Black box voting

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Black box voting signifies voting on voting machines which do not disclose how they operate such as with closed source or proprietary operations. If a voting machine does not provide a tangible record of individual votes cast then it can be described as black box voting.[1]


The term, as described by Dr. Arnold Urken of Stevens Institute of Technology, comes from the technical jargon use of the term black box, a device or system or object when it is viewed primarily in terms of its input and output characteristics. Urken's group at Stevens Institute was one of the first independent testing authorities for voting machines.

The term was coined by David Allen, publisher, technical consultant and co-writer to author and activist Bev Harris. Harris popularized the term in her book with that title and runs the website. Allen's formal definition is found on page 4 of the original edition of the book: "Any voting system in which the mechanisms for recording and/or tabulating the vote are hidden from the voter, and/or the mechanism lacks a tangible record of the vote cast."[2]

Black box voting systems[edit]

Both optical scan systems which interpret paper ballots and Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) systems can be black box systems; in fact, mechanical voting machines can also be seen as black-box systems, since only the technicians who set up the machines have access to the linkages between the voting levers on the face of the machine and the vote recording counters inside. Rhode Island supreme court justice Horatio Rogers, in an 1897 dissenting opinion, wrote of one early mechanical voting machine that

... a voter on this voting machine has no knowledge, through his senses that he has accomplished a result. The most that can be said is, if the machine worked as intended, then he has made his holes and voted. It does not seem to me that this is enough.[3]

Rogers' criterion for whether a voting machine is a black box is strict—you must be able to sense that it works correctly as you use it. A somewhat weaker criterion is sometimes accepted, based on whether the public is allowed to examine the mechanism, in a modern context, both the source code and hardware.[4] Though source code may be available to voting system testing authorities and state or county election officials it can still be considered "black box" if it is not available to the public. Even with some open source systems, which allow examination of the source code, access to firmware, which controls the hardware, is not available.

Even if the source code is made public, significant challenges remain in the areas of authenticating that the code running systems in the field matches the publicly released code, and it is still possible to find attack vectors for open source systems.

In the U.S. presidential election, 2004, 32% of the voting was done on optical scan machines and 29% on DRE voting machines[5] using trade secret proprietary software. As of February 2006, that figure had climbed to 49% for optical systems and 39% DRE.[6]

Legislation was introduced in the United States Congress to require public access to source code, hardware and firmware information, including the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007, introduced by Congressman Rush D. Holt, Jr. The last action on this legislation (HR 811 110th Congress) was for it to be placed on the Union calendar number 91 in June 2007.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Janet Lynn Evans (2007). "We'll Take Care of the Counting*": A Cultural, Rhetorical and Critical Analysis of Electronic Voting Technology (Dissertation). University of Colorado Boulder. p. 166.
  2. ^ Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century
  3. ^ Horation Rogers, Dissenting Opinion, In re Voting Machine, Atlantic Reporter, Vol. 36, West, St. Paul, 1897; page 717 (19 R.I. 1729 (1897))
  4. ^ Lundin, Leigh (2008-08-17). "Dangerous Ideas". Voting Fiasco, Part 279.236(a). Criminal Brief. Retrieved 2010-10-07. Had Diebold been willing to lay bare its voting machine programs to public review, citizens could feel more secure that crackers hadn't violated the purported integrity of the machines. Diebold might have avoided a tainted reputation and not lost thousands of votes in the process.
  5. ^ New Study Shows 50 Million Voters Will Use Electronic Voting Systems, 32 Million Still with Punch Cards in 2004, Election Data Services Inc.
  6. ^ Voting Equipment Summary By Type, Election Data Services.
  7. ^ H.R.811 - Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007. Library of Congress. Retrieved on 28 November 2016.

Further reading[edit]

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