Net Election

Obstacles to E-Voting

Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

This is the second in a two-part series about Internet voting. To read Part 1, by Jacob Weisberg, click {{here#37750}}.

Every year around this time, Americans lament our low voter turnout rate–44.9 percent in 1998, putting us 138th in a list of 170 voting nations. This explains the growing interest in Internet voting, which promises to do for democracy what did for books. Aside from making voting vastly more convenient, say its supporters, click ‘n’ pick elections could theoretically eliminate fraud, allow instant recounts, and save pots of money.

Buoyed by these hopes, election boards across the country have begun to take tentative steps toward wired elections (many private organizations–most notably universities and unions–already conduct internal elections online). State officials in California, Florida, Washington, Iowa, Minnesota, and New Mexico are all examining online voting. In California, the Campaign for Digital Democracy is collecting digital petitions for a ballot initiative that would legalize Internet voting–though virtual signatures aren’t legally valid, at least not yet. Software companies eager to showcase their e-voting wares have held mock online elections in Iowa, Washington, and Virginia. And today, under a pilot project run by the Department of Defense’s Federal Voting Assistance Program, 350 military personnel posted overseas will vote online. If the test goes well, the FVAP will consider eventually making online voting available for all Americans living abroad.

E-voting isn’t nearly as radical as it sounds, for two reasons. First of all, a large and growing proportion of Americans–about 50 percent of Washington state’s electorate and a quarter of Californians–already mail in their votes via absentee ballot. Oregon, the most aggressive remote-vote state, has abolished polling places entirely and now conducts elections exclusively by mail. Local jurisdictions in 15 other states have conducted all-mail elections too. While online elections would use fancier technology, they’re based on the same premise–that you can send polling authorities a document that will serve as your proxy.

Second, as {{Jacob Weisberg#37750}} pointed out in this space last week, Americans have already been voting by computer for years. Most polling places use one of three computer-based technologies: {{punch cards#2:}}, {{optical scans#2:}}, or {{electronic recording#2:}}. (Less than one-fifth of the electorate uses old-fashioned {{mechanical lever machines#2:}}, which aren’t even being made anymore.) Most experts expect the next generation of voting technology to be Internet-based. And once voters start using Internet terminals at polling places, it’s a short step to using the same technology from home or work.

But for this to happen, software makers will have to devise voting systems that are demonstrably secure. All of those currently being developed employ digital signature technology–a cryptographic alternative to traditional signatures that identifies a document’s origin and verifies that it hasn’t been altered while being transmitted (click {{here#2:}} for a primer). Banks and insurance companies already use digital signatures to transfer large sums of money online.

Here’s how it might work: A few weeks before the election, you visit your county’s Web site and print out a form declaring that you’d like to vote online. You sign it and send it–via snail mail–to your local election authorities. The authorities verify that your signature matches the one on your original registration form at the county courthouse and also record the digital identity of the computer from which you’ve downloaded the form. You’re then sent a PIN that will work only from that computer. On Election Day, you log onto the site using your PIN and check off your choices on a Web-based ballot. Once you’re done voting, your ballot is encrypted–transformed into an unintelligible mathematical code using an elaborate algorithm–so that it can’t be read during transmission. When it arrives, a central computer records both that your ballot was cast and the contents of the ballot, but in two separate places. Keeping this information separate means that election officials can verify that you voted without seeing how you voted. Another copy of the data is burned into a CD as a backup.

On an individual level, the system is about as secure as an absentee ballot. Just as you could sign an absentee ballot but let someone else fill it out, there’s little to stop you from allowing someone to vote with your computer and PIN–or to stop someone else from forcing you to turn yours over. But an interloper would have to obtain thousands of PINs and computers to influence any election. And one day online voting may be far more secure than absentee voting. Software designers hope eventually to use biometrics–voice and fingerprint recognition–to check each voter’s identity.

Election officials are far more worried about mass cheating. Since regular polling places are scattered in thousands of locations around the country, large-scale fraud is almost impossible. But if a federal election was run from a central server, hackers could flood it with activity or jam phone lines, preventing people from logging on to vote. Software makers say they’ll address that problem by using multiple servers and telephone lines. But the {{Voting Integrity Project#2:}}–a nonprofit group that monitors election soundness–calls nationwide Internet voting “a large, non-moving, target to potential vote thieves or hackers.”

Any state that implements online voting may also have to contend with legal issues of representation. The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 to end discrimination against blacks, prohibits several (mostly Southern) states and counties from making any change in voting procedures without federal approval. This clause applies to even minor changes that could reduce minority participation. Given the “digital divide” between well-wired white and Asian voters on the one hand and less technology-equipped blacks and Latinos on the other, online elections could be seen as an infringement on voting rights. (For more on Internet use among different socio-economic groups, see the Commerce Department’s “Americans in the Information Age: {{Falling Through the Net#2:}}.”)

But the most formidable obstacle to online voting may be entrenched interests threatened by change. In Oregon, vote-by-mail took a decade to go from proposal to implementation because of skepticism by citizens and politicians. “It’s like campaign-finance reform–the people who control it are products of the system,” says online voting evangelist Marc Strassman. (Strassman is in charge of business development for {{}}, an Internet voting company, and is also the founder of the Campaign for Digital Democracy, the group behind the California ballot initiative.) Phil Keisling, Oregon’s secretary of state and a champion of vote-by-mail, agrees, “The question behind closed doors is, ‘Will this help our candidate?’ There’s clearly a strain of people who hope for low turnout.”