Voter fraud is a major worry for any democracy, but for the federal election held in the Belgian city of Schaerbeek in 2003 an unlikely culprit was implicated: the sun. After 14 years from that vote, the academic Bhurat Bhuva presented this bizarre conclusion at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In the election one candidate was surprised to find he had suddenly received 4.096 additional votes. The cause of the increase was a mystery to the election officials, ultimately described as a “spontaneous random bit inversion” in the electronic voting system. This was essentially a sophisticated way to admit that the officials had no idea how this happened.
But according to Bhuva, the most likely cause of the surprising anomaly was solar radiation. Bhuva argued that the extra votes were likely caused by a single event upset, or SEU. This means that an ionizing particle bounced off a vulnerable node in the machine recording the votes, flipping a switch that caused the instant registration of thousands of non-existent votes. While this chain of events could not be proven certainly, Bhuva’s research concluded this is the most probable cause, and since officials at that time offered little more than a shrug, his explanation seems compelling.
Bhuva, a professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, is interested in the general topic of space weather’s effects on terrestrial electronics, of which electronic voting systems are just one example. He warned that much smaller cases of solar interference may be common in electronic voting, and that these are harder to detect. The same radiation, as well as affecting voting systems, can also interfere with other electronics, from cellphones to satellites and power grids, potentially with serious consequences.
When we think of the interaction between nature and technology, we often envisage technology as the conqueror of the ‘natural’ environment preceding the modern world. But Bhuva’s study paints a more complicated picture, one in which natural phenomena like solar radiation can play an unpredictable role in systems we expect to be infallible. We may have to face up to the idea that forces beyond our control are at play in systems we consider carefully organised.