Tagged internet voting

Where We Stand – on D.C. and Elsewhere

We’ve been answering lots of questions about the OSDV Foundation’s role in the District of Columbia’s Pilot “digital vote-by-mail” project, including a recent post with a detailed account of the history leading up to the Pilot.  But there is one Q&A in particular that I want to share with a broader audience. It’s a two-part question:

  1. Where do the OSDV Foundation and TrustTheVote Project stand on Internet voting?
  2. How does this square with OSDV’s role in the D.C. Pilot?

To complement Greg’s recent post , I’ve provided what I hope is a crisp, yet complete, answer in the form of a pointed list of positions, which apply very specifically to the use of technology in U.S. elections.

On Internet Voting

  • We do not support Internet voting for everyone – such all-electronic elections lack the ease of independent verification that is the strength of the method of op-scan counted paper ballots coupled with mandatory auditing.
  • We do not support any of the types of Internet voting used in other countries – there is no voter-approved ballot document when the ballot itself is HTML and HTTP data exchanged by a Web browser and an i-voting server.
  • We do not support any usage of email for transporting marked ballots – email is fundamentally and easily vulnerable to mischief en route from the voter to the BOE.
  • These on-line methods of voting and ballot transport all have significant risks to ballot integrity, inherent in the use of the Internet.
  • These on-line methods have significant risk to the “secret ballot” by making either ballots or votes attributable to specific voters.
  • These on-line methods are not a form of “verified voting” where the ballot marked by the voter is the ballot that is counted.
  • We fully support verified voting methods for domestic polling place voting.
  • We fully support existing election practices of paper vote-by-mail.
  • Our core mission is and will remain the creation of open transparent technology to support the existing election practices.
  • We support existing UOCAVA voter-support methods including digital distribution of blank ballots, and express delivery (e.g., surface courier or mails) of marked paper ballots from the voter to their respective BOE.
  • We believe that there may be a need for digital ballot return by those UOCAVA voters who lack timely access to rapid and reliable means of paper ballot return, and who have recently used email for digital ballot return.
  • We believe that it is worth considering whether those UOCAVA voters should demonstrate a need for digital return because of that lack of timely access.

About the D.C. Pilot

  • We are supporting D.C.’s Pilot effort to investigate the need for and feasibility of a Web-based alternative with significantly less risk to the “secret ballot.”
  • We believe that the Pilot’s method does not make Internet voting completely safe or secure for general use.
  • We believe that the Pilot’s method does not make Internet voting completely safe or secure for UOCAVA voters.
  • We believe that the Pilot’s method does address some security issues of current email voting, but does not attempt to address all security issues of email voting, or all security issues of Internet usage.
  • We believe that the Pilot project will create a publicly documented worked example that can be used for concrete evaluation of the Internet risks and ballot-secrecy benefits; an evaluation that should be part of consideration of whether or not any form of digital VBM methods are appropriate for continued use for UOCAVA voters.
  • We believe that the worked-example benefit will be strongly supported by the Pilot project’s pre-election public review period for anyone to try the system, to examine, probe, and assess not only the technology but also its deployment and usage.
  • We believe that the worked-example benefit will be strongly supported by a public post-election out-brief.
  • We believe that the transparency of the Pilot will be strongly supported by system’s software being available for use independent of the DC pilot, including, but not limited to, the existing TrustTheVote Project software for election administration and ballot design, which is one of our key contributions to the project.
  • We believe that much of the digital ballot technology can be dual use, applying to both UOCAVA vote-by-mail and overseas kiosk-based voting.

These statements are specific to U.S. election practices and laws, especially about U.S. military and overseas voters. We certainly respect that other countries have different needs, practices, and capabilities, and in general, a very different election landscape than in the U.S., with its 50+ different state election codes, thousands of election administration jurisdictions, dozens of electoral districts for each individual voter, and a significant portion of the electorate that must vote remotely.

Lastly, an important caveat: these are positions, opinions, and beliefs only of the OSDV Foundation; we do not advocate on behalf of any other organization; as a non-profit public benefits corporation we cannot directly lobby any public agency or institution for any policy or regulatory change. That stated, we certainly can and will continue to opine here and elsewhere, but as always our focus is on the application of technology in the administering of public elections.


The D.C. Pilot Project: Facts vs. Fictions – From Our Viewpoint

The TrustTheVote Project of the Open Source Digital Voting (OSDV) Foundation achieved another important milestone two weeks ago this morning, this time with the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics, although not without some controversy.  The short of it is, and most important to us, the Foundation has been given the opportunity to put real open source elections software into a production environment for a real public election.  But it turns out that milestone is struggling to remain visible.

[Note: this is a much longer post than I would prefer, but the content is very important to explain a recent announcement and our role.]

I’ve waited to launch a discussion in this forum in order to let the flurry of commentaries calm on the news.  Now we need to take the opportunity to speak in own voice, rather than the viewpoint of  journalists and press releases, and provide insight and reality-checks from the authoritative source about what we’re up to: Us. For those of you who have not read any of this news, here is a sample or two.  The news is about the District of Columbia is implementing a Pilot program to digitally deliver ballot to a group of qualified overseas voters, and accept digitally returned ballots from them.  (Actually, D.C. already has accepted digitally returned ballots via Fax and eMail.)  So, the headline might be:

District of Columbia to Launch Pilot Program to benefit Overseas & Military Voters with Digital Distance Balloting Solution Using Open Source Software from Non-Profit Voting Technology Group.”

I believe that is as simple and factual as it gets, and IMHO a fair headline.  However, here are two alternative headlines, depending on your view, interests, or issues:

  1. Open Source Voting Project Succeeds in Production Deployment of New Transparent and Freely Available Elections Technology.”
  2. OSDV Foundation Advances Misguided Cause of Internet Voting, Despite Well Settled Dangers, Putting Election Integrity at Risk.”

If you follow our work or have read our statement on these topics before, then you recognize the headline #1 is where our interests and intentions are focused. Over the past two weeks, though, we’ve received plenty of feedback that some believe that headline #2 is the real and unfortunate news, undermining the efforts of those who tirelessly work for elections integrity. Well, that is not what we intended to do. But we do need to do a better job at communicating our goals, as the facts unfold about the project. So, let me back up a bit and start  an explanation of what we are really doing and what are real intentions are.

But first let me make the following statement, repeating for the record our position on Internet voting:

The Open Source Digital Voting Foundation does not advocate the general use of the public Internet for the transaction of voting data.  The technical team of the TrustTheVote Project strongly cautions that no Internet-based system for casting, let alone counting, of ballots can be completely secure, nor can a voter’s privacy be ensured, or the secrecy of their ballot protected.

We do not recommend replacing current voting systems by adopting Internet Voting systems. However, we think that there may be a use case in which Internet-based ballot return may be the only course of last resort for rapid delivery of a ballot in time to be counted. That case is the very limited situation of an overseas or military voter who believes that they may be disenfranchised unless they rely on a digital means to return their marked ballot, because physical means are not timely or not available. That is the situation that we genuinely believe is being restrictively addressed in the D.C. Pilot project that we are participating.

