Is E-Voting A Pipe Dream?

What if you could vote for McCain or Obama with the same ease and certainty as buying something on Amazon or sending a text message? Moving to online and wireless voting would certainly prevent the trauma of dimpled chads that haunted the 2000 presidential race. Digitizing the democratic process would also ostensibly narrow the embarrassing turnout gap between reality shows like American Idol and presidential elections. Too bad it may never happen. For one, going digital doesn’t necessarily mean your vote will be counted correctly. Just look at the well-chronicled bizarre behavior of in-person electronic voting machines. Then there are the sticky issues of identity authentication and potential hacking, not to mention the alienation of those voters who do not have easy access to the Web. Internet voting wouldn’t do much to enfranchise people on the far side of the digital divide, but cell phones have the potential to do just that. Could the ability to vote by SMS empower a whole group of citizens who normally sit out the voting process? A Stressed System The time has never seemed more ripe to transition away from physical polling stations permanently, not just because of their inconvenience but because today’s infrastructure looks as though it may collapse under the weight of one of the most eagerly anticipated elections in decades. In 2004, wait times at polling places in our nation’s capitol averaged nearly an hour, according to a white paper report by election solutions provider Hart InterCivic. In Ohio, voters waited anywhere from 20 minutes to more than 8 hours. We like to fret about low voter turnout in the U.S., but getting out to vote may not be our only problem. “While many people bemoan the lack of turnout in the United States, we appeared to reach institutional capacity—especially in battleground states—in 2004 with lines that were several hours long in many polling stations, even though just 61 percent of eligible adults voted,” said Aaron Strauss, doctoral candidate in Princeton’s department of politics. According to the Pew Research Center, turnout may well hit record levels in this presidential election. In June, 72 percent of registered voters polled said they’ve “given a lot of thought to the election.” Compare that with 58 percent in June of 2004, and 46 percent in June of 2000. Although it’s not technically possible to implement remote digital voting now to meet this anticipated increased turnout, it’s certainly feasible that it could be made a reality two election cycles from now. But first we need to understand the obstacles. Online Voting = How Many More Votes? The Web has already tremendous impact on the democratic process. A full 46 percent of Americans have used the Internet to gather news about the current presidential race (according to a June Pew study). Two-thirds of Americans younger than 30 have a social networking profile, and half of those have used their social networks to get or share political information, the Pew study found. Voting over the Internet seems like a logical extension of everything else we already do online. It could be a dream of convenience, but would that translate into greater participation? “From a turnout standpoint, anything that makes voting easier generally boosts turnout, especially among the more-mobile youth population,” Strauss said. But because actual Internet voting trials have been sparse, the potential impact is hard to determine. Only one country has implemented full national Internet voting: Estonia. The Baltic state has an advanced smart card identity system that makes online voter authentication relatively simple and secure. In 2007, Estonia’s parliamentary elections included over 30,000 Internet votes, about five percent of the total. A study commissioned by the Council of Europe found that “the introduction of voting by Internet seems to have a significant impact on the participation of younger voters.” Overall numbers, however, suggested that Internet voting hardly revolutionized the election. According to the survey, only about 0.8 percent of voters wouldn’t have voted without the online option; 10.1 percent “probably” wouldn’t have. “It probably did mobilize some of those voters who otherwise would have second thoughts or would make their decision [to vote], for example, based on the weather on election day,” said Priit Vinkel, advisor to the Estonian National Electoral Committee. Vinkel noted that Internet voting is just one of 14 methods that Estonians can use to cast their votes. “In the future, the impact of Internet voting is likely to rise,” he said, as people become more comfortable with the national smart card IDs, which are already being used in a variety of business applications. The U.K.’s more limited pilots didn’t spark a participatory revolution, either. “The technology-based voting pilots appear to have no significant impact on turnout,” concluded an official government review. “From an uptake perspective, it was regarded as successful,” recalled Chris Quigley, director of e-democracy consultancy Delib, but the method was adopted largely by people who would have voted anyway. Our own Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) has dabbled in Internet voting. The Voting Over the Internet (VOI) pilot project was tested in the 2000 presidential election; it was designed to assist overseas citizens with absentee voting. Eighty-four votes were cast, and the project was slated to become a full-fledged voting system for absentee military personnel for the 2004 election. The FVAP convened a 10-member group of experts to review the security of the system before the wider deployment. “Four members of the [group] issued a minority report,” said Lt. Col. Les’ Melnyk, defense press officer for the Pentagon. “They posted a critique of the computer and communication security issues,” he said, “and issued a press release calling for the project’s termination.” Because of fears that the legitimacy of votes cast with the system would be doubted, it wasn’t used in 2004, and further development was halted, Lieutenant Colonel Melnyk said. Next Page: Security Nightmares and Voting by Text Message

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