[Image courtesy of QualityPoint]
Over the years, as I have traveled around the country to talk about the future of elections, I have noticed that a few common questions emerge. One popular question involves the use of the Internet to cast ballots; as more and more individuals become more and more familiar with using online merchants to bank and shop, they wonder why they can't use that same technology to cast their ballots.
While I always disclaim any kind of technical expertise, I have nonetheless evolved a stock answer that I think captures the essence of the Internet voting debate. It is:
In talking to people around the country, there appears to be near-consensus that we will have Internet voting in the U.S. someday. The fistfights start, however, when you start trying to define what "someday" is.
I will confess, however, that explaining why that's true is much more difficult - especially since I lack the kind of technical "chops" necessary to be clear and helpful. Fortunately, I (and the rest of the election community) have a terrific new resource in the form of a white paper by David Jefferson, a California computer scientist who has been an active participant in the national conversation about the future of voting in America.
Jefferson's white paper - posted at Rick Hasen's Election Law Blog - is entitled If I can shop and bank online, why can't I vote online? [NOTE: THE LINK GOES TO AN UPDATED VERSION DAVID SENT ME THIS MORNING.]
I can't really do the paper justice - just go read it for the full effect - but Jefferson makes some key observations that underscore the key questions that need to be answered before we can reach "someday" on Internet voting.
His first observation should be familiar to anyone who's been following the debate over the years: the Internet is a freewheeling and potentially dangerous place and there are concerns about the ability of current technology to protect voters from accidental or malicious misdirection of their ballots. This is actually where most of the debate has occurred, and as a result efforts to test Internet voting to date have tended to focus on populations (e.g. military voters) and technologies (e.g. secure military networks) where it is believed the risk of compromise is the smallest. There has also been interest in the experience of the small Baltic country of Estonia with Internet voting, which builds on a national ID system to allow voters to cast their ballots online.
Jefferson's second major observation, though, is the one I think that really captures the difficulty in bringing voting fully online. Quite simply, voting is fundamentally different from online commerce in several key ways:
- votes, unlike currency, are not fungible - they are specific to the voter and thus are unique;
- there is currently no good way to ensure that the person sitting at a keyboard is actually a specific voter - which isn't a requirement for online commerce;
- voting transactions need to separate a voter's identity from a voter's choices in order to protect the secrecy of the ballot; and
- yet the entire process (save voters' choices) needs to be transparent so that the process can be audited and promote confidence in the outcome.
These characteristics of the voting process - as much if not more than the general security of the Internet - are the primary obstacles that Internet voting supporters must address before it is possible to draw any kind of equivalence between online commerce and online voting. [I am not even considering the costs to states and localities to implement Internet voting - and my guess is most of them don't want to think about it either in the current fiscal environment.]
I don't know enough about the technology involved to say when Internet voting's "someday" will arrive, but thanks to David Jefferson's new paper, I have a pretty good idea why that someday isn't now - and likely isn't going to be anytime soon.