And to be crystal clear: OSDV’s role is supplying technology.  The District’s Board of Elections and Ethics is running the show, along withe the District’s I.T. organization. But why did we chose this role? The success of the TrustTheVote Project is predicated on accomplishing three steps to delivering publicly owned audit-ready, transparent voting technology:

  1. Design;
  2. Development; and
  3. Deployment.

Design.  We are employing a public process that engages a stakeholder community comprised of elections officials and experts.  We cannot design on our own and expect what we come up with will be what will work.  It is, and must be, a framework of technology components in order to be adoptable and adaptable to each jurisdiction that chooses to freely acquire and deploy the Project’s work. None of the TV Framework specifically addresses any transport means of ballot data.   The Framework voting systems architecture includes accessible ballot marking (“ABM”) devices, optical scanners for paper ballot marked by hand or ABM, and tabulators.  The Framework elections management services architecture includes EMS components, poll books, and ballot design studio.

Development.  We are employing an open source method and process, somewhat modified and similar in structure to how the Mozilla Foundation manages development of their open source software – with a core team that ensures development continuity and leadership, complemented by a team of paid and volunteer contributors.  And the development has to be open, to go along with the open design process, and open testing, delivering on the commitment to building election technology that anyone can see, touch, and try.  We’re developing for the four legs of integrity: accuracy, transparency, trust, and security.

Deployment. But “open source” at the Foundation is also about distribution for deployment.  As we’ve said before, the  OSDV Public License, based on our “cousin’s” license, the Mozilla Public License, meets the special needs of government licensee.  And in so doing we avail the source code, and where required, resources (in exchange for a development grant to the Foundation) to make the necessary refinements and modifications to enable the adopting jurisdiction to actually deploy this open source technology.  The deployment will generally be managed by a new type of commercial player in the elections technology sector: the systems integrator who will provide qualified commodity hardware, with the Project’s software, and the services to stand it up and integrate it with other jurisdiction’s IT infrastructure where required.

One critic has asked, “Why would you agree to support any project that uses the Internet in elections or voting?”  Our motivation for working with the District of Columbia is all about the third “D” – Deployment.   All of our efforts are merely academic, unless stakeholders who have contributed to the specifications actually adopt the resulting open source technology as an alternative to buying more proprietary elections technology, when the opportunity arises to replace or enhance their current solutions.

Now, what about that “Internet” element?

The District of Columbia Board of Elections & Ethics (B.O.E.E) was in search of a solution to enhance their compliance with the MOVE Act.  Of course, people in many election jurisdictions were asking:

If I can deliver the blank ballot and reduce the cycle time for qualified overseas voters, then why shouldn’t we go all the way and facilitate digital return of the marked ballot?

Well, there’s a host of reasons why one shouldn’t do that.  For one quick example: our valued strategic technology partner collaborating with us on data standards, the Overseas Vote Foundation, not only offers digital blank ballot delivery, but  also have renewed their courier services through the assistance of the US Postal Service and FedEx to ensure that the Military voters’ marked ballots can, in fact, make it back in time.   But on the other hand, there is an unfortunate reality that once the digital path is open, OVF, US Mails, or FedEx notwithstanding, jurisdictions will explore leveraging the Net; its happening already in several locations.  That does not make it right or preferable, but it does make it a reality that we need to address.

So, the District at least – at our encouragement dating back to March in Munich – heard our encouragement to explore options, but they did have some requirements.

Specifically, they wanted to conduct a Pilot of a solution that might be a better alternative to accepting returned marked ballots as eMail attachments or Faxed marked ballots exclusively for their overseas and military voters.  And particularly unique to their requirements was – to our delight – a fully transparent open source software solution with unbridled ownership of the resulting source code for all elements of the Pilot solution.  That, of course, is in complete harmony with our charter and mission.

Again, for those readers who know us, and understand our motivations and position on the Internet issue, you can understand our acute focus on the opportunity to deploy open source elections administration software in a real election setting. In the after-glow of this real possibility, and drilling into the details of how the ballot design studio could work for this, we realized we needed to get back to grappling with this digital ballot return detail of the Pilot project.

Initially, we were definitely concerned about how to approach this aspect of the Pilot, since we’ve been clear about our position on the use of the Internet.  But to be frank, with the prospect that the District could simply turn to commercial proprietary Internet voting systems vendors, we felt we had to help find an alternative open source approach for the limited purpose of this Pilot. We encouraged the B.O.E.E. to find an alternative means to digitally return the ballot, but neither by deploying Internet voting products, nor by continuing to rely on Fax or eMail attachments in the clear.  In return, they asked for our help in figuring out how they could implement a solution that worked with real ballot and attestation documents as digital artifacts, which could be transported on an encrypted channel.  This could be better than eMail to be sure, but still using public packet-switched networks.

We turned to several of our technical advisers and convened a meeting to discuss how B.O.E.E and OCTO could approach a digital vote-by-mail Pilot to explore this approach to improving on eMail attachments or Fax’d returns.  The meeting was frank, open, and rather than continuing the rhetoric of avoidance, we witnessed a bunch of stalwarts in information security express concerns, suggest points of mitigation, and brain storm on the possibilities.  And several were kicked around, but tossed aside for want of either acceptable user experience, cost limitations, or operational practicality.  A straw man solution was framed and members of the Core Team went off to refine it knowing that there were aspects that they simply could not address with this Pilot.  Perhaps the most important Pilot parameter: this could not and would not be an exercise to completely assess and determine solutions to all of the known vulnerabilities of securing a voting transaction over a public network.

But it was agreed that a “digital vote-by-mail” process – with the known vulnerabilities and constraints – could be a “worked example” that simply was not what proprietary commercial vendors are selling. And, it was realized that such a solution could not and should not claim any victory in improved security or privacy – no such reality can exist in this solution.

And folks, that is simply and honestly the extent to which we were and are treating this: a “worked example” to serve as a vehicle for voices on all sides of the argument to train their attention in assessing, testing, and determining the viability of such an approach strictly for those overseas and military voters.

One could say the Foundation took a calculated risk: that in order to achieve the larger goal of deploying open source elections technology into a real production environment (a first, and hopefully ground breaking step), we would have to accept that our Stakeholder, B.O.E.E would use the Internet to transport a ballot and attestation document pair using the best possible techniques currently available – HTTPS and standard encryption tools.  And at some measure, at least they had chosen not to pursue a commercial proprietary Internet voting solution, given their steadfast requirement of open source software and maximum transparency.

To my activist colleagues I offer this: we’re giving you a worked example on which to build your arguments against digital transport.  Please do so! We’re with you, believe it or not.  Very frankly, I’d be happy to support some initiative to severely restrict the use of public packet switched networks for transacting voting data.

I want to (re)focus the Project’s attention on the reason a few of us gave up our paying jobs some four years ago: to build a non-profit solution to restore trust in the computers used in the various processes of casting and counting votesWe don’t advocate iVoting.  We do advocate accuracy, transparency, trust, and security in the use of computers in elections and intend to keep working on that open source framework. We do believe limited Pilots are worth it for the special use case of UOCAVA voters,  if such a Pilot can fuel an intellectually honest debate and/or initiatives to resolve the concerns, or end the use of the Net altogether in this regard.  We think the District of Columbia’s Pilot is such a worked example.

