Why Can't We Vote Online?

During the Democratic presidential primaries, I was reckless enough to suggest that Michigan and Florida consider conducting new votes online, to replace their unsanctioned primaries. ...
by | November 24, 2008

During the Democratic presidential primaries, I was reckless enough to suggest that Michigan and Florida consider conducting new votes online, to replace their unsanctioned primaries. Mark Stencel covered some of the obstacles to voting over the Web in Governing's latest Managing Technology Letter:

Millions of voters lined up long before Election Day. And those early-voting lines were especially long in places such as North Carolina, one of this year's unexpected electoral battlegrounds. By Monday morning, 2.6 million people, or 42 percent of North Carolina's registered voters, had already cast their ballots.

Among those millions were the Wake County residents, including my father, who waited for an hour to vote a few weekends ago at the Cary Town Center shopping mall, a short drive from the state capital in Raleigh. That surely was a galling wait for some of those busy suburbanites, many of whom work for the Research Triangle area's numerous technology firms.

In an age of instant online access to so many public and private services -- including all of the Web-based storefronts of the same retailers that have shops in the Cary mall -- how is it that people were still standing in long, winding lines to vote? Aren't lines just for roller coaster riders and airline passengers? Why not vote on the Web?

That's not a new idea, but Internet voting is a long way from reality -- at least in the United States. Pilot projects during the past decade in this country have focused almost entirely on voters who live and work overseas, particularly people in the military. For these voters, the realities of international postage delivery are often at odds with state and local deadlines and processes for requesting and returning absentee ballots, so e-ballots make sense.

Electionline, a Pew Center on the States project that tracks voting trends, notes that seven states now permit military and oversees voters to use e-mail to send in absentee ballots -- the Internet-age equivalent of faxing in the documents. (See ElectionLine's 2007 report on overseas voting.) And a few state political parties, including the Democratic organizations in Michigan and Arizona, have dabbled in online voting as part of their presidential nominating caucuses. But real-time voting via the Web just has not taken off here.

The technological concerns about Internet ballots are the same that some voters have with electronic voting machines: accountability, security, privacy and redundancy. But the highly federated systems of administering elections in this country, and of keeping tabs on the population, are major obstacles to online voting as well.

Voting experiments in other countries help underscore the distinctive challenges for American election officials. Take Estonia, the small, young Baltic democracy that has been a global innovator in e-government services. In 2005, the former Soviet republic allowed nationwide Internet voting in its local council elections. More than 9,000 voters, including the prime minister, used the service. But most of the country's roughly 1 million registered voters were eligible, as long as they possessed a new national ID card and had access to a device that allowed a computer to read the card's embedded electronics. In combination with a private, government-issued PIN, this system made voting via a secure Web connection as easy as a transaction at a bank teller machine.

And in parliamentary elections last year, three times as many Estonians cast their votes online -- 30,275 out of 897,243 eligible voters. (See stories from the BBC, CNET and Wired for more on Estonia's e-voting efforts.)

Compare all that with a new online voting experiment in Arizona. Also a pioneer in online government, that state was the first of only two that allow voter registration on the Web. Since the United States has no national ID card, Arizona's system depends on driver's licenses or official state identification. Easy enough. And, in fact, this successful system served as the entry point for about 60 percent of the people who joined the voter rolls this year before Arizona's Oct. 6 registration deadline.

Now the state is taking the next logical step: Internet balloting for overseas voters. But this system is not quite as simple. First, voters need to obtain log-in information and passwords from their home counties. After that, they can download ballots, as well as affidavits that require their signatures. The completed documents can then be scanned and uploaded to the state via a secure Internet connection. The state transmits the files to the counties, which validate the signatures and registration information before sending the ballots along to be tabulated by local vote counters. Got it?

A news release by Secretary of State Jan Brewer's office notes that Arizona's Internet voting system is based on "the same type of security used for online banking and credit card transactions." However, if online banking were in fact done this way, customers would write out checks, scan them into a computer and then upload the images of those checks to the bank, which would then make disbursements from a local branch office.

Arizona's online voting system carefully and cleverly preserves its counties' official role in administering key parts of the election process. But it also illustrates the challenge Brewer and other officials face in creating simple Internet voting processes that comply with this country's hodgepodge of state and local election requirements.

I originally made this argument in the Oct. 27 "Futurist" column I wrote for Governing's sister publication, Congressional Quarterly's CQ Weekly. Most of the reader comments posted with the online version of that column have focused on the security concerns. "How would the Estonian e-voting have gone down if had happened during the Russian cyber attack in May of '07?" asked a former colleague of mine, citing a Guardian article on the incident.

My answer was there are indeed all kinds of vulnerabilities, from denial-of-service attacks to some other kind of cyber assault. But our current offline systems for managing elections also are vulnerable to all manner of disruption, from weather to worse. The 9/11 terrorist attacks happened to be on primary day for New York City's 2001 municipal elections; voting was postponed, needless to say. That is not an argument for or against Internet voting. But the tendency to see vulnerabilities in electronic voting systems (whether online or systems at the physical polling place) as significantly different from non-electronic systems (missing paper ballots or manual manipulation of registration rolls) is interesting.

Inevitably, online voting will become a trusted way of exercising democracy's most fundamental rights. But, in part because of the quirks that distinguish American democracy and culture, the United States is unlikely to lead the way.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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