I became a U.S. citizen in 2000, just in time to vote in that year’s Presidential Election. I have voted at every opportunity since, in elections big and small. But, to date, I have voted in person on Election Day just once (and that was for a local citywide ordinance vote). Inevitably, I am on the road on Election Day, and so I have to vote using an Absentee Ballot. I did this for the Presidential Elections in 2000 and 2004 (both of which were during MAX), for mid-term elections … and I just went to pick up my Absentee Ballot for the upcoming Michigan Primary (as I’ll be on the West Coast next week).
But every time I go through this I can’t help wondering “why?”
I can renew my license plate online (by using a use-once PIN that is sent to me ahead of time). I can pay my bills online. I can file and pay my taxes online. I can trade stocks and funds online. I can buy and sell securely online. I can obtain credit reports online (having to answer all sorts of questions to prove I am who I say I am). I can vote online in shareholder votes. I can obtain birth certificates online. I an apply for some travel visas online (electronic visas, for which there is no paper record or stamp). I can open bank accounts online. …
So, why can’t I vote online?
Sure, the big issue is voter fraud. But that is already an issue. Even with paper ballots there is a percentage of fraud – individuals voting who are not eligible to do so, voting more than once, coercion, vote suppression, and more. Ballots have been issued for dead people as well as pets. Full ballot boxes have gotten lost and then turned up after counting has completed. Recounts (of the exact same stack of ballots) result in different totals. People make incorrect selections (remember Florida 2000?). Lots of things can, and do, go wrong. Paper ballots rely on people, and people mess up (maliciously or inadvertently). If anyone thinks that relying on paper and people is somehow safe and fraud-proof, well, as Dana Carvey would say, “denial is not just a river in Egypt”.
I want to be able to vote electronically. I want to be able to register to do so ahead of time (so that I’d not be allowed to vote in person at a polling station) and be given a use-once PIN or some identifier for use on Election Day. I want to be able to log in (on the day, or even ahead of time as I can with an Absentee Ballot) and vote. I want to be able to do this on my computer, on my PDA, and even on my cell-phone (get a text message that challenges me for my identifier, and then receive messages one by one that prompt for my vote). Recount? No problem – hit Enter, and you have a new count.
Will there be fraud? Undoubtedly. Mistakes? Yep, those, too. Will it be worse than relying on paper and people? Maybe, maybe not – I don’t think that can be answered unequivocally as no one really knows just how much goes wrong right now. Will electronic voting encourage more people to vote (especially younger voters)? Absolutely.
In the 2008 Presidential Elections I’ll vote using a paper ballot, likely an Absentee Ballot. But what about 2012? Will I be able to vote electronically? I’m not optimistic. But, here’s hoping!

15 thoughts

  1. I think with all things political, that which is best for the most people doesn’t get done because it’s not in the best interests of those that make the call. Voting and voting irregularities are manipulated locally. Switching to electronic machines would take a fair amount of that local control away.
    Add to it there have been shockingly bad PR moves like the CEO of Diebold publicly promising to deliver Ohio to Bush in 2004(regardless of what he meant). Electronic voting just isn’t trusted by a large number of politically minded folks, at least on the left. (I can’t speak for the right or middle)
    Until there is a trusted name out there, doing transparent development of a well tested solution, I think that those in control of the current local ground game will be able to scare up enough support to block electronic voting initiatives.

  2. Although electronic voting would be a much easier and convenient process, I think there is a level of effort that needs to be put forth by our citizens to be involved in the process. In my opinion there is an inherent danger in maximizing voter participation by simplifying it to a single mouse click. Walk through Wal-Mart, do you want 100% voter participation? If an American citizen is not willing to put forth the effort to go vote or to file an absentee ballot, how informed are they going to be about the choice they make. Yes, I do realize that even now some of the apathetic do go and vote.

  3. Ben, in general, I agree with you – the biggest problem I’d see is one person voting on behalf of another – the head of a household filling in votes for other members of the family. Now, this could be pretty innocent ("Honey, while you’re on the computer – vote Ron Paul for me, will ya?"), but it could be manipulative, also. A controlling husband/father (or wife/mother) taking the reins and voting for the entire family.
    To me that’s more than just voter fraud – that’s taking away one of the most precious acts of privacy that we have – the right to privately choose the future of your country. Now, I know the same can happen for absentee ballots, but I guess I’d see the barrier being a little higher, that’s all.
    Cheers,
    Davo
    (p.s., coincidentally, I became a citizen in 2000 also – I LOVE voting. I brought my newborn daughter to the polls last November, and I’m looking forward to making it a family tradition 🙂

  4. Ben, as does David, I agree with you for the most part, although like in 2004 was it? when we did the electronic voting, I most important thing I didn’t agree with (me being a developer) is that diebold did NOT release their source code!!
    WHAT THE F is up with that…?
    cheers

  5. until we get past using some bad vb app running on an Access database, no thank you. Give me paper anytime over that.