OK, this went way over my intended length, but in the spirit of transparency its important we explain what’s been underway for the past several weeks from an authoritative source: Us. In the next installment on this topic, we will discuss more details on the technology we’ll provide for the District’s Pilot, and reiterate our concerns, but also consider the potential of the open source movement in public elections systems.

Thanks for reading.
Greg Miller

E-mail Voting, Complexity, and Trust

Some of the feedback on my internet/email voting post can be summed up this way:

Is email voting really that bad? Sure, emailed ballots can be snooped, tampered, or diverted en route, but so can paper vote-by-mail ballots – yet we still use them. So what, specifically, is so much worse about emailed ballots?

First off, I have to say: “great question!” because it is asking about a comparison between two voting methods that appear to be very similar, but differ fundamentally, as Pito said in his blog post comparing vote-by-mail with atoms and vote-by-mail with bits.  I can shed some light on the technological differences, in my laundry list below. But first I should point out the most important difference between the risks faced by the vote-by-mail (VBM) paper ballots en-route from voter to destination, and the analogous risks for email return.

The difference is, in a word, comprehension by voters. The threats to paper VBM are well-understood, relatively simple to state, and currently accepted as a trade-off for the ability to vote from overseas. Sure, an unknown number of postal workers in an unknown chain of national postal services, all can find VBM ballots, and mess with them or help other to do so. We know that, we’re not keen on it, but it beats not voting all all if you live overseas.

But if you really want to claim that the risks of email are comparable to postal mail, then you have to appreciate a set of broader and more complex technological threats to emailed ballots. Here are some of those threats, that perhaps not everyone is familiar with, including not only a wide variety of technology that can mess with the ballots, and but also a wide variety of people with access to ballots.

  • The email ballot’s first step is in the telephone company of the place where the overseas voter lives. From the voter’s computer, the email passes through telco equipment such as dial-up modems, digital subscriber link access modules (DSLAMs) for DSL service, or coax/cable service equivalents. Telco staff with access to this equipment have access to the ballot.
  • The next step is transport onward from the telco to the voter’s local Internet Service Provider (ISP), using a variety of network switches and routers and firewalls operated by the telco or the ISP. Again, everyone with access to these devices — including remote access via the network — has access to the ballot. The voter has to trust their immediate ISP to not read or tamper or block the email – not to be taken lightly for some overseas voters living in countries where the government actively intercepts Internet traffic.
  • The next steps consist of more transport, via several ISPs along the way to the ISP of the voter’s email service provider. A variety of protocols may be used, but Post Office Protocol (POP3) is fairly common, and the ISPs often have visibility on the POP3 sessions. Again, the voter has to trust these ISPs, and all the people with access to the network gear.
  • The voter also has to similarly trust their email service provider, and the staff with access to the POP3 servers or similar, as well as the SMTP servers that move the mail onward towards it destination.
  • Onward from the voter’s email service provider, there is more transport via more ISPs, and as before the voter is typically not aware of which or how many ISPs, and how many routers and email servers are involved. From an overseas voter’s home PC, it would not be unusual for an email to transit 5 ISPs, 4 mail servers, and 50 hops on the 3 phases of transport. (Those phases are: (1) from voter to their SMTP server, (2) thence to the BOE’s SMTP server, and (3) then from the BOE’s SMTP server to the email’s destination.)
  • At some point the email arrives on the SMTP server for the email address that the voter sent their email to — hopefully, the SMTP for the BOE. From there onward, the email goes from the BOE’s SMTP server to wherever the email finally arrives. In this 3rd phase, the email is accessible in the same way as in the first phase, but in reverse order: all the servers and routers and all the people with local or remote access to them, at these organizations: BOE’s email service provider, the service provider’s ISP, and the telco systems that deliver the BOE’s ISP’s traffic to the BOE computer that is the final destination of the email.
  • And all that is assuming that the email actually arrives – which is not guaranteed, and can’t be verified! Even a confirmation reply email can be easily forged.

Is all that different enough from postal threats? Sure, those overseas postal people can misbehave, but they have to first find a paper VBM ballot, then physical access to it, and time and space to work on the ballot, without significant risk of observation. With email, by contrast:

  • There is a wide array of technology and systems and people with access to them.
  • The access includes remote access where the people don’t have to be physically proximate to the computer or the email data passing through it.
  • And that’s just the insiders, the people with legitimate access to these systems. But let’s not forget the risks that some of these computers or systems have been compromised by purely digital adversaries — a threat made all the more real by successful attacks on Google and several other top-tier technology companies.

I’m pretty sure that most overseas voters and most election officials do have a good understanding of paper vote-by-mail and its risks. I may be wrong, but I expect most of them do not have a similar understanding of this complex set of digital threats to emailed ballots en route, and have not assessed those risks to be at parity with the risks of paper VBM en route. Until and unless that understanding and assessment actually happens, then internet/email voting cannot fairly be said to parallel paper vote-by-mail as an equitable solution.


Elections and the Internet: What’s Helpful, and What’s Not

There is some interesting recent “Internet Voting” news from North Carolina and Georgia. The contrast is in ideal example of different ways of incorporating the Internet into  election technology, sometimes helpful, sometimes not.

From North Carolina, the news is on voting by eMail. This is explicitly permitted by NC law, and my NC colleagues tell me that state officials will be encouraging overseas military voters to return a ballot as PDF file attachment to eMail, during elections this year.  Why now?  Well, thanks to the MOVE Act of last year, it’s now common practice to deliver blank ballots to overseas voters, typically as a PDF either sent to the voter by email, or downloaded by the voter from a state government Web site.  That’s great, because for many voters, there simply isn’t time to wait for the paper ballot to arrive, mark it, and send it back via postal mail.  Now that the ballot’s outbound journey can be digital, though, there are still people who are in a situation where they doubt that postal delivery will get their ballot back in time to be counted.

So, a seemingly simple and obvious solution is to have the ballot’s return journey be digital as well.  But eMail is really not a great way to do that.  One could say an awful lot about all the various problems, but let’s just observe that with eMail the voter is surrendering anonymity of their ballot and the integrity of the ballot en route.  On that route, the eMail message passes through several computers, whose operators can easily read it, and modify it or throw it away if they don’t like it, all without the sender or receiver detecting it.  (For a good video explanation of this, see Andrew Appel’s Internet Voting primer, starting at about 2:15 into the playback.)

Now, I recognize that there are military voters who really are in a situation where there isn’t time for even a one-way postal journey of a ballot.  They may not have been in a position (literally) to download the blank ballot as soon as it was available.  They may be in a situation where the first of the return post is military transport where bullets have priority over ballots and there is no assurance on when the ballot will get to where it can enter the military or local postal service.

But there has to be a better way than essentially telling these voters to either take the chances with lateness of postal return, or give up the secrecy of their ballot and take their chances with the ballot being modified or blocked en route. What would a better way be? Well, the news from GA is of some legislation regarding a pilot where overseas and military voters obtain a blank ballot and return it, digitally.  The legislation doesn’t say how, but it does nicely summarize a lot of requirements for authentication, privacy, anonymity, and integrity of marked ballots returned digitally.  So it’s an encouraging starting point for something that would be better.  We’ll have to stay tuned to see what GA’s future pilot efforts can learn from NC’s present.


