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It’s the 21st century! Why aren’t we voting online yet?

Why aren't we voting online yet

With national elections looming, many Americans are getting ready to show up at their polling place and mark paper ballots. Some have already cast their votes via absentee ballots, early voting, or vote-by-mail options.

But in this age of broadband Internet, smartphones, tablets, and near-ubiquitous connectivity, paper ballots – and all the problems they entail – seem tremendously backwards and counterproductive. After all, we trust billions of dollars in financial transactions to the Internet every day: Why can’t we use technology to do something simple like vote?

The reasons, of course, are complicated.

Advantages of online voting

Phone vote (shutterstock wiml)

Americans have been casting ballots at polling places for more than 200 years, but few would argue requiring citizens to show up in person at precincts, schools, churches, and other locations to cast votes is a perfect system. Simple access to polling places is a major issue for many voters, including the disabled and elderly, students away from home, folks living or working overseas, and many others. Sometimes, voters face hours of waiting when they get to a polling place — leading many to give up without voting — and the primarily paper-based technology used by many localities is distinctly old school. Remember the 2000 presidential election where the outcome hung on dangling chads? Not the greatest moment for a country that went to the Moon and is putting rovers on Mars. And this leaves aside substantial issues with voter registration, and identifying voters who do cast ballots.

The most appealing arguments in favor of online voting address some of these issues. The first is enfranchisement, empowering democracy by enabling more eligible voters to cast ballots. Many voters currently have no access (or limited access) to polling places, but a recent report from the Federal Communications Commission found that 94 percent of Americans currently have access to the Internet, meaning they could potentially vote online without going to a polling place. What if voting were extended to mobile phones? The Pew Internet & American Life Project recently found 85 percent of American adults have a mobile phone, with about half of them having smartphones — numbers which are almost certain to increase rapidly in the next few years. Internet and mobile technology could bring voting to citizens who are historically under-represented in the current electoral process simply by eliminating the need to get to a polling place.

Online voting technologies could potentially lift some barriers for folks who have trouble meeting voter registration requirements: Perhaps they’ve never had a passport or a driver’s license, or are living with parents and have no utility bills or other means of asserting their identity. With broadband increasingly being viewed as a utility, the ability to maintain a mobile or home Internet connection might be enough in some locales. After all, in some places presenting a utility bill and even an expired photo ID will get you on the voting rolls.

Another compelling argument is convenience: Think how much voter turnout might rise for elections (particularly mid-term or local elections) if voters could make their voices heard using computers or smartphones. Online voting could be particularly appealing for younger voters who are the most comfortable with the technology, but who historically don’t seem to turn out in great numbers for elections. With online voting, voters wouldn’t have to visit a polling location and potentially wait for hours for their turn. When more people participate in an election, the democratic process more accurately reflects the will of the people.

“As more and more Americans begin to wonder why they have to trek to the polls, find parking, stand in line, sometimes in rain and cold, while at the same time banking or buying books via their iPad, smartphone, or other connected device, they will begin to demand a more up-to-date and convenient method of voting,” said William J. Kelleher, Ph.D., author of Internet Voting Now!.

Another argument is cost. Although estimates vary, the cost of conducting a presidential election in the United States is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Localities have to purchase, operate, and maintain voting machines, hire election workers, staff polling places, prepare ballots, and (of course) tabulate results, among many other things. Shifting to online voting could lower the costs of conducting elections by reducing the need for polling places, staff, and equipment. Just as it’s less expensive for Amazon to take an order via the Web, states could lower their costs conducting elections online.

So why the heck aren’t we voting online?

Barriers to online voting

El Paso primary voting 2008 (shutterstock, frontpage, editorial only)

Online voting isn’t a far-flung dream; plenty of countries are already studying and experimenting with it. In Canada, several dozen municipalities have used Internet voting in municipal elections (often via systems provided by Canadian firm Intelivote). Markham, Ontario, has offered online balloting since 2003 and an independent study from Delvinia found online voting was well-liked by participants, convenient, and could produce a modest increase in overall turnout — although younger voters haven’t been terribly enthused. Estonia has offered online voting since 2007, with roughly a quarter of its population of 1.3 million voting online — although, it should be noted, Estonia also has a national smart-card ID card system.

