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Internet voting: If ever made secure, would it improve election turnout?

by Loqmane Jamil // Published April 19, 2011
Students Hack Washington DCs Web Voting System to Play College Fight Song Videoge l0

The phenomenon is not new but has become worrisome by its recurrence. Voter turnout is appallingly low.  This year's city elections in the United States remind us that voters are turning out in smaller numbers each year in most local elections and most primary elections.. With the advent of new technological means of communication, however, will technology be a means to fight against the disaffection toward politics that so many Americans seem to feel?

When asked for ideas on how to boost turnout, young people frequently suggest internet voting. That’s hardly a surprise, given the role in their lives and how often it is now used for student elections and votes at online sites like Facebook and Youtube. Indeed the nation of Estonia arranged for voting on the internet in 2005. In this post I explore the stakes around this new technology, and whether the United States is even remotely close to implementing it for governmental elections.

The example of Estonia: Does Internet voting affect voter turnout?

Experts recognized that the effect of "e-voting" on the electoral turnout was not proved in the Estonian elections or in any other internet elections so far. Nevertheless, e-voting has many supporters. “With the vote on internet, you can vote wherever you are and when you want ", said the Professor Rüdiger Grimm of the University of Coblence. “Although we have no proof, it has to increase electoral turnout”.

The Estonian example does suggest a positive impact on turnout. Since 2005, the citizens can vote on internet in the general and European election. To vote, a person would first obtain an electronic ID card. Such cards come in many forms, and even a recent phone’s SIM card is acceptable. Next, a voter obtains two secret codes, the first one to be identified in the voting system, and the second one to sign electrically.

Between 2005 and 2011, percentage of internet voting has risen from 2 % to more than 24 % of the total number of votes cast. Participation in the European elections at the same time has jumped up from 27 % in 2004 to 43 % in 2009.  In light of these positive statistics, why do experts hesitate to support e-voting in the United States?

Theoretical advantages, but practical problems

The ptotential advantages of e-voting are easy to identify. As the “peak of the modernization of the administrative processes”, it decreases the costs of holding an election and makes it easier for internet users, particularly young people, to carry out the duty of citizenship. Besides, a lot of people already make purchases, manage their bank accounts or communicate with the public authorities on internet, and are familiar with how the internet functions as a tool for everyday life. Why not include voting?

The reasons to hesitate are nevertheless strong, and without further evidence, convincing. The electronic vote is by definition different from the e-commerce because it touches a fundamental value,:democracy. The fear of manipulated elections is very present, transparency and safety are unverifiable, and questions about how guarantee ballot secrecy with absolute certainty are the main problem. The most important is the question of how to guarantee the reliability of the system: that the “system will in all situations function in the manner in which it is meant to function."

Underscoring the point, the District of Columbia in October 2010 conducted a pilot project to test an internet based voting system that would give overseas and military voters a way to download and submit absentee ballots online.  Before using the system in a real voting process, the public was invited to evaluate its security and usability.

Alex Halderman, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, and his team of two students in 36 hours found a vulnerability of the system and exploited it. It gave them almost total control of the server software, including the ability to change votes and reveal voters’ secret ballots.  In 36 hours, his team hacked the D.C Internet Voting Pilot, and it was unnoticed until they revealed themselves in a prank: the University of Michigan fight song would play after a voter hit “cast ballot”.

Based on this experience and other results from the public tests, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics has announced that they will not proceed with a live deployment of electronic ballot return at this time, though they plan to continue to develop the system. For now its voters will still be able to download and print ballots to return by mail.

This experience shows us how much this voting system can be dangerous. Even if it brings a lot of theoretical advantages, e-voting remains unreliable. Even as we follow the evolution of internet voting systems, iwe must listen to the skepticism of the experts. Halderman, for example, suggests that he can’t imagine any current system being secure from would-be hackers. That conclusion won’t stop new experiments in internet voting, however - nor young people suggesting it as a good idea. But we clearly are not ready today in the United States.