They had to make voting a piece of cake and the results? This would become known through the use of voting computers with a simple push of a button. However, over the years, faith in technology gave way to deep distrust. How could things go so wrong with the voting computer in the Netherlands? And will he ever come back?
The elections are just around the corner. The ‘festival of democracy’ is about to start and so they are already ready in every town hall: the red pencils. On Wednesday it’s time again to fiddle with that far too large voting form in a cramped cubicle, we just hope that the point of the pencil is sharp enough to color in a box and then it is always a challenge to fill in the form. to push the slot of the voting bin. You would say: this should be much easier today. However?
No, is the clear answer from journalist Herbert Blankesteijn. He wrote the book in 2016 Just trust us about the rise and fall of the voting computer in the Netherlands. According to Blankesteijn, it is hoped that the old trusty pencil will remain the only way to vote for the time being. “Politicians who argue for a return of the voting computer have not paid attention and do not know the file. The voting computers in the Netherlands were rubbish and it would also be cheaper bullshit .”
Great belief in technology
In the early 1990s, the Dutch government was still completely convinced. There was great faith in the technology and so the first voting computers were introduced in 1991. Over the years, the red pencil made way for a machine in more and more polling stations. “The computer was on the rise and was seen as a safe tool to make voting easier,” Blankesteijn explains. “Nobody wondered if things could go wrong. There were scientists who asked critical questions, but they were ignored.”
The vast majority of voting computers at that time were supplied by the Dutch company Nedap. That device weighed about 28 kilos, could be folded out into a voting booth and initially cost about 8,000 guilders (later 3,600 euros). There will undoubtedly have been cheers at the Nedap office when Ireland also decided to purchase their voting computers, but that was actually the beginning of the end. The Irish were very concerned about the safety of the devices and decided to stop using them very quickly.
Easy peasy lemon squeezy
This concern also trickled down to the Netherlands, where hacker (and founder of internet provider He managed to get his hands on a Nedap voting computer and showed that installing fraudulent software was a piece of cake for IT professionals.
Blankesteijn: “Voting computers were not connected to the internet and so it was always thought that they could not be hacked, unless you were an insider. That’s precisely where the problem lies.”
Because the voting computers were supplied by Nedap and competitor SDU. Outsourcing such an important aspect of democracy to commercial companies was anything but a reassuring thought, according to Blankesteijn. “Because how do you know whether the software is correct if the government itself doesn’t even know how it works? And how can you be sure that no one has tampered with the voting computers? To do this, you have to store the devices in a safe place outside election times and that is where things went completely wrong.”
Then a camera crew from One today visited the warehouse for voting computers in Rotterdam, there were no cameras, no security guard or alarm system and to make matters worse, there was also a window open. “It was actually too sad for words. Anyone who had access to the voting computer could install alternative software on the devices by swapping the chip. Gongrijp showed that you could get a completely different result and therefore commit major election fraud.”
End of story for the voting computer
Later, some voting machines were also found to emit radiation. Malicious parties could capture that radiation and watch live on the screen of the voting computer. All the problems created a lot of distrust towards the equipment and so in 2007 it was decided to bring out the red pencil again from now on. It was the end of the story for the voting computer. In the Netherlands, because in Belgium and, for example, the United States, the devices continued to be used. Although changes were made to the process.
To enable recounting and therefore detect errors, a receipt is issued from the device after each vote. The paper vote is then returned to a locked box. “You then have the option to check the results, but when do you do that? If there is reason to doubt the result, but that almost never happens. You would actually have to take random samples of a representative number of votes. But in both Belgium and the United States, this whole discussion is not actually happening.”
And what about voting via the internet? After all, we also file our tax returns online using DigiD. Member of Parliament Wybren van Haga recently asked why it is not possible to vote from home: one press on the smartphone or click on the computer mouse and go to the polling station is no longer necessary. “That Van Haga just shouts. If you vote via the internet, you expose the elections to outside interference. The risks are then enormous.”
Because if a voting computer (which is not connected to the internet) is not safe enough to vote with, then Klaas’ smartphone and Truus’ laptop are certainly not. “Everyone installs all kinds of things on their smartphones and many devices are infected with malware. Hackers, criminals and commercial parties like to look at our phones and that makes you vulnerable. For something as important as our democracy, you want to exclude outside interference and that is absolutely not possible if you vote via your smartphone.”
In recent years, several committees have investigated the possibilities of returning voting computers or introducing digital voting. Their conclusion? It’s unfeasible. “It would cost an astronomical amount of money. It is much more expensive than paper voting. Just think of training people, setting up procedures, developing reliable systems and screening people. And later you will have to arrange updates every time. The reports show that it is terribly expensive.”
But is the way voting will be held on Wednesday safe? According to Blankesteijn, there is also a weakness in the current process. “After the votes have been counted by hand, the totals are entered into the computer. Before the results are received by the Electoral Council, the data passes through all kinds of computers and connections. That is also dangerous and you would actually want to be sure that that intermediate step does not lead to strange things. For this you will have to take random samples. But yes, that does take a lot of time and also money.”
Will the discussion die down?
Blankesteijn does not expect that the discussion about voting computers and digital voting will quickly die down in the Netherlands, because according to him there are always ignorant mayors, MPs or entrepreneurs who will see a benefit in it. “In Germany they are a lot smarter in that regard. The highest court there put an end to all discussion. He has decided that something as important as voting should be understandable to everyone. You don’t have to be an expert or have gone to university.”
Blankesteijn wholeheartedly agrees with this. He thinks it is undesirable for confidence in democracy if only a few IT people understand how the results of the elections are arrived at. “The ordinary man or woman must be able to understand it and so you fall back on voting with the red pencil, putting notes in a container and counting by hand,” he emphasizes. “It is significant that the biggest opponents of digital voting or voting computers are the people who know about it.”