Things get more complicated in the United States. First of all, the United States has no national election system. Although the U.S. Constitution and federal law outline aspects of federal elections, most of the mechanics are defined and handled by individual states, including election methods, setting voter eligibility requirements, conducting both state and local elections, and (for presidential elections) managing the state’s electoral college. Diving down further, polling places are usually managed by individual cities, counties, and townships — all told, there were over 4,600 voting jurisdictions in the United States in 2010. The result is a mishmash of procedures and systems that makes implementing online voting very complicated. An online voting system that’s acceptable to one municipality won’t be acceptable to another. It also means implementing a one-size-fits-all approach to nationwide online voting would be a matter of policy and politics first, technology second — and we all know how fast policymakers move on this stuff.

Another key issue is voter validation. How would an online voting system recognize legitimate voters? Estonia has national smart card IDs that citizens can set up with PIN numbers and use remotely to authenticate with a voting system (and other services). The United States has no similar system: not everyone has a passport, drivers’ license, or state-issued ID. As a result, the most practical way to validate people for online voting may be to send them one-time PIN numbers via postal mail. Besides the issue of mail theft, this omits newly eligible voters, the homeless, some disabled, deployed military personnel, or others who might not have fixed addresses or access to postal mail. Maybe we could use passwords? If there’s one thing the Internet has proven it’s that people pick crappy passwords — and often forget them. Would you remember a password you set up for a presidential election four years ago?

What about securing online voting systems? The two primary ways to approach online voting are to let voters cast ballots using their own devices, or a device operated and maintained by local election authorities. Letting people use their own devices is far more convenient — and convenience is one of the main attractions behind online voting, after all — but it’s a potential security nightmare. Millions of people already have spyware and malware on their PCs and (increasingly) on their mobile devices: Letting people vote with their own devices is essentially exposing the electoral process to the same bands of organized, sophisticated cybercriminals who have been exploiting security flaws to steal identities and clear out bank accounts for decades now. Requiring voters to use systems operated by local election officials should be far more secure, but doesn’t solve the access problems of today’s balloting systems. Voters would still have to go to polls, or have devices brought to them by election officials. Both methods are potentially vulnerable to attacks on servers and election infrastructure: it doesn’t matter whether voters’ own devices or state-administered devices are secure if the voting system itself can be hacked. One lesson of the digital revolution is that no system is completely secure.

Can e-commerce technology enable online voting?

Firefox 14 encrypts all Google searches

It does seem ridiculous that Internet users can buy almost anything online but online voting isn’t commonplace. If the technology exists to validate buyers and sellers and handle secure financial transactions, why can’t that same technology handle something as simple as voting?

Many of the same encryption, authentication, and validation technologies used in e-commerce will undoubtedly play roles in any online voting system. However, online businesses and financial institutions have very different goals than a local, state, or national online election efforts.

“If an unauthorized banking transaction occurs, you can see it in your statement,” wrote SRI International’s Jeremy Epstein in ACM Computing Reviews back in 2009. “The bank is responsible for losses, and has the ability to reverse an erroneous transaction. And, above all, you and your bank both know that the transaction was on your account.”

These principals do not apply to voting due to issues of anonymity. Secret ballots are one of the cornerstones of democracy, the idea being that voters cast their ballots privately, free from intimidation and coercion, and their votes cannot be linked back to them. This is why voting booths in many polling places have curtains, and why no one is allowed to go into a voting booth with you when you cast your ballot. Voters do not get a statement at the end of each election cycle listing their votes and when they were tabulated; elections officials cannot pull up the record of a particular voter and inspect it for errors or irregularities.