Dust Settles on Internet Voting Debate; Mea Culpa Included


Debate-1We’re through it, and for all the angst, sweat, and tears, I sense it went well.  I want to thank the Panelists for being so good-natured (and well behaved as to the time limits in responses).  We had some intense moments of heated disagreement and heated agreement.  I’ll have some more to say later when more recovered, but I believe this is the start of an on-going conversation that brought out the challenges and opportunities of using the Internet in the elections and voting processes.

Mea Culpa(s)

  1. Apologies to Operation Bravo for getting it absolutely wrong on the Pilot locations (polling being on verses off Military base).  I learned a valuable lesson to not try and wedge in that final question in the middle of the night when its too late to wake anyone to confirm facts.  Good thing I had the “Plan B” question.
  2. Apologies to the activists who hounded me about using a coin toss to determine which side went first on closing remarks. I agreed to do so, put the 2 Euro in my pocket to toss, and then completely forgot in the rush of the final moments before going  live to actually toss the coin, and had to randomly point at one side to go first at closing. DoH!

For whatever its wDebate-2orth, I will not declare a winner or loser.  You can watch it on Vimeo or YouTube yourself when it finally posts in a couple of weeks.

But I will say this, as Moderator I thought the Proponents Team pulled it together in the closing argument and made some interesting points after earlier seemingly dropping some balls on answers.  And I thought the Opponents Team could’ve registered a far stronger closing statement after slicing through issues with surgical precision throughout the preceding 80 minutes.

One More Apology

One final, off-topic comment that constitutes another, more serious “mea culpa.” It has been called to my attention by a County Elections Official from Ohio who was “in the trenches” in 2004 and 2006, that our Every Vote Counts booklet has an error on the time-line page claiming a recount was required in the 2004 Ohio results due to machine errors.  This is completely false on all counts and I allowed ourselves to be drawn in by some faulty reporting and research.  In fact, some recounts in 2006 (not ’04) were due to some scanning equipment malfunctions of a mechanical nature only.  The machine issues otherwise alleged have never been substantiated and this Election Official, Rokey Suleman (now running elections in D.C.) has good reason to be frustrated with me by something unintentionally picking at an old battle scar.

We’re going to fix that.  I am committed to transparency.  First, may I please publicly apologize to Rokey Suleman for my public relations and outreach teams’ embarrassing goof.  The buck (er, book) stops with me; they’re my team and I take full responsibility for that.  There are no excuses.  We should have done closer proofing of the work.  OSDV Foundation has a great story to tell, and I hate the possibility of diluting it with an errant statement or representation.

Here is the repair list:

  1. We will correct that page before any further printing of that booklet.  I will do my best to halt further distribution of this version, but apologize in advance if there remain copies floating about or accidentally further distributed.
  2. More importantly, we’re going to give Rokey Suleman our podium here to explain to all of you reading, the story inside Ohio from one of the gentleman who was in the middle of it; from his personal and direct experience.  Mr. Suleman has agreed to draft that for our publication here under his name as a guest blogger.

Furthermore, I note that we learned here in Munich that Rokey is doing some amazing things in his new appointment running D.C. elections.  And he has a deep commitment to overseas and military voters.  I find him to be highly motivated, and passionately committed to accurate, transparent, trustworthy, and secure elections.  And I am impressed by his innovative attitude and intense commitment to seeing the District of Columbia (America’s answer to the Vatican 😉 ) be a thought leader and model for elections in the 21st century and digital age.  His passion for transparency (and interest in open source methods) is refreshing.

I hope this small token of our regrets will allow Rokey Suleman another reasonably public forum to set the record straight (in this case, apparently skewed again at our own hands).

Otherwise, the Debate was fun and exhausting and I can’t wait for the video replay.


The Looming UOCAVA Internet Voting Debate

This is the last long post about the UOCAVA Summit underway in Munich, but in an unannounced move, below I am disclosing all of the topics and questions in tomorrow’s (apparently) much anticipated Internet Voting Debate.

I apologize to those looking for a quick (more typical) blog post on the matter.  But there is (I think) interesting stuff below.

Fact: Silly though I think it is, controversy is swirling around this event; I’ve received more “hate mail” than necessary as moderator, and I believe its important to layout what exactly my line of questioning will be, so that you, the readers, can judge for yourself if I am trying to manipulate the discourse for or against the use of public packet-switched networks for transacting ballot data from public elections.  Think of this as our continuing effort to be transparent – one of our Foundation’s driving principles

So, less than 9 hours remain before we sit down to have what I intend to be a fair and balanced discussion about the challenges and opportunities, the fears, uncertainties, and doubts, and the real and present risks of using public packet switched networks for transacting public ballot data – the so-called Internet Voting debate.

And for me, I am more than ready to put this episode of a long running debate behind me.

Its not that I am no longer interested, nothing could be further from the truth.  But I look forward to slipping back into the mix of many discussing the topic without the klieg lights and responsibility of moderating the participants of a specific debate instance.

The problem is the vitriol nature of unsolicited feedback I’ve received in the past 3 days regarding this event – which is apparently getting far more attention than we anticipated.

Hate mail – its that simple.  And it’s coming from both sides of the debate.  And that’s surprising.  Activists on both sides are convinced that the OSDV Foundation, the Overseas Vote Foundation, and I are all out to railroad the other side in a debate that appears to be tilted against their interest.

Reality distortion fields – its that apparent.  They are being cast, but only I can tell you what is absolutely in my mind and what my intentions are.  And either people can choose to believe me or not.

So with one final effort on the eve of yet another intellectual wrestling match on this, let me try to set the record clear on our intention.  And to do so, in this post I am going to disclose to all interested – in advance – the questions of the Debate planned for 0900 CET tomorrow (about 2200 EDT/0100A Pacific).

First, let me share here the participant line-up:

Moderator: myself, Gregory Miller, Chief Development Officer, OSDV Foundation

Introduction: Dr. Andrew Appel, Professor Computer Science, Princeton University


Harri Hursti, Author: Hacking Democracy

Constanze Kurz, Engineer/Dipl. Inf., Humboldt University Berlin

Pamela Smith, President, Verified Voting

E. John Sebes, Chief Technology Officer, Open Source Digital Voting Foundation [*]


Alexander Trechsel, Professor of Political Science and Swiss Chair in Federalism and Democracy at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, Italy

Christian Bull, Senior Advisor, The Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development, Norway

Thad Hall, Associate Professor of Political Science and Research Fellow, University of Utah, USA

Tarvi Martens, Development Director at SK, Demographic Info, Computer & Network Security, Estonia

Closing Remarks: Honorable Debra Bowen, California Secretary of State

About that [*] after John’s name.
Before moving to the questions, I want to comment on one of the many controversies that have bubbled up over this event.  In the 11th hour, Chantel Enguehard, Researcher and Teacher, Laboratoire d’Informatique de Nantes Atlantique rescinded her agreement to participate for this event on the “opposing side” of the argument for Internet Voting (after previously committing to do so and allowing the Conference to finance her attendance).  Ms. Enguehard has determined that it is not in her best professional (or apparently political) interest to be on any record as speaking against the use of the Internet for elections.  It is her choice, of course, but not the most courteous move to make on the eve of the debate, IMHO.

