FCC Wanders into the Internet Voting Quagmire

Why, oh why?” you’re wondering (given our teaser title, that is).  Well, at first we were we also wondering why.   This all began about a month ago, and it’s a bit clearer now.  With some breathing room made possible by the holiday, I want to explain how the FCC and online elections could be even remotely connected (no pun intended), but first, Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah (belated), and Merry Christmas (today) to those celebrating.

Two weeks ago we responded to an FCCrequest for comment;” an agency process with far more regulatory structure than the kind of “RFC” we’re used to.  But being the organization we are, with the mission we have, we felt we had to weigh in.

To be sure, we knew there would be tons of submissions from every “Who-Dog and their Larry” (and apparently we weren’t far off).  So the request was simply this: the FCC wanted input on the role of broadband in civic participation in the age of digital democracy.  And they divided that inquiry into two categories:

  1. the so-called digital town hall and related online civic interaction services (the meat and potatoes of the emerging “digital democracy”), and
  2. (wait for it) …elections.

Of course, the activists quickly decoded the FCC inquiry about broadband in the process of elections to read: “Internet Voting” and acted accordingly.  Although we’re not advocates of using the public Internet for casting and counting of ballots any time soon, we were a bit more circumspect in our addressing the FCC’s inquiry.

You see, we’ve been rhythmically bombarded with inquiries about whether our open source voting systems development efforts include the Internet, what we think of Internet-based public elections, and when will people be able vote from their Droid or iPhone, etc.  And we tread gently on that issue because, while we’re excited by the enthusiasm we’re seeing for bringing real innovation into voting systems, frankly, there is far more to do to bring about trust, transparency, accuracy, and security in computers used in elections than we have resources to address as quickly as we’d like, let alone looking at a public, largely insecure transport layer for the critical data involved.  I’m sure there is some alluring if not downright techno-sexiness to that concept, but the gap between here and reality would’ve downright inspired Moses at the shore of the Red Sea.

So, we looked at the FCC inquiry when it was launched in mid-November and at first, shrugged it off as someone playing on subway rails.  Then it dawned on us: this was a chance to go on record with our position and make sure that we’re part of that conversation before someone attempts something silly like piloting an election across the cloud (OMG).

On a more serious note, we were catalyzed to comment by [1] some reality about why the FCC is wandering into this quagmire when Lord knows they have plenty to do with spectrum auctions, net neutrality, universal access fees, etc., and [2] important work we’re involved in through our partnership with the Overseas Vote Foundation and MOVE Act implementation.  I’ll have more to say about the MOVE Act in a separate post, but suffice it to note here that the Act, recently signed into law, is designed to enfranchise military and overseas voters in elections by requiring States to provide online methods for overseas voters to transmit absentee applications and voter registration information and download blank ballots for mark and return by surface postal mail.

For those readers who want to cut to the chase and see what we had to say in response to this curious FCC inquiry, have at it here.  For the rest who remain amused by our fuzzy insight, read on.

So that “reality check” is that the Obama Administration is leaning on the FCC to fashion a strategic plan for widespread broadband adoption and growth in the U.S. as part of its Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009.  And in the course of doing that, the FCC has been looking into the needs of citizens to access the Internet through reasonably speedy means (read: broadband).  So, civic participation would certainly constitute a valid reason for the FCC wandering into the free market’s territory of broadband build-out, right?  And if the FCC could determine the utility of broadband access to foster civic participation, then a whole bunch of justification for crafting this strategic broadband plan could be made.  Thus, the FCC needed to pose a public inquiry, and someone (we aren’t sure who, but have a theory) put the proverbial bug in the FCC collective ear that “elections” are one such “civic engagement” to be examined.  Thus the FCC waded into this quagmire (or firmly gripped the 3rd rail; choose the metaphor that paints the preferred picture) of Internet voting.

I note as an aside that one of our esteemed Sr. Members of Technical Staff, Pito Salas, posted a comment here recently about the notable absence of elections on the agenda of “open government.”  Well, it appears that while it may not have appeared on that agenda, it seems to be on the Administration’s agenda vis-à-vis the FCC inquiry.

And so we responded.

What’s the sum and substance of our position?  Well here it is in short, and you can read more if you dare.  I’ll summarize with the synopsis followed by a Technology Point and a Policy Point.

For starters, The OSDV Foundation and TrustTheVote Project were pleased to have had an opportunity to provide comment on an increasingly vital aspect of broadband in the United States: its use in civic participation and the processes of democracy.

Technology Point: The use of the Internet as an element of critical democracy infrastructure is here to stay.  The ‘Net is inherently insecure, but affords citizens a vital means of communication and information sharing.  Continued availability and accessibility to real broadband requires continued development of the capabilities of packet-switched networking.

