Internet Voting: Spurring or Corrupting Democracy?

By Kat Hanna

Internet voting. It can provide convenient access to democracy, unfettered by transportation difficulties or scheduling conflicts. It has the potential to make it easier for people with disabilities to participate in the political process. It could well transform democracy. But will it be a positive transformation? Or will it make it easier for the relatively affluent to participate in the electoral process while further marginalizing those who are less well-off? Will the lack of in-person authentication and oversight make coercion and fraud more widespread? Online voting is subject to the pitfalls associated with any activity conducted over an inherently insecure network. Can we make online elections secure? And will the public trust the integrity of such elections? These issues were the subject of "Internet Voting: Spurring or Corrupting Democracy?", a lively debate among panelists of varied background and opinion. The voices urging caution far outnumbered the one who thinks we're ready for wide deployment of online voting.

Moderator Lance Hoffman, of the George Washington University, began with a brief introduction of the topic. He outlined the history of remote voting, noting that paper-based absentee ballots have long been used in government elections in the U.S. In addition, online, legally binding elections have been held by labor unions, trade associations, non-profit organizations and other private sector groups. Hoffman pointed out a few recent experiments in political elections over the Internet. In January of this year 35 participants in the Alaskan Republican Party's straw poll voted online. In March online voting was available to all participants in the Arizona Democratic Primary.

Panelist Joe Mohen of election.com began the debate. Election.com ran the Arizona election and Mohen went into greater detail on that event. He reported a significant increase in voter turnout over previous years, especially that of Native American and African American populations. Moher further argued that security issuses for online voting have been addressed, asserting that the existence of adequate security for online banking and stock trading implies sufficient security for online elections.

Hans von Spakovsky, of the Voting Integrity Project spoke next, urging caution in the rush to wire the ballot box. Von Spakovsky noted three conditions necessary for fair and free elections: equal access, ballot secrecy and ballot sanctity. Making it easier for a certain segment of the population to vote, such as relatively affluent net users, is not only unfair, but illegal. Von Spakovsky also expressed skepticism that security concerns have been adequately addressed.

Next the audience heard from David Jefferson, chair of the technical committee of the California Secretary of State's Internet Voting Task Force. He described a study conducted by the Task Force which was begun with a great deal of enthusiasm but ended by recommending great caution and much further deliberation. Jefferson characterized the actual and apparent security of the voting process as nothing less than "a national security issue." He went on to enumerate several problems he sees with the Arizona election including the possibility of corruption by viruses or trojan horses, weak authentication of participants, the potential for denial of service attacks, and discrimination based on operating system and browser.

Paul Craft is Project Director of the Florida Department of State, Division of Elections, Voting Systems Section's Internet Voting Initiative. In Craft's view, the move to online voting is coming, but should be approached with a cautious, evolutionary attitude. Craft expressed concern regarding the decision of the Arizona Democratic Party to move the primary online and wondered how the decision was made.

Barry Schoenmakers of Eindhoven University in the Netherlands approached the issue from a more technical perspective. He argued that a major stumbling block to the adoption of online voting is lack of transparency of the process. In paper-based elections it's fairly obvious how to determine potential fraud. This is not the case with internet voting so we need a technical means with which to compensate for this opaqueness. Schoenmakers outlined an approach based on homomorphic encryption which allows both the decoupling of digital signatures from encrypted ballots and the ability to tally and verify the still-encrypted votes.

The presentations were followed by a heated debate among the panelists, who discussed statistics from the Arizona election, issues of online voter registration and authentication, and security concerns for both clients and servers. The audience eagerly weighed in with questions addressing the privacy of votes with regard to the vendor running the election, use of information gathered by vendor, the possible corruption of the neutrality of the vendor.