It has been nothing short of astonishing that, within a few weeks, the brave people of Tunisia and Egypt toppled corrupt dictators who ruled for decades. One of the protesters’ key demands was for democratic elections — the right to choose a government that is responsive to the people’s needs. That is also what protesters in Bahrain, Yemen, Iran, Jordan and Libya are demanding as they call for the dissolution of their autocratic and oppressive governments. As the protesters know all too well, voting does not mean that one’s vote will be counted. In Egypt’s 2005 elections, Hosni Mubarak was reelected with 88.6 percent of the vote. In 2009, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was reelected with an 89.6 percent landslide victory. In both cases allegations of fraud and corruption surrounded the elections.
What nobody is talking about is how votes will be cast in emerging democracies. For elections to be legitimate in such countries, it is critical to use voting technology that counts votes accurately. In the 21st century, chances are high that computers will be used in some form in the coming elections in Egypt and Tunisia. But voting computers, like heads of state, must be held accountable to the people they serve. It is a tenet of computer science that computers can be programmed to do anything, including play “Jeopardy!” and steal votes.