Internet Voting – Is it Ever Possible? Should it be?

In the aftermath of the Internet debate, notwithstanding my goof on forgetting to toss a coin to determine which team went last with their closing argument, the noise has settled down a bit.  I’m not sure if this is really the prevailing opinion, but if I ventured a guess, I would have to say most concluded we actually did do our best to run a fair debate.

However, our measure of real success should not be made on the yardstick of fairness and balance.  Rather, my hope is that this first sponsored, official (some even stretch to suggest “historical”) debate will catalyze an intellectually honest on-going conversation, and several more official debates as headway is made on this topic.  So, may our success hopefully be measured in how many more such like-kind events we catalyze.  And that may be more important than we realize, because…

…this issue is not going away.

That much came clear during the Overseas Vote Summit this past week.  Whether its the Department of Defense, who is (and should be) determined to provide a digital means to empower their service men and women to participate in the democracy they fight for, or whether its forward-thinking States realizing the Internet revolution is encroaching on and threatening to re-invent another legacy space: elections, this topic of using the Internet in public elections will not disappear.

All who are against this (including the OSDV Foundation as to certain aspects) can wring our hands, gnash our teeth, and fret and fight.  Or we can advance the discussion and seek out ways to determine if this digital means of casting ballots can ever be a reality by pushing research, running experiments, and conducting pilots.  I think the latter approach is imperative because its doubtful we can fully stop this determination, unless hundreds of thousands of dollars are poured into lobbying, and hundreds of thousands are called to activism.  And I believe there is a better way to spend that precious money.  For one thing, even if all the activism in the world raised so much noise that Internet Voting became the 3rd rail of politics, it wouldn’t stop certain groups from moving ahead (think: Defense Department).  If that’s the case, then let’s spend our resources on figuring out how to make it (use of the Internet in public elections) as safe as possible.

Unfortunately, one of the realities that emerged this past week is that the challenges are not primarily technical in nature.  To be sure, there are some tough technical problems, but they might seem a bit more surmountable in light of perhaps the real primary issue:  cultural philosophy.

I had the pleasure of speaking at length with most of the panelists after the Debate over the remainder of the Conference.  And here is what came of those discussions.  There seems to be some consensus around the fact that America is nowhere near where Europe (at least) is on 2-3 critical attitudes or process issues.  Plus, there is a unique fourth concern, although probably addressable.  And here they are:

  1. Voter Identification/Digital Authentication.  First, as was pointed out by our European Panelists, until America and its citizens reach a point where they are willing to provide for a national identification means, and one that has a digital means for using it as an authentication device (e.g., see the bar code on almost every States’ drivers licenses these days, or the mag-stripe on the back of your credit/debit cards — increasingly with a photo of the card holder), there can be no digital method that would enable a citizen to approach a semi- or unattended device.  We say “semi” because the Europeans suggest CCTV devices (closed circuit TV) to monitor remote kiosks, for example.  (Which is another point, the EU is far and away the most “monitored” continent on the planet.)  However, a national ID is a political nightmare in America; strange as an increasing number of people are beginning to believe.
  2. Inherent Trust in Government.  Second, Europeans tend to have more trust for their government.  American’s inherently distrust their own government as a matter of history.  And without that trust quotient in place, there are additional out-of-band checks and balances required to satisfy the public’s suspicion on the integrity of elections administrators and other government officials.  (Never mind that in the trenches these are not just elections or government officials, but include citizen volunteers.)  Given the additional requirement of general government trust verification, more impediments to  Internet-based ballot casting are present.
  3. Anonymity and Ballot Secrecy.  Third, and this is not a universal attitude in Europe, but it is a significant minority of opinion, Europeans culturally are less inclined to be as vigilant about the anonymity or privacy of their votes.  I heard mixed opinions on this third cultural challenge — in some countries it is more important than others.  But there is more willingness to trade that element for the sake of ease of access, support for a more mobile society, and the conveniences afforded by digital means to serve ballots, provide for clear marking void of uncertainties that give rise to recount or rejection, and the reduction of paper handling, travel, or postage where mails are allowed.  In the U.S., of course, the anonymity of the voter and secrecy of the ballot (as to who cast it) is a hallmark imperative of our electoral process.  And here too, we’re beginning to hear a change in tone amongst younger voters about the importance of that aspect.
  4. Constitutionally Mandated Orderly Transfer of Power.  The final aspect, which is not a cultural artifact but a structural aspect of our democracy cast into the Constitution, concerns the orderly transfer of power and the untenable risk of an election fault that halts the electoral process and risks this orderly transfer (for the office of U.S. President) by 20.January following a general national election.  The scenario is where an Internet catastrophe of some (presumably nefarious) sort seriously disrupts an election in at least one jurisdiction.  As the Hon. Secretary Bowen (CA) asked in her closing address, “So, suppose we successfully do detect an attack at scale during an election being run across the Internet, then what?”  And indeed, this is an academically engaging question.  However, the answer seems to be (and this is why it is a “sort of” potential show stopping fourth aspect), what happens next is very likely the same thing that would happen if a Katrina-class hurricane struck New Orleans on that particular first Tuesday in November (note: hurricane season runs into November down there), or perhaps a major show stopping earthquake struck Los Angeles county around 10:00AM that Tuesday morning.  In other words, whatever plan is in place for a catastrophe, whether natural or man-made (and in the latter case, negligent or malicious), I presume (worth verifying) that it would equally apply in this scenario.  In other words, there must be some crisis plan (that may be defined by law or regulation or handed to the Judiciary) to address the fact that (potentially tens-of-thousands of) voters have been prevented from casting ballots — regardless of the cause, but through no fault of the voters.  I have to believe we have contingencies to avoid such a constitutional crisis, regardless of the nature of the disruption on election day, and that such would cover an Internet born crisis as well.

So, perhaps the 4th issue is addressable and can be set aside for the moment.  As to the remaining 2-3 cultural-class issues, we older generation, some of us far closer to historical corruption or the witnessing of coercion in eras gone by, are more likely to bristle at the thought that anyone dare suggest we evolve our electoral philosophies.  But, the fact remains, a new generation is rising up.  And how many of this new era will one day run the state houses of this nation with a completely different attitude of the priorities in elections run in a digital age?

Let’s be clear, there are several very difficult technical challenges to making an Internet-based ballot casting system work, but they may be over-shadowed by even thornier non-technical problems.

As I reflect on last week’s Internet Voting debate, it is increasingly clear that addressing the technical challenges may, after all, be simpler than addressing the socio-political challenges of voter authentication, secrecy of the ballot, and inherent trust in government officials in running elections.

And there’s no app for that.