2006

From Wij vertrouwen stemcomputers niet

“Making trouble for troubles sake?”

Sdu - or - Public Relations: how not to do it

Our previous newsletter was a rushed special edition in which we wrote about Sdu, outsourcing partner for all your election needs. Sdu had hired an expensive lawyer to try and get us to remove from our website some documents that we had gotten from the city of Amsterdam as a result of a Freedom Of Information request. The attempt failed and the next thing they remember at Sdu is being breakfast, lunch and supper in a mid-summer media feeding frenzy. The effect of which was that the two real news-factoids of the day (“Amsterdam elections 1 Million euros per election more expensive” and “Sdu want total control over elections”) got a free ride and made all the newspapers in the kingdom. And, mostly because the famous Dutch weblog GeenStijl.nl wrote about us, we received 25.000 extra visitors on the website. Because we made the local TV news in Amsterdam as well as the LCD news screens in the Amsterdam trams, we can safely say nearly all Amsterdammers were at least exposed to the notion that something is fishy with regard to voting computers. After some initial veiled threats Sdu quickly decided not to talk to journalists anymore, saying they had “nothing to add to the reports”.

Stemmachineleverancier woedend op Amsterdam (31.07.2006)
http://www.volkskrant.nl/technologie/article335195.ece (dutch)

Amsterdam government backs paper trail

It was slightly overshadowed by the rest of the coverage, but the director of the municipal service that organizes elections in Amsterdam has spoken out in favor of verifiable elections during a TV interview.

http://media.at5.nl/items/060802stemcomputers_512k.wmv (dutch)

Voice-over:
"The group demands that every vote remains in the polling station on paper. Such a “paper trail” would increase the verifiability of the election results. The city of Amsterdam agrees..."
Rienk Hoff (director of Dienst Persoonsgegevens):
"It is true that an individual citizen cannot verify that his or her vote was recorded correctly. It is possible that the suggestion of Mr. Gonggrijp, the paper trail, adds verifiability."
Interviewer:
"What do you think, judging from your expertise?"
Rienk Hoff:
"Well, just like I said before: Anything that adds to the verifiability of election results has the support of the city of Amsterdam."

Despite this apparent insight, Amsterdam will be using Sdu voting computers this coming November. Black-box, closed source, embedded Windows XP and with a built-in GPRS-modem. Amsterdam has got plenty of money, ease of use is worth the extra million, and verifiability, well, who cares?

Research: Missing reports

Besides all the publicity our research will continue, until we get all the way to the bottom of this e-Voting thing. We’re currently studying a large stack of paper that the interior ministry sent us as a result of our Freedom Of Information request. This newsletter shows a few of the highlights, but undoubtedly more will surface in the coming weeks and months.

For starters it seems strange that the ministry only has a small fraction of the reports from the TNO-ITSEF certification institute. That is, until you realize that they do not need to have any reports at all: by law the producers of voting machines just need to get their devices certified as TNO-ITSEF and the ministry just cares about the single sheet of paper that says the device meets the specifications. We don’t think it is acceptable for our government to no longer view elections as “core business”. Even merely understanding how our elections work is now completely in the hands of the private sector.

Electoral council: elections in danger

The Nedap-Groenendaal combination is a near-monopolist when it comes to Dutch elections: around 90% of the voters in The Netherlands votes on Nedap machines. Groenendaal makes the accompanying software that manages the totals as well as the software in the voting computers themselves. Many people do not realize this, but Groenendaal is a tiny firm, employing only a handful of people. The electoral council, the highest independent body to advise government on matters involving elections, is officially worried about what happens when Mr. Groenendaal himself retires.

For this reason, the electoral council sent a letter to minister Pechtold dated april 15th 2005. In it, the chairman of the council puts forward worries and underlines how dependent on one tiny company our democracy has become.

Pdf icon.png Letter from Kiesraad to minister Pechtold (15 april 2006) (dutch)

“As you likely know a large part of the Dutch election process happens electronically. Voting computers are used In more than 90% of the municipalities. We can conclude that the market for voting computers [...] in The Netherlands is very vulnerable. Only two players operate on this market. The largest part of the market is in the hands of Nedap-Groenendaal [...]. Within this combination, Nedap NV manufactures the hardware while Groenendaal develops the software. Looking at the market, it’s safe to say that Nedap-Groenendaal has a near-monopoly.”

But the problem doesn’t end there. The voting computers need new software whenever something changes with regard to elections. Without support the voting computers quickly become unusable. The electoral council sees danger loom: almost all municipalities have voting computers from the 1980’s, and then all of a sudden software support stops. The electoral council seems to regret that the software is not Open Source:

[The manufacturers] supply updates to the software before each election [...]. So for elections to proceed the municipalities depend on these manufacturers. The electoral council would like to point out that neither the source code to the software inside the voting computers nor the source code to the software that adds up the totals is in the public domain.”

