Not Ready for Online Voting

Technology, with all its promise of time and cost savings, is often considered a panacea for the ills of our age – whether at the corporate, societal or personal level. I recently participated in a discussion about how technology might resolve an alarming trend in developed nations: the steady decline in voter turnout. (Just one vivid example: turnout among registered voters in the most recent U.S presidential election – 2008 – was a meager 63%.)

Using the Internet for online voting seems like a perfect way to increase participation in the democratic process.  It is much easier for computer savvy societies to vote online rather than face the crowds and long lines at physical polling places. And with the recent explosion in numbers of portable devices with mobile Internet connectivity, you’d expect a large share of the US population to have the access necessary for such a plan.

Unfortunately, the reality is that there is no existing authentication mechanism currently deployed to the citizenry that is even remotely tamperproof.  Before there can be a serious debate on the topic of online voting there would need to be a unique, modern citizen ID card. Such cards would need to incorporate the use of smartcard technology combined with military level encryption and authentication technologies. Today’s mobile devices simply won’t be compatible with these types of cards.

Even if a system of secure ID cards and compatible web access devices were to be implemented, there is still a substantial challenge in securing the portals used to collect votes.  Not only would the servers need to be physically secured, the software necessary to tabulate the votes would have to be bulletproof.  Given that flexibility for the portals would be a universal demand, and that the agencies which perform the voting collection have insufficient resources to secure the portals, massive fraud is almost guaranteed – by internal and external perpetrators alike.

For those of us familiar with the promise and perils of online technologies, it’s clear that these tools are effective in sharing information and can serve well in soliciting input for the government.  However, when it comes to collecting votes the balance between security and convenience means that our current system of voting by physical presence is the only real choice.

Why We’re Not Ready for Online Voting

And, it could be many years before online voting becomes reality because:

  • Universal citizen ID cards are a political third rail given our desire for personal privacy and the inevitable association that these cards have with WWII Gestapo agents demanding to see citizens’ personal papers.
  • Even if universal citizen IDs became politically acceptable, we currently lack the resources to create the IT infrastructure needed for secure, real-time electronic voter data collection.

Given these realities, it appears that online voting is one area that’s not quite ready to benefit from the boundless potential of technology. For now, at least, it seems paper ballots and our physical presence provide the most tamperproof solution for our participatory democracy.

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