Let me be clear: I do not believe that just because someone takes a role in a debate staged for a conference as an information exercise, that such necessarily should label that participant as permanently having the opinions of that side of the argument.  And I would’ve been glad to go on record that she is participating in this capacity simply for the academic exercise of explaining the issues to the audience, but that her participation as an opponent does not necessarily reflect her otherwise neutral position on the topic.

Ms. Enguehard argues vigorously that we failed to understand the language nuances relegating the term “debate” in French to mean a discussion of many view points, including neutrals.  Sure.  And she had several weeks to inquire as to whether this was a potential language faux pas on our part (or hers).  She did not.

So, unable to reach an agreement, we’ve dismissed her (at this writing 2350 CET, Thursday) from the Debate, primarily at her insistence of modifying how we run the debate to accommodate her neutrality (you really cannot have a meaningful debate with “neutral” parties.)  The TrustTheVote Project Chief Technology Officer, John Sebes has agreed to stand in her place, although John, in fact, is trying to remain neutral himself on this controversial subject (he is against using the Internet for at least remote – home based – voting in public elections, but open to future possibilities of kiosk-based solutions provided certain issues in the client-server model can be addressed).

So we move forward with the Panelists as introduced above, and now in a move that I am taking on my own, and without advance notice to others, but to clear the air, below you will find a detail of the topics and the questions we will address in tomorrow’s debate, T-9 hours from this writing.

Before the debate begins, Dr. Andrew Appel of Princeton University will present this talk and slides.  We asked Dr. Appel, not (I repeat, not) because of his personal views, but because in looking at various knowledgeable individuals who could present a brief overview of the issues, we found Andrew’s presentation to be simple, straight forward, fair and balanced.  This has been a point of contention from the attack dogs for those in favor of iVoting, contending that we’re setting the debate up with a taint and favoritism towards the opponents by engaging Dr. Appel.  For the final time: nonsense.

Panelist’s Rules of Engagement

  1. I will address a question to either side, and a specific individual and they shall have a 2-minute answer.
  2. The opposing side shall have a 1-minute response.
  3. The original respondent may have an optional 30-second rebuttal at my discretion.
  4. We recognize that reducing this to an hour or so of “sound bites” would be a disservice to the important topic, so there are some situations, where I may engage a respondent or rebuttal in a 1-minute follow-up.  But in order to offer the audience a treatment – potentially not as comprehensive as we would like – on each topic below, “follow-up” opportunities will be allowed in limited circumstances, again at my discretion.
  5. I will do my best to rotate through each Panelist with questions; the fun part of this, any Panelist on either side may be asked to respond to any one of these questions.
  6. It is not our intention to overly control the discussion but it would be a failure to allow the discussion to dissolve into a disorderly argument, so I will respectfully as possible require adherence to this process.  And here is the enforcement clause: if a Panelist fails to yield when time is called more than once during the Debate, I will refrain from any further questions directed to that Panelist. And I do not wish to have that happen, so I look forward to everyone’s cooperation.
  7. The goal is to have an enjoyable, lively, yet informative debate.  Intellectually honest professionals can agree to disagree, and on this topic reasonable minds can and do differ.  So, remember, this is intended to be a “fun” showcase part of the Summit.
  8. Finally, in closing I will ask for a 5-minute closing statement from each side of the debate.

Debate Topics and Questions

A. eMail as a Comparator
You, Panelists, are in consensus that eMail is not an appropriate way to return vote data (for example, sending an image attachment or a PDF of a marked absentee ballot). That noted, in comparison with other home-based voting schemes, these questions:

1. What does eMail voting lack that a client-server iVoting solution provides, in the scheme of voting from a home-based or remotely located PC using a World Wide Web interface?

2. What does eMail voting lack that ordinary vote-by-mail also lacks?

3. Do these answers help us identify some requirements for iVoting?

B. Data Center Management
Both kiosk and home iVoting share the feature of a data center to host the various parts of an iVoting solution, including store vote data, etc.  That data center operation is a very important component of the entire iVoting operation, which gives rise to a series of questions we turn our attention to now.

Depending on time I may ask some or all of these questions:

1. Internet banking seems to work well, and is widely adopted without objection.  Does this provide a model for and lessons for iVoting?  Why or why not?

2. A bank must have a trust delegation model.  Which parts of that model would work for iVoting?

3. Are there applicable models for data center transaction audits in the banking world that provide an appropriate model for iVoting?

4. What technological expertise is required to assess the continuing reliability/trustworthiness of an iVoting solution?   Is this level of expertise accessible to the public officials who select such systems and/or who manage such systems?

5. How can election officials assess the “total cost of ownership” of an iVoting solution, beyond software license fees?  How does this compare with alternative solutions such as vote-by-mail?

6. If any of the proponents are proposing to use iVoting only for UOCAVA settings, what is the rationale for restricting the application of iVoting to this context?

C. Home vs. Kiosk iVoting
Some experts draw a distinction between the use of voting kiosks or polling places with iVoting based ballot casting devices, and the use of home or office-based or otherwise remotely located computing devices to access such a ballot casting service.  Let’s ignore that particular distinction.  One thing we can stipulate is that Kiosk-based iVoting has different costs and logistics than home or remote iVoting solutions.  Let’s not explore those issues.  I will ask each of the Proponents to state simply whether they’re proposing home-only, kiosk-only, or both models for iVoting systems.  Then we’ll address these questions:

1.  What are the comparative risks and advantages of both models?

2. What are the costs/benefits of these differing models?

3.   How do these costs compare to those of traditional non-iVoting polling places?

4.   How do the benefits of home or remote voting compare with Kiosk or polling place models?

D. The Paper Ballot Issue
Some iVoting pilots have included the generation of a ballot-like paper that is retained by election officials.  Others do not.  Let us examine two points.

1.   What can these paper facsimiles best be used for; for example, should they be construed as ballots of record, a paper trail, a receipt, or something else?

2.   Are there chain of custody issues in the handling of these paper records that would be different for an overseas voting setting compared to a domestic voting setting?

E. Original Hand-Made Signatures
Most industrialized democracies use some sort of method to authenticate the voter before they may cast a ballot.  It may be by hand written signature, voter identification card, or some other means.

1.   What methods are appropriate for iVoting systems?

2.   What is the likely leading objection to these authentication methods and how can it best be addressed?

F. Client Platform Integrity
Assuming a traditional client-server model using a public packet-switched network for discussion purposes, the home/remote iVoting has a particular issue with the security risks of the remote PC being used as a voting terminal, including the integrity of the iVoting software executing on the PC, and the integrity of the vote data along the way from the voter across the network to the server.  Some of this has already been discussed, so I want to focus now on one particular aspect of integrity: data security means.  One of our Panelists mitigates these risks by using an “end-to-end” cryptographic method that allows election officials to detect large-scale client-side attacks for election fraud.  This is an interesting model, but raises these questions.

Depending on time I may ask some or all of these questions:

1.   Special end-to-end crypto protocols have been proposed in order to mitigate against the possibility against insider attacks against the servers.

1.1.        Are these methods workable, and are they practical?

1.2.        Are they ready for near term adoption and can their principles be understood sufficiently by elections officials and the public to gain wide acceptance?

