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.


7 responses to “Internet Voting – Is it Ever Possible? Should it be?

  1. Yes, Internet voting is and should be possible. There are also lots of possible variants. I’ve written about this before, and do not want to repeat, but will offer a couple of key points.

    1. Do not under-count the error in the current voting process.
    2. End-to-end checks are key.

    Remember that the voting process does not begin on polling day, and our aim is not perfection, but to do better than what we have now.

    1. I believe wholeheartedly that all will have the priviledge of voting nationwide elections online… and that it will be very legal because
      everyone will have a hidden information code status even a possible D.N.A. code.. A good way to know who is who and what is what in this country and I am a felon and cannot vote until I follow certain steps to gain back my priviledges without a doubt I believe in myself enough that I will regardless how negative some people up here in Harrison,Arkansas feel…
      Muffy C.I.A.
      name with held to protect
      the innocent……

  2. Preston-
    So, there remain several issues around balancing the privacy and security aspects of the voter and ballot. And without those resolved, no effort to utilize public packet switched networks to transact ballot data will ever be tolerated from the activists and opponents of such. That noted, the OSDV Foundation is examining ways and means to prove or disprove that these challenges can be satisfactorily resolved.

  3. Hi All!

    I just discovered this blog. Its great to see someone like Gregory Miller write about Internet voting with an open mind. I have been debating “paper pushers” for a long time. I’m writing a book which advocates Internet voting in all US elections. But before I say more on that, I’d like to reply to Mr. Miller’s four points.

    1. Under our Constitution, the states have the responsibility to administer elections, even for federal office. So the notion of a “national ID card” grinds against the Constitution. Each state has its own voter registration process. A few now have biometric voter registration done in conjunction with applications for driver licenses, picture ID, welfare, etc.

    2. Americans did have trust in Internet voting before the sabatouge of the DoD’s SERVE project in 2004. After Rubin, Jefferson, Simons, and Wagner started their unscientific fear mongering campaign, trust in Internet voting dropped. Also, the Rubin, Bev Harris et all campaign against DREs affected opinion about Internet voting.

    3. Secrecy of the voter’s ID and the separation of that from his/her vote is already being done. Only the fear and propaganda stimulated mistrust remains a problem

    4. Barbara Simons must have poisoned Bowen’s mind with that Sci Fi Nightmare scenario. Simons once declared that a teenager in Iran could hack into a US Internet voting system, and change the election!

    First, every state would have its own secure servers. Indeed, many counties would have their own systems. Your worry assumes a single, vulnerable system. See #1, above. Second, as an academic exercise, see the 20th and 25th Amendments re presidential succession.

    I’d like to engage you and your readers in Q/A or debate. Thanks for this blog!

    William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.

  4. Dear Mr. Miller and Readers:

    I would like you to know about the book I am working on, entitled:
    How to Sideline the Superrich in All US Elections with Secure Internet Voting

    In this book I will advocate the use of Internet voting in all US elections. Two chapters discuss the security issues. It can be done with all the security of an online purchase or electronic banking.

    One chapter is entitled “The Original Intentions of the Framers for US Presidential Elections.”

    I also discuss the outrageous costs of running for president. Obama spent about $740,000,000 in 2008. Of course, this gives an unfair advantage to the superrich who can make big contributions.

    Most importantly, I show how a system of presidential elections based on Internet voting can neutralize the power of Big Money, and make the president and vice-president directly dependent upon the people who elected them. Here is a cure for both Citizens United, and a government that ignores the people and favors the rich!

    No agent/pub, yet. But all my chapter drafts are online for free reading or downloading at:

    You are welcome to read any of this, and comment on it to me, or in your own writing.

    William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.

    If you would like to understand the causes of the killing of SERVE, see my two chapters entitled “The Reasonable Person Standard and the Critique of Leading Figures in the Making of Public Policy: The Case of Internet Voting,” and
    “Internet Voting: The Great Security Scare”

    William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
    Political Scientist, author, speaker, CEO for
    The Internet Voting Research and Education Fund
    A CA Nonprofit Foundation

  5. Fascinating discussion of the overall issues.

    I agree with the notion of distribution among the states as a way to avoid a single point of failure. Indeed in 2000 we had what appeared to be a failure in the Florida election with the design of the ballots. I am sure this is not the first or the last time this will happen and I am not sure why the fretting about Internet voting, except that the potential scale can go as wide as a state.

    The way that elections are being piloted right now implies that a small set of vendors are getting their hand at helping certain jurisdiction to test out the ballot presentation process. The issue then is not in the idea of a hack attack taking down the whole election. The issue is that a small set of vendors would actually be responsible for all Internet voting. And that means that when one system is compromised in one county, that could spread to other states quite easily, and very quickly.

    Since the underlying technology solutions used by states is not a secret due to transparency laws, in fact the notion that each state is separate unto itself goes away when a small set of vendors run elections for all 50 states.

    There are seemingly 2 options:
    1. Increase the number of vendors to ensure that no 2 counties or states run the same technology and makes security by obfuscation and lack of standards the order of the day. This is basically how elections are run now.

    2. Use an open source solution or even a set of open source solutions that work teogether, that is available for all states/counties to use. The code will be open, transparent, the systems as well. Anyone can inspect the code for issues, problems. Independent sources will be able to understand the limitations and FIX them, by the people who can.

    In the first option, a small number of companies win outright and gather the spoils. There will not be a huge number of these companies simply due to the way economies of scale work. They will buy each other and consolidate into a few eventually simply due to economics and how high tech usually works.

    In the second option, it will take a very very long time for high quality open source solutions to arise simply because THERE IS NOT AS MUCH MONEY in this work. So there is much less to go around as licenses are free. In theory only hardware, if any, needs to be bought, and services to install/manage/maintain.

    As the election officials and others who run elections become younger and more technologically mature and proficient, there may be a time in the future that they can THEMSELVES install this technology as long as it is cheap and cheerful.

    The other issue for open source is that monolithic, hard to manage apps are HARD to create simply due to the nature of the development process. This is a negative because it takes that much longer to create the solutions, but the crafting of the designs and solutions are that much better thought through.

    I’d say the option #2 is the only clear way to proceed in the long term, but both options 1 and 2 will continue to wage battle in the short term. In theory both can operate simultaneously in concert to see which cultural philosophy wins out. This could be the first real huge win for open source in government. And that the DoD must take a stance on this issue to give some guidance for these abroad pilots that are on the horizon in 2010 and 2012.

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