Software Bug Disrupts E-vote Count in Belgian Election

A bug led to incoherent election results, the Belgian government said

A bug in an e-voting application halted the release of European, federal and regional election results in Belgium, the country's interior ministry said Monday.

On Sunday, problems occurred when counting votes made on older voting machines in around 20 of the country's 209 cantons, the ministry said.

The voting machines in question are x86 PCs from the DOS era, with two serial ports, a parallel port, a paltry 1 megabyte of RAM and a 3.5-inch disk drive used to load the voting software from a bootable DOS disk.

A bug in the voting software used at canton headquarters where the votes are counted caused "incoherent" election results when it tried to add up preferential votes from those machines, ministry spokesman PeterA Grouwels said. The application counted the results in different ways that should always get the same outcome but that wasn't the case, he said, adding that the release of the results was immediately stopped when this was discovered.

The fault appeared in the system despite the fact that the application was especially developed for these elections, was "tested thousands of times" and was certified by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, he said.

Halfway through the night the developer of the voting application, Stesud, came up with a solution for the problem, said Grouwels. Stesud declined to comment.

The solution allowed the cantons to resume the count and send the results to the ministry that can now proceed to allocate the seats, Grouwels said. Some cantons already managed to send the results to the ministry because the heads of the cantons stayed up to wait for the problem to be solved or came back, others however went to bed and are dealing with the issue on Monday, he added.

The problematic voting machines are one of two kinds in use in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. Since 2012, other parts of Flanders have been voting on a Linux-based e-voting system made by Venezuelan company Smartmatic. In Wallonia, the French-speaking part of the country, about 80 percent of the municipalities vote using paper and pencil.

Voters that use the old system receive a magnetic stripe card that they feed into the computer before using a light pen to select candidates from a list shown on a CRT (cathode ray-tube) screen. The vote is than loaded onto the magnet stripe card, which the voter places into an "electronic urn" that reads the stripe and sends the result to the main computer in the polling station.

After the elections are over the results are loaded on a 3.5-inch floppy disk and shipped to the canton headquarters where the disks are fed into another computer that adds up the votes before sending the results to the ministry. It was there that the problem occurred, the spokesman said, adding that the votes that ended up on the disks were correct.

Kommer Kleijn, spokesman for VoorEVA.be, a Belgian organization that rejects the e-voting system because "it deprives voters from effectively verifying the elections in which they partake" called the problems "a catastrophe."

"They claim that the recording of the votes was done flawlessly, but who can verify that? We can't," Kleijn said.

There is no way to prove that the bug was only present in the application used to add up the votes and not in other parts of the voting system, he said.

And even though the source code of the software is published after the elections there is no way to verify the code beforehand, he said. Therefore VoorEVA concludes that the results of the elections in these municipalities cannot be valid and need to be redone, Kleijn said.

It is not the first time voting with this system went awry, said Kleijn. "Every time this system was used there was a fault comparable to this one," Kleijn said.

In 2003 in the town of Schaarbeek for instance voting machines counted 4,096 more votes more than there were registered voters, according toA a studyA conducted by seven Belgian universities. And in LiA"ge in 2006, some candidates had a higher intermediate result than their end result, said Kleijn.

While the problems are ongoing, there have been fewer problems with e-voting systems this year than in 2012, said Grouwels. On Sunday there were about 600 technical interventions needed, about one-third fewer than in 2012, he said.

Most of the interventions were small, for instance problems with card readers, printers and malfunctioning displays, according to Grouwels.

Belgium is one of the last European countries to still use e-voting systems. In Germany, the Federal Constitutional Court banned the use of electronic voting machines in 2009 because results from the machines were not verifiable.A The Netherlands banned the practice in 2008 after a group of activists successfully demonstrated that both types ofA electronic voting machines then in use could be tampered with.

There are still some municipalities in France that use electronic voting machines, though, and Estonia uses an Internet e-voting system that security and Internet voting researchers found vulnerable to several attacks and said shouldn't be used for the European elections.

The researchers' claims, published two days before the beginning of online balloting for elections to the European Parliament, gave the Estonian National Electoral Committee (ENEC) no reason to suspend online balloting, the committee said at the time.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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