2.   Is “detection” sufficient? That is, are the risks acceptable if attacks can be detected at scale?

3.   Is this acceptable-risk concept different depending on whether iVoting is for UOCAVA (overseas absentee) voters only, or for any and all eligible remote voters?

4.   Each Panelist can surely expound on whether client integrity issues must be resolved as a prerequisite for home/remote iVoting. But let’s keep a tight focus on this for the benefit of our audiences.

4.1.        Please pick one reason why or why not client integrity issues must be first resolved, and explain it briefly.

4.2.        What about integrity of the Kiosk systems? Is it sufficient to have a degree of integrity comparable to those of voting devices in state side polling places?

Finally, I may have a bonus question, I am reserving from here, but it will be a follow-up from the above topical agenda.

OK, I leave it up to you, after reading the information above to make a call on whether I am intending to taint this debate or provide for a fair and balanced intellectually honest discussion on the issues, challenges, (and yes) opportunities in the use of the Internet in public elections.

Off to post-dinner gatherings; Sure its 23:55 CET.  It’s Munich and the night is young, although we start in 9 hours. 🙂

Setting a Technology Agenda for Overseas Voting

I have arrived in Munich, reached my hotel and actually caught a nap.  It was a sloppy slushy day here from what I can tell; about 30 degrees and some wet snow; but spring is around the corner.  On the flight over the Pole last evening (I’m a horrible plane sleeper) I worked on final preparations for our Technology Track at this year’s UOCAVA Summit (which I wrote about yesterday).  I thought I’d share some more about this aspect of the Conference.  This is another long post, but for those who cannot be in Munich at this conference, here are the details.

Historically, as I see it, the Summit has been primarily a policy discourse.  While the Overseas Vote Foundation always has digital services to show off in the form of their latest Web facilities to support overseas voters, Summit has historically been focused on efforts to comply, enforce, and extend the UOCAVA (Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act).  This year, with the passage of the MOVE Act (something I also wrote about yesterday), a new tract of topics, discussion, (and even debate) has surfaced, and it is of a technical nature.  This is in principle why the Overseas Vote Foundation approached the OSDV Foundation about sponsorship and co-hosting.  We thought about it, and agreed to both.

Then came the task of actually putting together an agenda, topics, speakers, and content.

I owe a tremendous “thank you” to all of the Panelists we have engaged, and to Dr. Andrew Appel of Princeton, our Chief Technology Officer John Sebes, and our Director of Communications, Matthew Douglass, for their work in helping produce this aspect of Summit.  Our Director of Outreach Strategy, Sarah Nelson should be included in here for her logistics and advance work in Munich.  And of course, I would be remiss if I left out the fearless and brilliant leader of the OVF, Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, for all of her coordination, production work, and leadership.

A quick note about Andrew:  I’ve had the privilege of working with Professor Appel on two conferences now.  Many are aware that one of our tract productions is going to be a debate on so-called “Internet Voting” and that Dr. Appel will give the opening background talk.  I intend to post another article tomorrow on the Debate itself.  But I want to point out something now that certain activists may not want to hear (let alone believe).  While Andrew’s view of Internet-based voting systems is well known, there can be no doubt of his interest in a fair and balanced discourse.  Regardless of his personal views, I have witnessed Andrew go to great lengths to examine all sides and build arguments for and against public packet switched networks for public ballot transactions.  So, although several are challenging his giving the opening address, which in their view taints the effort to produce a fair and balanced event, I can state for a fact, that nothing is further from the truth.

Meanwhile, back to the other Track events.

We settled on 2 different Panels to advance the discussion of technology in support of the efforts of overseas voters to participate in stateside elections:

  1. MOVE Act Compliance Pilot Programs – titled: “Technology Pilots: Pros and Cons, Blessing or Curse
  2. Technology Futures – titled: “2010 UOCAVA Technology Futures

Here are the descriptions of each and the Panelists:

Technology Pilots: Pros and Cons, Blessing or Curse

The title is the work of the Conference Sponsor, OVF, but we agree that the phrase, “Technology Pilots” trips wildly different switches in the minds of various UOCAVA stakeholders.  The MOVE Act requires the implementation of pilots to test new methods for U.S. service member voting.  For some, it seems like a logical step forward, a natural evolution of a concept; for others pilots are a step onto a slippery slope and best to avoid at all costs. This panel will discuss why these opposing views co-exist, and must continue to do so.

  • Paul Docker, Head of Electoral Strategy, Ministry of Justice, United Kingdom
  • Carol Paquette, Director, Operation BRAVO Foundation
  • Paul Stenbjorn, President, Election Information Services
  • Alec Yasinsac, Professor and Dean, School of Computer and Information Sciences University of South Alabama

John Sebes, Chief Technology Officer, TrustTheVote Project (OSDV Foundation)

2010 UOCAVA Technology Futures

UOCAVA is an obvious magnet for new technologies that test our abilities to innovate.  Various new technologies now emerging and how they are coming into play with UOCAVA voting will be the basis of discussion.  Cloud computing, social networking, centralized database systems, open source development, and data transfer protocols: these are all aspects of technologies that can impact voting from overseas, and they are doing so.

  • Gregory Miller, Chief Development Officer, Open Source Digital Voting Foundation
  • Pat Hollarn, President, Operation BRAVO Foundation
  • Doug Chapin, Director, Election Initiatives, The Pew Center of the States
  • Lars Herrmann, Redhat
  • Paul Miller, Senior Technology and Policy Analyst, State of Washington
  • Daemmon Hughes, Technical Development Director, Bear Code
  • Tarvi Martens, Development Director at SK, Demographic Info, Computer & Network Security, Estonia

Manuel Kripp, Competence Center for Electronic Voting

The first session is very important in light of the MOVE Act implementation mandate.  Regardless of where you come down on the passage of this UOCAVA update (as I like to refer to it), it is now federal law, and compliance is compulsory.  So, the session is intended to inform the audience of the status of, and plans for pilot programs to test various ways to actually do at least two things, and for some (particularly in the Military), a third:

  1. Digitally enable remote voter registration administration so an overseas voter can verify and update (as necessary) their voter registration information;
  2. Provide a digital means of delivering an official blank ballot for a given election jurisdiction, to a requesting voter whose permanent residence is within that jurisdiction; and for some…
  3. Examine and test pilot digital means to ease and expedite the completion and return submission of the ballot (the controversy bit flips high here).

There are, as you might imagine, a number of ways to fulfill those mandates using digital technology.  And the latter (3rd) ambition raises the most concern.  Where this almost certainly involves the Internet (or more precisely, public packet-switched networks), the activists against the use of the Internet in elections administration, let alone voting, are railing against such pilots, preferring to find another means to comply with the so-called “T-45 Days” requirement of placing an official ballot in the hands of an overseas voter, lest we begin the slide down the proverbial slippery slope.

