When you think of potential threats to electoral integrity, your mind conjures up all sorts of images. You start to imagine shadowy state actors toiling away from seedy basements in Moscow, or anarchic young hacktivists doing it for the lulz. In Belgium, they’ve got another potential foe to contend with: the actual polling agents themselves. It turns out that Belgium’s voting machines store a record of each vote on a USB stick. This drive uses a Linux-compatible filesystem — presumably because that’s what the voting machines themselves run. What happens when you shove one of the sticks into a computer running Windows? Well, the machine won’t recognize the stick and will tell you to format it with a compatible filesystem, like FAT32. And what happens when you do that? Well, you delete all the votes, that’s what.
Belgium’s chief regulator of intelligence services warned that Russia would seek to meddle in local elections coming up in October, he told Belgian magazine Knack and newspaper Le Soir in an interview published Wednesday. Guy Rapaille, who oversees the watchdog for intelligence services in Belgium, Comité R, urged intelligence services to pay close attention to Russian meddling in Belgium’s upcoming local elections in October, as well as regional, federal and European elections in May 2019. He pointed to revelations that the Russian state had contacts with far-right parties. “In France there were sometimes troubling relations with the [far-right party of Marine Le Pen] National Front, one could imagine the same in Belgium too,” he said.
Local authorities in Brussels have begun a major push to urge more non-Belgian residents to vote in upcoming municipal elections in October. More than a third of Brussels’ inhabitants are foreigners with voting rights in their local elections. But despite many of them working within the EU institutions at the heart of the Continent’s democracy, Belgium has close to the lowest voter participation rate among EU citizens in Europe. While voting is compulsory for Belgian nationals and over 90 percent go to the polls in local commune elections, the equivalent figure for non-Belgians is under 14 percent overall, and much lower in some communes.
A large majority of the General Affairs Committee of the Brussels parliament voted in favor of e-voting in next municipal, regional and federal elections. The committee adopted the proposal by 13 votes for and one vote against. Ecolo, a green francophone party, voted against. The proposal will be put to the vote in the plenary on 24 June. The preferred voting system has been conclusively used in previous elections in two municipalities of Brussels.
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 Peter 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.
Belgium has been voting in local elections that have taken on added significance in light of the country’s linguistic divide. Flemish nationalists looked set to make strides in pulling away from French-speaking Wallonia. With nearly 80 percent of votes counted late on Sunday, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) had taken a 36 percent share in the port city of Antwerp, Flanders’ largest city. Across Flanders, the N-VA appeared be garnering 20-30 percent of the vote, compared with just 5 percent in municipal polls six years ago.
Eight million Belgians are voting in local elections today which may mark a sea change in politics if there is an historic shift of power in second city Antwerp, and it is taken by a man who has never held elected office. Bart de Wever leads the nationalist N-VA, and might use the capture of Antwerp, Europe’s second largest port, as a springboard for national power, and Flemish secession from Belgium.
Despite vocal mistrust of e-voting, 151 Flemish municipalities in Belgium will use new electronic voting machines in October 14 elections. More than 60 percent of the country’s Flemish citizens as well as voters in the Brussels region will choose their local and provincial leaders using a newly developed Linux-based e-voting system made by Venezuelan company Smartmatic. Belgium has been experimenting with e-voting systems since 1991 and is one of the few European countries that is still using a form of electronic voting. The Netherlands, for instance, banned the use of electronic voting machines in 2008 after a group of activists successfully demonstrated that both types of electronic voting machines then in use could be tampered with. The Federal Constitutional Court in Germany decided in 2009 to stop using electronic voting machines because results from the machines were not verifiable. There were some experiments with e-voting in the U.K., but bigger projects never got a foothold, said a Belgian government report detailing the history of e-voting in Europe. Meanwhile, while a wide variety of voting machines are used in the U.S. and about 20 percent of the population of Estonia votes via the Internet, Belgium is one of the few European countries that still invests in new e-voting technology.
The European Union used a summit with Russia today to highlight concerns over claims of massive fraud during this month’s Russian parliamentary elections. Russia’s December 4 State Duma elections and their aftermath — including the detention of demonstrators — were not officially on the agenda of the summit, which otherwise focused on economic and visa liberalization issues.
But the EU made clear in the run-up that it would raise its worries with Dmitry Medvedev during his last summit with the bloc as Russia’s president. EU President Herman Van Rompuy told a news conference after the summit that the EU had been perturbed by election monitors’ reports of irregularities and lack of fairness in the December 4 vote, and about the detention of protesters.
Belgium hit a new milestone Monday — 450 days without a government — but still no one appears to be in any big hurry to resolve the situation. Europe’s financial crisis and feeble economic growth may scare governments from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean Sea, but in Belgium it is a sideshow. Talks on a new Belgian government, which have been going on since the June 13, 2010 election, were at a standstill Monday for a third day running.
Why? Because Green Party negotiator Jean-Michel Javaux — also the mayor of Amay, a small eastern town — had to attend a town meeting to vote on, among other things, a new police car and a computer. Prime Minister Yves Leterme, meanwhile, was on a visit Sunday to Israel, assuring its leaders that all’s well in Belgium.
But that’s not really true — intractable divisions between Belgium’s Dutch and French-speaking camps are looming over the nation. And because anything can become a linguistic spat, Belgium has had 45 governments in 67 years.