  6. I agree with Steve and those that think that there should be some MINOR roadblock to voting… it should not be so easy that those that don’t have the initiative to think through the issues should be voting. To me that means planning ahead far enough so that you can get an absentee ballot, or getting your tookas down to the local polling place to place your vote. You should be required to leave your living room sofa at at least one point in the voting process!
    And it completely baffles me why anyone would object to the requirement that one would have to show some form of ID in order to vote. In my town, you need not prove your citizenship in order to vote… that’s just plain wrong. The argument against this, I think, is that not everyone has an ID, and the challenge of getting one effectively disenfranchises voters. AFAIK, every state DMV will issue a photo ID even for those that are not interested or able to drive.
    Having said that — one would think that voting would be a relatively simple information technology problem to solve electronically — the real issues are in auditing, and that seems like it ought to be solvable.

  7. You make a really good point about how little we know about the (in)accuracies of our current voting system. Obviously no one wants to publicize a lost ballot box, and when we’re voting on paper and counting on antiquated machines, there won’t even be many reliable options for measuring the margin of error. Or maybe there are, but they are not well known. My point is …I wonder, if the general public knew how inaccurate the current voting system is, would they be so opposed to electronic voting? Stop killing trees, vote electronically 🙂

  8. Sure you can go online to register and do all those things, but I think it is comparing apples to oranges. The outcome for going online and registering for a license plate for example affects only you. Registering and voting electronically online affects and entire country and its political process. I couldn’t imaging the logistics of dealing with security in this type of situation where you combine identity theft with cyber warfare from foreign countries trying to manipulate a country’s election process. My guess is this would be the major hurdle to online voting. Despite that, I agree with the others that voting should require some effort instead of a one click task that would end up being just a popularity/charisma contest like american idol.

  9. You have a good point about the absentee ballet; that would be a good use of electronic ballets.
    However, I read once that a country went to an all electronic ballet system and the number of people voting decreased. The reason for this was that voting often has a social aspect. People want to be seen leaving the polls so they’ll be respected in their community as someone who contributes.
    Perhaps the text messaging generation will change that. 🙂

  10. As cooljj points out, it’s apples and oranges. The other MAJOR difference between licenses and votes is that the transaction between you and the registry can be tracked both ways – you have a record of your transaction, and the registry knows who renewed their license. All the other transactions Ben mentioned are ones that require both integrity and identity (the transaction has to be accurate, and both sides need to know "who done it"). Voting, on the other hand requires both integrity and anonymity. That is, the voters need to be confident that they can cast their votes, that the system provides a mechanism to ensure they are accurate, and that their vote will be counted in the final tally (integrity), and also that once they have cast their vote, no one will be able to tie any specific ballot to the voter who cast it. In our country as things stand right now, anonymity may not seem so important, but consider the election in Iraq where Saddam Hussein got 100% of the popular vote — how might that have been different if the Iraqi people confident that no one would be able to determine how an individual had voted?
    Of course, there are a whole host of issues with any system. Recounts, for instance, work very well if you can get back to the "original autograph" – the source document, and for that paper ballots have the edge over electronic. Ballots should be clearly laid out so voters know who they’re voting for, and both electronic and paper versions can suffer poor layouts. There should be some way to ensure that votes are only cast by legal voters, and that’s an issue any system has to address. Electronic voting has been rife with bugs — Bruce Schneier has blogged about this on a recurring basis. One of his recent posts references an article in New York Times Magazine on Electronic Voting Machines which points out some significant issues with the current systems.
    The issues are complex, but, I think, not insurmountable. A closed, proprietary solution, especially one that appears rushed to "market" without adequate QA, is a poor response to the infamous "hanging chads" problem, though…
    -matt

  11. I would love to vote online for the presidential election. But could you amagine the hoopla if an entire database of voting records crashed, or got infected, or got lost/stolen, including reduntants drives. In our time we still rely on a paper trail, which is the reason why we haven’t gone completely electronic. Computers are not 100% reliable whereas paper is, in most peoples eyes.
    Frankly I think they sat down and listed the pros and cons, and the cons outwieghed the cost and risk of a major switch. Not just the cons of the computer, but also of people, programmers, companies, and so on. Will the company who creates the software be around to support it forever? Will the source get sold or stolen and compramize the security of the entire process? And if it is cracked and hacked, will it be so transparent that no one ever knows, not to mention so big that it becaomes the largest security breech in US history?
    I would hate to think that Obama, Hillary, or Edwards didn’t win because of a Romney, Huckabee, Paul, or Giuliani cheater 😎
    But honestly, I’d be more interested in some kind of intelligence meter that would wiegh individual votes based on IQ’s or at least knowledge of the issues. I hate it when others vote based on the opinion of the majority of their peers or just because their family "always votes Republican". I think the elections are already fixed every year by popularity and ignorance any ways.

  12. oh dear, that’s a scary thought. *shuddering*
    Yes, just looking at the dev box we have here that crashed, it hits home how easily servers can crash and lose data.
    Unless we’re talking all kinds of super duper redundancy and transparency, no thank you. I don’t mind waiting in line doing what amounts to a half day of my time (if that) to fulfill part of my civic duty.
    This country is great, it doesn’t hurt to give a little effort from time to time for it.

  13. You always like to do things online, electronically, but maybe it’s better to stick to the old fashion way. I think it’s safer, and less likely to make a mistake on paper.

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