Here’s where I go rogue for a paragraph or two (whispering)…
First, I’m racking my brain here trying to imagine how we might achieve the MOVE Act mandates using a means other than the Internet.  Here’s the problem: other methods have tried and failed, which is why as many as 1 in 4 overseas voters are disenfranchised now, and why Sen. Schumer (D NY) pushed so hard for the MOVE Act in the first place.  Engaging in special alliances with logistic companies like FedEx has helped, but not resolved the cycle time issues completely.  And the U.S. Postal Service hasn’t been able to completely deliver either (there is, after all, this overseas element, which sometimes means reaching voters in the mountainous back regions of say, Pakistan.)  Sure, I suppose the U.S. could invest in new ballot delivery drones, but my guess is we’d end up accidentally papering innocent natives in a roadside drop due to a technology glitch.

Seriously though (whispering still), perhaps a reasonable way forward may be to test pilot limited uses of the Internet (or hec, perhaps even Military extensions of it) to carry non-sensitive election data, which can reach most of the farther outposts today through longer range wireless networks.  So, rather than investing ridiculous amounts of taxpayer dollars in finding non-Internet means to deliver blank ballots, one proposal floating is to figure out the best, highest integrity solution using packet-switched networks already deployed, and perhaps limit use of the Internet solely for [1] managing voter registration data, and [2] delivering blank ballots for subsequent return by means other than eMail or web-based submission (until such time as we can work out the vulnerabilities on the “return loop.”)  While few can argue the power of ballot marking devices to avoid under-voting and over-voting (among other things), there is trepidation about even that, let alone digital submission of the completed ballot. As far as pilots go, it would seem like we can make some important headway on solving the challenges of overseas voter participation with the power of the Internet without having to jump from courier mule to complete Internet voting in one step.  That observed, IMHO, R&D resulting in test pilots responsibly advances the discussion.

Nevertheless, the slippery slope glistens in the dawn of this new order.  And while we’ll slide around a bit on it in these panels, the real sliding sport is the iVoting Debate this Friday — which I will say more about tomorrow.

OK, back from rogue 😉

So, that this is where the first Panel is focused and where those presentations and conversations are likely to head in terms of Pilots.  In my remaining space (oops, I see I’ve gone way over already, sorry), let me try to quickly comment on the second panel regarding “technology futures.”

I think this will be the most enjoyable panel, even if not the liveliest (that’s reserved for the iVoting Debate).  The reason this ought to be fun is we’ll engage in a discussion of a couple of things about where technology can actually take us in a positive way (I hope).  First, there should be some discussion about where election technology reform is heading.  After all, there remain essentially two major voting systems commercial vendors in the industry, controlling some 88% of the entire nation’s voting technology deployment, with one of those two holding a ~76% white-knuckled grip market share.  And my most recent exposure to discussions amongst commercial voting vendors about the future of voting technology suggest that their idea of the future amounts to discussing the availability of spare parts (seriously).

So, I’m crossing my fingers that this panel will open up discussions about all kinds of technology impact on the processes of elections and voting – from the impact of social media, to the opportunities of open source.  I know for my 5 minute part I am going to roll out the TTV open source election and voting systems framework architecture and run through the 4-5 significant innovations the TrustTheVote Project is bringing to the future of voting systems in a digital democracy.  Each speaker will take 5 minutes to rush their topic, then our moderator Manuel will open it wide up for hopefully an engaging discussion with our audience.

OK, I’ve gone way over my limit here; thanks for reading all about this week’s UOCAVA Summit Technology Tract in Munich.

Now, time to find some veal brätwurst und ausgezeichnet bier.  There is a special meaning for my presence here; my late parents are both from this wonderful country, their families ended up in Munchen, from which both were forced out in 1938.   Gute nacht und auf wiedersehen!


Munich: This Week’s iVoting Battleground

I am on my way to Munich, as I post this, for the 2010 UOCAVA Summit.  The OSDV Foundation is a co-host this year, and we’re coordinating the technology track of this 3-day gathering focused on the issues and opportunities for our overseas voters.  This year’s event is arguably the most important UOCAVA (Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act) gathering since the passage of the Act in 1986.  Last November, Congress and the President brought UOCAVA into the 21st century by passing the MOVE Act into law – which is somewhat like an amendment to UOCAVA.

And 2 very important outcomes will be showcased this week in Munich.

2010SummitAs an aside, you may be asking why Munich and not, say, Washington D.C.?  Good question (especially as I spend 17 hours of my day traveling from the west coast to Munich).  But there is rhyme and reason here.  Every election year in the U.S. (which means every other year) the Overseas Vote Foundation produces the UOCAVA Summit in Europe to bring together all of our fellow citizens and their organizations stationed abroad to learn the latest developments in efforts to include Americans overseas in the processes of democracy state-side.  This includes large corporations with major installations in Europe and abroad, as well as NGOs and of course, the Military.  What you may not realize is [a] there are over 6 million Americans abroad, and [b] recent studies, which catalyzed the MOVE Act, indicate that as many as 1 in 4 overseas citizens are unable to participate in U.S. elections for a variety of reasons, but due mostly to verifying their registration status and/or receiving and casting a ballot in time to be counted.  So, this being a mid-term election year, the Summit is in Europe, and this time, Munich.

Now, what about those two outcomes?

The first major outcome of the MOVE Act to play prominently in this year’s conference is one of the fundamental mandates of the Act that states in relevant part, that elections jurisdictions shall provide a digital means to obtain a blank ballot for any overseas voter at least 45 days before an election.

At first glance, you might say, “Duh, of course, like, aren’t we already doing that?”  And the answer is, by and large, no.  But in this always-on digital age, making blank official ballots available for download, casting (filling out by marking choices), and then returning (through expedited mail means), seems to be the proverbial no-brainer.  And now, federal law makes it mandatory.

Of course, caution: we don’t exactly want an unchecked number of blank ballots loose in cyberspace either (I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to realize why that might be a bad idea).  So, we need to ensure that we only issue ballots to a qualified recipient, and in fact, each qualified recipient returns one, and only one completed ballot.  Yes, yes, I know it is “block and tackle” sort of stuff.  But the devil is in the digital details.

Accordingly, there will be much to discuss about implementing MOVE Act mandates, particularly blank ballot delivery by digital means (read: downloadable, probably a PDF).  And, of course, the TrustTheVote Project is excited about this, because there is an opportunity to showcase the work underway on open source solutions to design, generate, and distribute blank ballots (that would be our Ballot Design Studio component of the TTV Elections and Voting Technology Framework — incidentally, we’re moving so fast that we have yet to update a bunch of documentation on the Ballot Design Studio project component on the Wiki… yes we need more help!).

The good news for our fellow overseas citizens is that this is a funded mandate, and all states and elections jurisdictions are hard at work determining how to meet the mandate.  And there’s more good news because at least a few states are already there.   Non-profit organizations (NGOs) as well as the Department of Defense through the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) are also working hard to make services available ASAP.  So, it will happen.  And perhaps the OSDV Foundation open source technology – a publicly owned asset – will have a chance to play a role in that work.

There are many who are energized to make this as easy as possible in a digital age.  And to some, providing blank ballots in a downloadable PDF is merely a start to bringing the processes of democracy into the digital age.

Therein lies the 2nd prominent outcome to be showcased this week.

You see, rightly or wrongly (and the arguments both ways are non-trivial) some believe that if the blank ballot is available digitally, there is no reason why we cannot cut the cycle time of overseas voting completely by making it possible to fill out the ballot digitally and then returning it by digital means.