Policy Point: The Internet is becoming critical infrastructure and its role in a digital democracy is sufficiently vital enough to build broadband policy around the ability of American citizens to participate in the processes of democracy in a digital age.

We encouraged the Commission to develop a comprehensive national broadband plan that particularly includes a plan for the use of broadband infrastructure and services to advance civic participation.

Technology Point: The processes of civic participation will require services that are transparent, trustworthy, accurate, and secure.  This means continued innovation in a service layer that is inherently insecure.

Policy Point: A national broadband public policy will necessarily entail a yin-yang relationship with private enterprise.  Ensuring civic engagement is a clear matter for government and a solid reason to have a broadband public policy in place, which can inform many debates and legislative initiatives.  And yet, clear roles and responsibilities between government and the privates sector in delivering this critical infrastructure is imperative.

To the extent their Plan includes consideration of broadband infrastructure for election processes and services, we advised careful consideration of what the architecture for a broadband-based voting system should look like and called upon experts and stakeholders to facilitate that understanding.  Clearly, the digital age and increasingly mobile society can benefit from digital means for such civic participation services.  However, the extent to which the challenges discussed in their inquiry can be adequately addressed remains unclear.

Technology Point: There is much to be worked out in terms of technically ensuring accuracy, transparency, trust and security in relying upon the Internet or broadband infrastructure to conduct civic engagement.

Policy Point: Fashioning this policy cannot occur in a vacuum void of competent technical input.

Nevertheless, any such Plan should consider the possibility that broadband infrastructure may be called upon in the future to support and sustain elections services in some capacity, whether strictly for back-office functions or all the way out to ballot casting and counting services.

Technology Point: If this cat is out of the bag, considerable research, development, and innovation is required before broadband infrstructure (read: Internet) can be reasonably relied upon for the level of civic engagement contemplated in the FCC inquiry.

Policy Point: Any broadband policy must consider this inevitable move toward a digital democracy.  Accordingly, issues such as digital divide, network neutrality, final mile, and quality of service assurances must be considered.

We do not recommend reliance on home or personal broadband connected digital devices for citizen-facing voting services for the foreseeable future or until such time as the challenges discussed herein are resolved to the satisfaction of the public.

Technology Point: The Internet is inherently insecure; home and personal computers are inherently insecure.  And a whole bunch of technical innovation is required to change that, and even then, these problems are likely to persist.

Policy Point: Disciplined thought leadership is imperative.  Sure we’d all like to simply cast our ballots from wherever we are with whatever device we have access to.  And some no longer consider the privacy element and vote-sale concern to be issues.  But many still do and will for some time to come.  The benefits of speeding towards a fully digital, online democracy continue to be outweighed by the risks of doing so.  That does not mean policy should forbid such, but it does compel policy makers to provide guidelines for cautiously proceeding.

That advised, we did encourage the Commission to take a citizen-centric approach to fashioning its broadband policy with regard to civic participation in terms of voting and elections services.  By “citizen-centric” we were referring to an approach that considers the wants and needs of an increasingly mobile society in a digital age.  As one simple example, we suggested the FCC consider the typical citizen voting situation wherein the voter is employed sufficiently far away from their home precinct such that it is logistically impossible for them to reach their polling place in time before or after their work day to cast their ballot, while fulfilling their responsibilities to their employer.

Technology Point: America is the consummate mobile society; whether its our propensity to relocate or our requirements of travel, the 21st century requires information services to put consumers at the center and appreciate and respect their mobility.

Policy Point: While there remains tremendous value in the traditional concepts of the polling place and election day, the fact is our 21st century society is now passing from the industrial age into the information age.  And we’re in a transition period between ages.  The best policy will afford a spectrum of options, supporting everyone from those who are content to taking a day off to cast their ballots, to those who need to cast it remotely in a time shifted manner.

If there are any “best-practices” we can identify at this juncture with regard to broadband deployment of election services, two were particularly clear to us:

  1. personal or home connected devices should not be permitted to be utilized for ballot casting; and
  2. broadband connected ballot marking devices should be restricted to government authorized polling places.

Technology Point: The technical challenges to allow such are mountainous hurdles at this point, unless the venue can be controlled (and even then, issues will abound, but may be more readily addressable)

Policy Point: Respect must be sustained for the privacy imperative of casting ballots, and providing a means and venue where such can be done in a private and secure manner, while leveraging the benefits of technology requires political pragmatism.

Finally, we advised that the overseas voting challenges combined with the MOVE Act signed into law offer an opportunity to incrementally approach leveraging of broadband infrastructure to improve participation of overseas citizens, military, and diplomatic personnel in U.S. elections.  And that should begin with the delivery of blank ballots.

So, that’s our position, and we’re sticking with it.

Happy Holidays!

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