eVote Adds Elections to Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are great for discussion, and now you can take a vote with your mailing list too.

A specialized database server for keeping votes, combined with a conferencing system, can create a medium for a true nonhierarchical democracy (see the Ideal Democracy Sidebar). The work of administering the voting system would be shared by the users and the software, not the system administrator. When the correct architecture for the problem came to me, I could no longer simply advocate Electronic Democracy; I built it.

Ideal Democracy Includes Both Discussion and Voting

The specialized vote server, the Clerk, is written in C++ and provides many features for voters. Anyone can initiate a poll, and users can change their votes as long as the poll is open. Polls also can be public, allowing all the participants to view each other's votes, private, or if_voted, allowing us to know who voted but not how they voted. Several poll types are supported: yes/no, numeric and grouped. The software is easily enhanced to add new features and poll types by extending the existing classes. The Clerk maintains data on the fly, requiring no help from the administrator. True to the promise of object-oriented architecture, the addition of each new feature has made the code more robust.

The Ballots

The ballots are dynamic. When the user closes her poll and then drops it from the conference, and when the software is otherwise idle, the ballots are collapsed, rolling the storage bytes for other items toward the top and making space for new polls. The item objects recalculate their new places in the ballots, and everything is set to continue without any intervention from the administrator.

The Clerk's Communication with the Voter

The Clerk's main() function is an infinite loop that watches for incoming messages on the interprocess communication messaging facility from eVote clients, i.e., user-interface processes with live voting users. The Clerk has one permanent message queue for incoming requests from users, and it is managed by the single instance of the InQ class. Each eVote process has a temporary message queue of its own for receiving messages from the Clerk. These are instantiations of the OutQ class.

Shared Memory

Although the statistics about polls and the personal information requested by a voter are communicated via the OutQ objects, another interprocess communication facility, shared memory, is used for slow-moving data. The list of poll items and their properties are stored in shared memory so that all the eVote clients currently active in the same conference can see them. Properties of the poll items may include public, private or if_voted, where users can see if another voter has voted, but not how he voted; yes/no or numeric; visible or hidden, where the statistics are available only after the poll is closed; single or grouped; and the title.

The conference's ItemList object is responsible for maintaining the shared memory. When a new poll is created for a conference, if the growing list of poll items requires a new patch of shared memory, a message is sent to all active eVote clients. This dynamic notification feature enables the voters to conduct their meeting in real time.

Data Files

The Clerk keeps three data files for each conference or e-mail list and one overall data file that lists all the e-mail addresses and a corresponding numerical ID. For the sample e-mail list, a sample.dat with the current ballots, keyed by the voter's numerical ID, is kept by the BallotBox object. The BallotBox also keeps sample.bnf, which contains a hash into sample.dat and some handy statistics. A sample.inf file storing the current map of items onto the ballots is maintained by the ItemList object.

eVote, the user interface, keeps a petition's signatures and comments in a flat file, one file per petition.

User Interfaces

At this time, the Clerk has two user interfaces and invites more. The Clerk's first user interface is a simple text-based Telnet interface, designed with conferencing systems and BBSes in mind.

The explosion of the Internet dampened enthusiasm for conferencing systems. E-mail arose as the dominant form of communication, and e-mail lists became the community discussion medium. So the e-mail user interface was built to allow e-mail communities to make formal decisions, while still using the popular Mailman mailing-list software.

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