Being able to reconcile financial transactions is one of the primary ways of detecting online fraud and identity theft, and it’s a enabler of online commerce. When fraud and mistakes happen, they can usually be worked out. Banks, financial institutions, credit-card companies, and online retailers have invested billions of dollars in trying to secure their processes while making them widely accessible to consumers.

Businesses have always operated on the principle that they’ll never be able to eliminate all theft or fraud, but they can try to keep it down to an manageable level. Visa subsidiary CyberSource estimated online fraud totaled up to $3.4 billion in 2011, with about 0.6 percent of all online transactions being fraudulent. That’s actually the lowest number of fraudulent transactions in 13 years, although the total amount of money lost has gone up.

To date, there have been no known instances of election fraud in online elections. However, outside of Estonia and parts of Canada, online voting hasn’t been conducted on a significant scale, and we know that the over 4,600 electoral jurisdictions in the United States don’t have the same sorts of budgets, experience, and technical expertise as major banks, credit card companies, and online retailers. And online election tampering doesn’t have to be limited to fake votes. Using spam, phishing attacks, malware, and other techniques, would-be election-riggers could prevent votes from being filed at all, or lure voters to a fake Web site where they think they’re voting…but aren’t.

Will online voting ever happen?

Smartphone voting (Shutterstock Clenpies Design)

This may all sound like doom and gloom for the possibility of online voting, but the reality is really more when than if. Although the U.S. military scrapped a planned online voting program for overseas personnel in 2004, in 2008 Arizona became the first state to let overseas military and civilian voters to vote in a national election via a secure Web site. (It was remarkably clunky: Voters filled out ballots they received via postal mail or printed themselves, then made scans they sent back to election officials.) West Virginia tried true online voting for overseas military personnel in 2010: it covered just 125 people, but was deemed a success.

There’s a theme here: military voters deployed overseas. According to the Military Voters Protection Project, in 2008 only 20 percent of the 2.5 million military voters were able to request and return their absentee ballots on time, and fewer than 5 percent had an absentee ballot for the 2010 election. These are the men and women who have voluntarily put their lives on the line for their country– the least we could do is make it easy for them to vote.

“The issue of better serving overseas and military voters has been the single most important driver of this issue lately,” noted Rob Weber of the blog Cyber the Vote. “Paper absentee registration and voting does not serve military residents well, and both Congress and the states are looking to improve that situation. Several states are now allowing emailing of ballots for overseas military voters. It is a step in the right direction.”

Although the military backed away from online voting mechanisms in 2004, if states and other jurisdictions are able to develop secure online voting mechanisms that work well for overseas military personnel, those technologies could be extended to other voters. The most obvious candidates would be other overseas residents and disabled voters within a local jurisdiction. From there, assuming the systems hold up, they could be extended to larger portions of the population — and once online voting systems have proven themselves, more local jurisdictions will begin to take a close look at online voting.

“Here is where the decisions to implement Internet voting will be made,” said Dr. Kelleher. “As more folks demand of their local election officials that the voting technology be brought into the 21st century, these officials will demand of their legislatures laws allowing them to buy Internet voting systems.”

Budget issues may also drive jurisdictions towards online voting. With most U.S. states facing budget shortfalls, the prospect of lowering the costs of elections through online voting may be very appealing to lawmakers. However, election officials will have to be careful to balance new costs associated with online voting against the continuing cost of current election systems – since those aren’t going to go away overnight.

In the meantime…

Online voting lies at a peculiar intersection of technology and public policy: Even if we have all the software and connectivity necessary to operate widespread electronic voting, implementing it will probably involve at least as much politicking as technology.

Over the next few years, we can expect more widespread (if tentative) implementation of online voting systems, initially to serve troops overseas, but perhaps also being extended to some local voters. Online voting efforts in other countries will also be watched closely.

And, even though you can’t do it from your smartphone or computer, please do vote in the general election this Tuesday.

“Vote” image via Shutterstock / Feng Yu
Phone vote image via Shutterstock / WimL
El Paso 2008 Primary voting image via Shutterstock / Frontpage
Smartphone voting image via Shutterstock / Clenpies Design