The council does not only fear the fact that The Netherlands now completely depend on one small company. No: the council even fears the retirement of a single man: J. Groenendaal himself. Did we hear anyone talking about protection of vital infrastructure?

“It has been known for some time that Mr. J Groenendaal will end his activities in the foreseeable future. The effects of this on his enterprise are currently unclear. Also: the Dutch market for voting computers is nearly saturated. For this reason the council assumes that there is little incentive for others to support the municipalities that use the Nedap-Groenendaal computers and software.

The council stops short of advising that the entire electoral process is reorganized. It merely suggests that the minister should have a chat with Groenendaal.

“For this reason the council advises that, in keeping with your general responsibility with regard to proper management of elections, that you initiate contact with representatives of Nedap-Groenendaal on short notice. After all continuing support for the voting computers currently on the market as well as for the software used to calculate the results is essential in order to ensure the continuity of elections.

The answer from minister Pechtold to the council is not (yet) in our possession, so we can’t tell you what solution (if any) Pechtold came up with.

Groenendaal about us

Jan Groenendaal is an interesting character. He uses the company website from time to time to write about what’s on his mind. And these days that is us. Which doesn’t mean he takes us all too seriously:

WIJVERTROUWENSTEMCOMPUTERSNIET.pdf (dutch)

“This new group portrays itself as genuinely concerned citizens fearing the decay of democracy because computers are used in the voting process. They’re not alone: there is an international network that uses the internet extensively to communicate. We know them, They are present at every congress or convention that deals with elections either at home or abroad, and they get very noisy if they do not get enough attention. In any case it is clear they have a lot of time and apparently also money.

The exact motivation is beyond me.

Making trouble for troubles sake?”

Hey, now that’s interesting. We don’t ever go to conventions that Groenendaal goes to, and certainly not to be loud. And it’s funny that we have apparently already managed to create the image that we have a lot of money: this campaign has cost a grand total of roughly 1000 euros so far. But behind the scenes we’re working hard to raise more money: the next phase in our professionalization is coming. The introduction of Groenendaal’s text on the site of the German Nedap importer is also interesting:

http://www.wahlsysteme.de

“In The Netherlands, the country that almost exclusively uses our voting machines, an activist group with the ominous name “WE DON’T TRUST VOTING COMPUTERS” has formed. This groups is part of an international network that spreads all kind of conspiracy theories concerning our voting machines.

Jan Groenendaal formulates our response.”

One could laugh this off, but if you think about it it is really somewhat strange to have the near-monopolist in elections unfairly call you a conspiracy theorist.

To better understand the man, it’s important to know a little bit about the history. Groenendaal has more or less single-handedly created black-box voting in The Netherlands. Until deep into the nineties His influence on elections was huge: he thought up the solutions, and civil servants hurried to keep up with the accompanying legislation. Groenendaal isn’t used to much criticism and his own site carefully shows the little bit of reality that matches his interests. Which is his prerogative. It doesn’t get dangerous until someone in his position starts to believe his own manipulated version of reality.

Chess against a voting computer

It started out as a joke. To indicate that a “voting machine” is really just another computer, we wrote that it might as well be programmed to play chess or lie about the election results. Groenendaal, according to his own article, would like to see this demonstrated:

I’d like to see proof of the claim that one can play chess against our voting machine.

In the USA people worry about voting computers not being properly secured while over here people vote on computers that have no protection at all. Would Groenendaal have forgotten that his product is just a 1980’s computer sporting a 68000 processor, a small display, a very large box and a whole lot of buttons? Or is he being manipulative out of habit because he is used to functioning in an environment where nobody else knows anything about technology? The first version of Nedap-Chess is under development.

The elections are coming up: sticker contest

We’re working hard to organize things surrounding the November elections. If you subscribe to this newsletter, you will be provided with a host of options to show your dismay at the current black-box voting practices.

Next to an array of other opportunities to voice your concerns, there will also be stickers not to put on voting machines. We invite everyone to send their texts and designs for these stickers to info@wijvertrouwenstemcomputersniet.nl . The best designs will be made into stickers and distributed.

The campaign is doing well

Al in all I guess we can say our campaign is doing well. More and more people are becoming aware of the fact that there are problems regarding the verifiability of election results. We’ve witnessed up-close that our website is doing what it’s supposed do: even skeptics that read it often become convinced that something about our elections isn’t right. Looking at our media overview we can see that the term “voting computer” is now almost as prevalent as the old term “voting machine”. Our website now attracts some 500 visitors a day.

Spread the word

Elections without paper are beyond their expiration date, and everyone should be made aware of this. Talk about voting computers at parties, discuss the issues at work, talk about it with your brother who works at the Ministry of Interior, write a letter to your local newspaper or make a podcast about it.

Wij