Internet voting, the third-rail of elections
Often controversial and contentious, but does it have to be?
By M. Mindy Moretti
There are no two words that get elections officials, scholars, vendors and geeks more riled up than Internet voting.
The emotions on both sides often run so high that at times it can seem almost impossible to even have a conversation about the concept of casting a ballot online.
But with concerns about long lines on Election Day, with the U.S. Postal Service cutting services, and elections officials concerned about getting ballots to voters overseas or in times of emergency, is it possible to discuss the possibilities?
“Is there anything not controversial related to voting? If voting machines had to go through acceptance that Internet voting is facing, they wouldn’t have been rolled out,” said Brian Newby, Johnson County, Kan. election commissioner. “The movement has pretty successfully been slowed by emotion and in particular, emotion masquerading as fact.”
According to Newby, beyond the technological issues, there are some who are very impassioned because it takes away the spirit of community that comes with voting.
“I respect that opposition because at least they are saying they don’t like Internet voting because of the way they feel. That’s an emotional argument that’s fair because it’s called out from the beginning as being emotional.
Newby acknowledged that it is a difficult conversation, in part, because the country is no closer to Internet voting in the United States, really, than it was five or 10 years ago.
“Discussion has been successfully stonewalled, so why fight with success?” Newby said. ”The best argument that could be made would be that there is a growing use of Internet voting options for military and overseas voters, but even those options have been much more evolutionary than revolutionary.”
Those who have expressed concerns about the idea of Internet voting say that until the system is changed, conversations are always going to be difficult. For many of them, the conversation right now is putting the cart before the horse.
“We need a different Internet for Internet voting to be a reality. We would also likely need to give up the secret ballot,” said Kim Alexander president of the California Voter Foundation. “And we'd probably need some kind of biometric identifier to make an Internet system work securely. I don't feel these are appealing or likely options, so it seems a waste of time to focus on Internet voting, but I know people will continue to do so.”
Pam Smith, with Verified Voting said that the security issues surrounding Internet voting are a larger problem than those surrounding DREs, but that it’s hard for people to grasp because we spend so much of our daily lives online.
Smith said she’s not sure the conversation has to be as difficult and emotional as it has been for some factions.
“There can be — and is — some very rational discussion about the nature of the issues to be solved. If there is tension, it is between two perspectives, I think -- the desire that it be viable for use already, today, vs. certain unsolved problems have to be addressed before it actually is viable,” Smith said. “I think we all agree that Internet voting if it could be made secure would be desirable; unfortunately the technology just doesn't exist to satisfy this desire at this time. “
Smith added that the good news is there is a preponderance of evidence --and agreement-- that more research is needed.
Dan Nolan, with SOE Software, said that he thinks the topic is so passionate because the right to vote is perhaps one of our greatest freedoms, and one that has evolved the most over the past 200-plus years.
“People tend to get very protective of the vote and the election process,” Nolan said. “And I admire that and appreciate it, but elections have to evolve to meet the needs of society.”
Nolan who was the deputy supervisor of elections for Hillsborough County, Fla. from 2002-2004 and helped the county transition to DRE machines following the passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 said that no one who supports Internet voting proposes eliminating other forms of voting, but Internet voting would be just one more option for people.
“We have to start looking at what we can do to meet the requirements of a changing population,” Nolan said. “We still have to be able to have the conversation, not just shut it down because of the risks. We need to be able to take account of the risks, but we cannot be treed by the Chihuahua.”
Some jurisdictions have started to make inroads into Internet voting, either through necessity, like New Jersey did in the wake of Super Storm Sandy, or convenience for our troops overseas. But what about on a large scale? Could this be something the newly appointed Presidential Election Commission recommends?
“I’m of the growing belief that there will be a big-bang disruption,” Newby said. “Either a city will just start using Survey Monkey, for instance, or a state legislature will just simply pass a bill that requires Internet voting by a specific date, leaving the election officials in that state to solve the problem.”
Newby noted that there have been plenty of societal events and election laws that have demonstrated that the elections industry doesn’t always have control of the “if and when” Internet voting.
“Anyone clinging to the absolute, that Internet voting will never happen, is not realistic,” Newby said.
The Oscars go online
This year for the first time, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences allowed members of the Academy to cast their ballots for the Oscars online.
Because there were issues with the process, many opponents of online voting took that as an example of why we cannot have online voting for elections in the United States.
But others have pointed out that the problems surrounding the Oscars vote were not with security, but with usability. Users reported compatibility problems with certain Internet browsers and password issues.
“The people that did the stuff for the Oscars, they were all about ‘military-grade security,’ but they didn’t make their interface useable,” Nolan said. “You have to assess your market and develop your system to interface with that market. You can’t just do security.”
Smith said that it’s been a bit unfair to compare a private election like the Oscars to a public election because there are simply so many differences not only the procedures, but in the rules/laws that dictate the administration of the election.
“The fact is we don't know enough about how the Academy is implementing the system, so we can't really learn much from their experience as a result,” Smith said.
According to Newby, the Oscar voting news and the misleading headlines that came with many of the news stories, demonstrated the power of a vocal minority who tried to pain the experience in a way that demonstrated Internet voting wouldn’t work.
“I’m not advocating Internet voting, but I’m not downplaying it, either,” Newby said. “I believe that if a system were developed that a majority of election administrators were comfortable using in their jurisdictions, there still would be this emotional cry that Internet voting is bad. The same type of emotional cry exists for voting machines, and the machines wouldn’t be in use if election administrators didn’t think they were secure.”
Editor’s Note: Some quotes in this story appeared in a previous edition of electionlineWeekly.