Can Online Voting Ever Work?

Category: Privacy

Three ballot initiatives have been proposed in California that would require the State to offer online voting in government elections. It seems like a natural application for Internet technology; it might even increase voter participation by making voting more convenient. If we can shop, bank, and trade stocks online, why can’t we vote online? Read on...

Is Online Voting Secure?

Security experts and election officials say we just don’t have the technology to make online voting safe while keeping votes secret. There have been many attempts at online voting systems over the past 20 years, and most - but not all - have failed to cut the mustard.

In 2010, the District of Columbia challenged hackers to breach an online voting system it was developing to allow overseas military personnel to vote via the Internet. A team of security researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor promptly and thoroughly subverted the system, changing votes and vote tallies and even inserting “malware” that played the Michigan fight song when voters cast their ballots.

The Australian state of New South Wales introduced an online system called iVote in the Spring of 2015. Another white-hat team breached it in just a few days, planting vote-stealing software on the server.

Is online voting secure?

Way back in 2004, the Pentagon spent $100 million on SERVE - the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment - in an effort to let overseas military and civilian DoD employees in 51 countries vote online. Several tech heavyweights were involved in designing SERVE, including Accenture, HP, and Verisign.

But the Pentagon canceled the project on the eve of its going live, citing numerous security flaws that money and expertise could not overcome. Your tax dollars at work...

But security concerns did not deter Alaska from allowing online voting in 2012, and in a 2014 election that featured a Senate seat and the governorship. Voters are able to download and print a ballot, then either mail it to election officials or scan it to a PDF file and submit it electronically. Either way, remote voters must waive their right to vote anonymously; a notarized signature on a voter identity verification form is required.

Online Voting Around the World

The Swiss have taken an incremental, cautious approach to online voting, with city and canton (think “county”) level experiments that began in 2004. Security and trust in online voting have improved with each of the more than 100 elections where some votes were cast online. Indeed, the Swiss constitution now guarantees citizens the right to vote online. Sixteen percent of Swiss votes are cast online now.

Online voting has been standard in all elections for ten years in the tiny eastern European nation of Estonia (pop. 1.3 million), despite security experts warnings that it is vulnerable to hacking and internal fraud. The Estonian system relies on the country’s mandatory ID card, a chipped “smart” card that provides authentication for digital signatures of electronic contracts as well as voter ID verification. About 25% of Estonian votes are cast online now.

While some voters prefer to vote online, the option has NOT increased voter turnout in Switzerland or Estonia. Voters who were going to vote anyway simply voted earlier, while those who don’t vote the traditional way cannot be bothered to vote online, either.

Online voting is gradually gaining footholds around the world. It’s likely to become the new normal as generations of citizens accustomed to doing everything online become the majority of voters. Let's just hope that the Estonian model of "Do it anyway, despite well-known security and privacy concerns" is not accepted as "normal" as we move forward. If that's the case, then I'll continue to opt for a paper ballot.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post a comment below.

 
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Most recent comments on "Can Online Voting Ever Work?"

(See all 40 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Rick
05 Feb 2016

Since only about half of the US adult population pays taxes, they are really the only ones with "skin in the game". The rest can be "bought" with lavish promises by politicians who easily take from the tax payers to influence as they please. This gives the politicians great power. At this stage of our Republic, I believe the only recourse we have is to NOT RE-ELECT anyone. We must do all we can during the primary processes to get citizen leaders into the race, willing to serve their fellow citizens for a single term. This was an intent of the founders of this country, and was predominantly the way the system worked up until the 17th amendment was passed in 1913. The concept of a career politician has only arisen in the past 85 years or so, and it must end. I believe that voting in person and voting on paper is the safest control system. I would like to see the requirement that people dip their finger in an inkwell, like most UN monitored elections require. This prevents repeat voting. I also believe that election day should be a national holiday to make it easier for people to reach the polls, and the polling hours should extend beyond 12 hours, as is common today, to something more like 16 (i.e. 6am to 10pm). Online voting will never be safe (coming from an IT developer with 40 years experience). Just my $0.02.


Posted by:

ManoaHi
05 Feb 2016

Bob, regarding "cut the mustard" you're correct according to:
http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/cut-the-mustard.html
"muster" is assembly, gathering, particularly the military. To muster the troops for inspection or going to battle is to assemble or gather.


Posted by:

Paul
05 Feb 2016

@Geoff No one appreciates grammar nazis especially when they are wrong:

From http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/cut-the-mustard.html
"Another supposed explanation is that the phrase is simply a mistaken version of the military expression 'cut the muster'. This appears believable at first sight. A little research shows it not to be so. Muster is the calling together of soldiers, sailors, prisoners, to parade for inspection or exercise. To cut muster would be a breach of discipline; hardly a phrase that would have been adopted with the meaning of success or excellence. This line of thought appears to have been influenced by confusion with the term 'pass muster', which would have the correct meaning, but which could hardly be argued to be the origin of 'cut the mustard'. The OED, which is the most complete record of the English language, along with all of the other reference works I've checked, don't record 'cut the muster' at all. The fact that documented examples of 'cut the mustard' are known from many years before any for 'cut the muster' would appear to rule out the latter as the origin."


Posted by:

Charley
05 Feb 2016

Rather than talking about the technological issues of whether online voting can be made to work (some deep issues of authentication, security, hacking , etc.), you guys are arguing over grammar, or whether one party or the other is more likely to try and abuse it? Or which voters can be bought either with promises or special tax breaks or whatever?


