Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Problems with E-Voting and Estonia's Response...

In the United States, only about 60% of Americans vote in presidential elections, and the number is closer to 30% in midterm Congressional elections. The system is cumbersome - people have to register to vote months in advance, elections are held on Tuesdays rather than on weekends, lines at polling places can be too long, etc. So wouldn't voting over the internet make sense?

This week the small nation of Estonia put that question to the test holding the world's first national election featuring internet balloting open to all voters. But while internet voting might seem like common sense to some, it remains deeply controversial.

First of all, there is the problem of verification. Right now when you show up at a voting booth, you present a picture ID and your signature is compared to a signature of yours that they already have on record. This way they know it's you and you cannot cast a vote for anyone else. How could a municipality be assured of the same thing through an internet voting system?

Second, a shift to internet voting leads to increased dangers of computer hacking. These attacks can come in many forms over the web - phishing, denial of service, spyware, viruses, Trojan horses and insider attacks. This is the reason why most computer scientists have come out decidedly against internet voting. Do we really want to trust our most basic democratic processes to vulnerable digital systems?

Third, the lack of a paper trail poses a problem as well. During the 2000 presidential election, the final vote in Florida was so close that for over a week vote checkers went back through all the paper ballots with their infamous "hanging chads" in preforming a recount. Recounts actually occur more frequently than people often believe, and without a paper trail, it would be fundamentally more difficult to authenticate results.

Finally, there is the problem of transparency. In the U.S., a company named Diebold Election Systems has administered several elections through e-voting, notably the 2004 California presidential primary, where claims of fraud later surfaced. Many critics argue that having elections run by private firms with closed proprietary source code is an invitation for massive fraud. Without open source code, true oversight over elections is nearly impossible.

The apparent success of Estonia's election, then, demonstrates that while these problems certainly remain formidable obstacles, they are surmountable. Notable causes for its success include 1) a national ID card that most citizens already possessed, 2) making internet voting an alternative to physical voting, rather than a replacement (in other words, people could either vote via the web or else still show up in person to vote if that's what they prefered), and 3) the fact that Estonia is a relatively small nation which does not pose nearly as big a target to would-be hackers as elections in larger and more prominent nations, such as the U.S., would.

Unlike most techno-minded blogging pundits, I happen to support internet voting - as well as most other measures that seek to enhance voter participation in the electoral process - and believe that, to some extent, it is inevitable. However, the implementation of such systems must not be hasty. More time is needed to beef-up security measures and improve reliability and transparency. Estonia is significant in that it proves, if nothing else, that that time is not as far off as many previously believed.


At 2:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Consider this:
The voter gets his paper ballot, goes to the booth, marks a candidate on the ballot, then PHOTOGRAPHS the ballot with his CELLPHONE, then sends it as an MMS to a buyer, who VALIDATES the vote, then the seller checks his BANK BALANCE via the same CELLPHONE, exits the booth and slids the paper-ballot into a sealed box.
Voila! Internet voting.

Not suggesting you should get a specific idea out of this.

At 5:59 PM, Blogger Robert J. Domanski said...

Well, in the vein of sarcasm, I'll add to your suggestion that if you're going to sell your vote via cellphone to a "buyer", then why not set the price according to the highest bidder? Call it "Election By Ebay".

And by the way, did I forget to mention how another problem with internet voting is that it makes voting easier primarily for society's upper classes, potentially giving the affluent even more political influence?


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