The Department of Defense, for example, argues from the simple point-of-view of risk management.  To many in the military, the benefits of a far greater probability of having their ballot received and counted far outweigh the risk of a ballot being read, intercepted, or even hacked (let alone revealing the identity of the casting citizen). A military statesman, whom I have a great deal of respect for, points out that shooting with “live ballots” is nothing compared to shooting with live bullets, so this is an easy decision (i.e., to adopt as digital a process as soon as possible to ensure speedy delivery and return of ballots).

For other overseas citizens, whose mail services are far better and accessibility challenges are far fewer, the digital means to complete the “ballot transaction” represents a powerful convenience given their remote (absentee) status.

But this opens “Pandora’s Internet Voting Box” to the opponents of this proposed digital efficiency, because if digital ballot casting is extended to our military, and then expanded to include overseas voters, goes the argument, then every absentee voter on the planet (including those merely “out of town” on elections day) will cry foul if they too are not allowed to participate in this highly efficient 21st century manner.

Then the horns kick in, and my shoes start to squeak, because this is a slippery slope, and gosh darn it, this sort of thing could lead to Internet voting!  That is the 2nd outcome of this week’s conference: the great debate on whether public packet-switched networks should be used to transact ballot data in public elections.

At times, we’ve alluded to our position on that matter in blog posts and other content here on the Blog and our project Wiki.  And I will leave it as an exercise for the bored and curious to “look it up.”  What I will say is this: contrary to several concerns raised, I signed up for, and remain committed (with a fiduciary sense of responsibility) to moderating a fair and balanced debate on Internet Voting or what we’ve coined ‘iVoting.”  And I have no intention whatsoever of attempting to sway the debate in one direction or another, favour one side or another, or allow my opinions to color my commentary or line of questioning.

It promises to be a lively discussion.

To some, the use of the Internet in public elections is inevitable as we progress into the digital age.  Maybe so.  And to several European nations, this step has already been successfully achieved.  Bear in mind that there are historical and key cultural differences between the USA and Europe in matters of public elections making adoption of methods like vote-by-mail as well the Internet both palatable and plausible.

To others, this is a nightmare unfolding before their eyes.  These opponent activists have relied on academics and other domain experts’ assertions, observations, and statements, which are necessarily technically accurate.  The (valid) concerns of these technically precise professionals have fueled the fury within opponents who reasonably fear for the integrity of our elections, if they are conducted across a digital means where compromises and vulnerabilities are an inherent part of the architecture of packet-switched networks.  And caution should be exercised.

Does this mean that the notion of using the power and capability of the Internet to enable this important aspect of our digital democracy should be outlawed, forbidden, and eliminated from consideration?

Is there a middle ground that provides a way forward wherein carefully supervised experimentation, research, and further development into designs and deployments that address the persistent integrity issues?

Should we realize and respect that going forward democracies in a digital age must provide a plurality of means by which its citizens can participate in elections, whether that be by mail, in person at a polling place, partially through digital means, or entirely on-line?

Or are the integrity issues raised largely unwarranted in the face of technical capabilities, processes, policies, or procedures that are being drowned in the calls for a legislative mandate to make illegal the use of the Internet in any capacity in public elections?  (Note: keep it on the down low, but packet-switched networks have been used to back-haul aggregate election data for years.)

All of these are the questions and issues are being discussed (and debated) this week in Munich at the 2010 UOCAVA Summit.  And they are being driven by both [a] the passage of the MOVE Act into U.S. law and [b] the full throttle intent by some groups to advance all of the potential capabilities of digital delivery of ballots for (at least) overseas voters.  Stay tuned.


Internet Voting, Google, and the China Syndrome

Thanks again to David Jefferson for his post yesterday on the lessons for Internet voting of the Google/China news (NYT: In Rebuke of China, Focus Falls on Cybersecurity). To answer some follow-up questions, I’ll explain a bit about the term vote servers that David referred to.

Let’s start with a little background on Internet voting. Many peoples’ cybersecurity concerns about i-voting have a focus on the vulnerability of the voter’s Internet-connected computer, on which a Web browser is used for i-voting. The browser  communicates with an i-voting Web server (or vote server), displays ballot items, allows the user to make vote selections, and so on (very similar to what many people do with surveymonkey and similar services on the Internet today). The security concerns are valid, whether the client computer is a home PC or a special-purpose kiosk system in a physically controlled polling place set up in a military base overseas.

But just as important is the “server side” of i-voting – the Internet-connected vote server, the Web server front-end, the database it uses, and all the other datacenter infrastructure. That infrastructure is one basket with all the eggs – the data that is used to create an election result. So of course there is concern over that basket being a target itself. After, why trouble with renting botnet time, crafting malware to distribute to already-hacked PCs, and the other work required to tamper with some of the i-ballots at the source? Why bother, if you can tamper with all of the ballots’ votes at the single destination? Good question, and the typical answer is that attacking the source is much easier, if you assume that an i-voting datacenter uses “industry best practices” for security, as is the common claim of i-voting vendors and service providers.

But as the continuing Google/China news shows us,  dedicated, politically motivated adversaries have been quite able to penetrate the defenses of the I.T. plant of some of the biggest most tech-savvy companies with some of the best I.T. and security staff in the world. That being the case, why should anyone blithely accept any claim that a i-voting datacenter is sufficiently defended to protect the vote data and the election itself?

Now, nobody is suggesting that the Chinese government would try to hack Internet elections for real U.S. government offices. But now look at it from the point of view of a responsible election official, pondering the offers of for-profit vendors of proprietary i-voting solutions, who have indeed run a few election pilots and would like to have the business of running full elections out of their data-centers using their i-voting systems. The vendors claim that they have spent “enough” time, money, and effort on security. The question is whether …

…  some small company that has run a few election pilots has any chance of locking down its vote servers so tightly that it can withstand a similarly determined “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” when Google and these other big company’s cannot?

That’s not a rhetorical question! The vendors are probably not the right judges about “enough” but there are several U.S. election officials who are currently mulling i-voting for overseas and military voters; they are the ones who need to weigh the risks and benefits, the required security and controls — hopefully with the advice from some of several the election technology and security experts at work on election tech or policy today.


What Google’s New China Policy Tells Us About Internet Voting

[My thanks to to election and tech expert David Jefferson for contributing this excellent, pithy, and though-provoking reflection on the day’s top tech/policy news story. — EJS]

Google recently announced in an important change of policy that it will stop censoring search results for queries coming from China.  That is interesting in its own right, but is not why I am writing this article.

According to their corporate blog post, what prompted this change of policy was the discovery of “a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on [Google’s] corporate infrastructure originating from China”.  They found similar attacks on “at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses”.

Google further said that they “have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists”.  We are not likely to hear more detail in public about the attacks, but this is extraordinary news.

As you can imagine, Google has one of the strongest IT staffs, with among the broadest and deepest security expertise of any company in the world, and presumably the other twenty plus large companies are generally well protected as well.  Yet they were all apparently compromised remotely, by agents of a foreign power, and for political purposes!

Is there anyone out there who still believes that some small company that has run a few election pilots and now wants to run infrastructure for Internet voting has any chance of locking down its vote servers so tightly that it can withstand a similar “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” against a U.S. election when Google and these other big companies cannot?

— David Jefferson