Posted by:

Digital Arteeste
05 Feb 2016

I have been fluent in English for 75 years. Cut the muster? Are you nuts? It has always been cut the mustard, ALWAYS for at least the last 75 years (even though it doesn't make any sense at all, and never has to me) How about "they" and "them" being neuter SINGULAR pronouns for the past five or ten years? I hate that, but it's the way it is, and for at least the last 75 years CUT THE MUSTARD is the way it is. Get used to it! :))


Posted by:

Steve
05 Feb 2016

Can Online Voting Ever Work? NO!


Posted by:

BobD
05 Feb 2016

Some years ago - more than 50, I think - I read a science fiction story in which a computer almost figured out who would win an election, but it needed one vote from a person to complete the tally. The casting of the vote was a celebratory occasion.


Posted by:

Jay R
06 Feb 2016

I doubt that cutting the mustard would have any more salutary effect on government than voting for the self-absorbed crooks in either party. To be honest, I have never cut the mustard. Chesse, yes; but not the mustard. Well, there was this one time. I had a squeeze bottle of mustard that fell behind something and disappeared. When I found it, it was seriously desiccated. Honestly, I couldn't cut it. I had to hack it. I will close with my first favorite pallindrome; rise to vote sir


Posted by:

Gordon Peterson
06 Feb 2016

The FATAL flaw for online voting (and generalized mailin ballots!) is one for which there is NO technological solution for whatsoever... there is NO way to make sure that the voter isn't voting under duress. With a gun held to their head (figuratively, or even literally!) with someone watching over their shoulder to make sure they vote the "right" way. This could be anybody in a position of power over the voter... a parent, union shop steward, employer, landlord, guardian, health care giver, welfare case worker... anybody buying their vote (drugs, sex, money, alcohol...). Online voting, and generalized mailin balloting, MUST not be allowed, for this reason if nothing else...!


Posted by:

Guy
06 Feb 2016

I'm really glad all of you guys set Goeff straight, I've always heard it as "cut the mustard" also and I'm 72 years young. I also agree that online voting won't work since these people in charge don't take security seriously enough for it to be safe and reliable. Have a good day gentlemen!


Posted by:

MmeMoxie
06 Feb 2016

If, the US Taxpayers can do their taxes online and send their paperwork online, to the IRS, I am sure that eventually, US Voters will be able to vote online! I just have NO idea when. Bummer :(


Posted by:

Humbug7
06 Feb 2016

As a computer programmer, I agree with the probable failure to ever create a technologically secure online system. I also agree with the possibility of voter coercion.

The saddest part is the failure of the existing systems to increase voter turnout. A minority of U.S. citizens eligible to vote even register, and a minority of those then bother to cast a vote, even with the current "early voting" and "mail-in ballot" options (which are also insecure and open to voter coercion). Unless and until that changes, there really isn't any point in wasting resources developing another insecure system. And don't even get me started on the uneducated voters who can't be bothered to research the issues and candidates.


Posted by:

Old Man
07 Feb 2016

The major problem is how to provide security and anonymity at the same time.

The examples expressed so far are fairly secure, but can be traced back to the account holder. That prohibits secret ballots.

I have taken surveys that use a dual tracking method. First, the member must provide login data (e.g. voter registration number). Then a computer generated number is assigned to the input (e.g. ballot).

This could satisfy the security/anonymity issue. However, there are still the problems of data manipulation, voter coercion, ignorant voters, and general apathy. As with any system, the weakest point is the human element.


Posted by:

David
08 Feb 2016

It doesn't matter at all how we vote. All that matters is how votes are counted.

Iowa's caucuses, the weirdest voting method used in the US, should be the most secure. A voter stands in an area reserved for supporters of his candidate. Someone counts the number of voters in each candidates' "box" on the floor. What could go wrong?

Plenty, apparently. https://goo.gl/UuGQW4


Posted by:

Realistic
08 Feb 2016

If you vote on-line, you must have some credentials, OTHER than your physical presence on the voting place.

How are we sure, that you do not turn your voting credentials to some party for MONEY ???

Then it is not you who votes, but you earn money, which is unfair to others who vote for their and your future. Therefore, I think there should be no secret voting...


Posted by:

Lulu
08 Feb 2016

I have worked elections for 40 years and enjoy helping my community with the process and not who they vote for. We all take it very seriously and wish more people would vote, but not online voting. I have seen too many things being tried without voting online.


Posted by:

Evan
09 Feb 2016

I've been told that it's currently impossible for online voting to be both secure and anonymous (secret ballot.) It's easy to make it secure but open ballot. So people could sign ballot initiative petitions online, as these are public record. My friend Marilyn Davis says she's design an email voting system that IS secure and anonymous: http://deliberate.com


Posted by:

Larry
11 Feb 2016

Can electronic voting machines be Hacked? Likely- yes. Bring back the mechanical machines and set some simple rules on how to handle {Chads}.


Posted by:

Monte Crooks
12 Feb 2016

It has already been proven that votes are "cast" in the names of persons listed on Social Security Death Records and cemetery headstones. In the last two prez elections, well-meaning(?) perhaps totally ignorant "voters" cast multiple ballots in different jurisdictions, and many illegals also voted. Instead of increasing fraudulent votes, EV (Electronic Voting) will just keep spurious sources of these votes less obvious. It can't be worse than "Motor Voter" and "Same Day Registration" votes.


Posted by:

Chuck
19 Feb 2016

As they say in Chicago: Vote and vote often!


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