Election Universe

Internet voting = Postal voting 2.0

Internet voting = Postal voting 2.0
September 22 2014, 12:44

As early as 1999, in the midst of the dot-com bubble, Bill Clinton sent a memorandum directing the National Science Foundation to study the potential of Internet voting: “The Director of the National Science Foundation, working with appropriate Federal agencies, shall conduct a 1-year study examining the feasibility of online voting.” It was a promising future for all forms of e-governance then. Unfortunately, fifteen years later, the road to the widespread implementation of Internet voting is still basically unpaved.

The reason behind the slow adoption of such empowering technology is manyfold. Poor technology design, failed attempts, and some well-founded criticism raised by pundits –voter coercion, denial of service attacks, voter impersonation among others–have cast a shadow of doubt over how Internet voting can substitute traditional polling place voting –at least in the short term.

While it is true that voting under unsupervised conditions raises a complete set of concerns –when compared to voting under supervised conditions in a polling location–, Internet voting tackles in a very effective way many of the most significant vulnerabilities already existing in postal voting. In consequence, when understood not as a panacea to substitute all forms of voting, but as a modern and more advanced version of postal voting, the challenges facing I-voting pervasive use seem less daunting. Let’s see in greater detail three of the most cited critiques often made to I-voting.

Authentication of the voter –the process of validating the identity of the voter– is one of the most obvious concerns any web-based transaction has. How can you verify that someone online is really the person he is said to be? Any form of remote voting will confront this problem, luckily, technology offers several alternatives to authenticate voters securely. Biometrics and smart cards are two technologies called to play a key role in the future of elections. By the contrary, in postal voting authentication is done visually by looking at a signature without any database to contrast it–not quite the sophisticated and secure method one would expect for such an important step.

Voter coercion has been deterred in Estonia with by taking a series of effective measures. Voters can cast multiple votes. The latest of all e-votes will be counted as the valid one. And having voted online -once or many times, the citizen will always have the right to vote in person on election day, cancelling all previous votes. Old-fashioned postal voting offers no option to way to fight the negative effects of this vulnerability as voters are only given one opportunity to vote.

Denial of service is a real threat, however, there are new and sophisticated means to avoid denial of service attacks on computer systems and mitigate their impact. Extending the voting period for a number of days allows voters to try again at a different times until voting is effective. It is important to note that denial of services is not an endemic vulnerability of digital world. In a broad sense, a worker strike in a foreign country can prevent a citizen to cast ballot from arriving to its location on time.

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net