While browsing the web and watching video clips from a few of the recent presidential debates, an interesting thought crossed my mind: why can’t we vote in elections online?
After all, we can watch and re-watch nearly every debate, interview, and political advertisement on demand, participate in discussion forums and online polls, and even ask questions to candidates directly all using the Internet, but when it comes to actually casting a vote, the only option for the vast majority of us is to physically transport ourselves to a local polling station. As someone fascinated with how technology can change society for the better, this seems like an area ripe for technological innovation.
Nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to be any major push to allow online voting in elections. Of course, there are some active organizations and groups working towards bringing online voting to elections in the U.S. (such as CyberTheVote.org), but it would be misleading to suggest that these are large movements with much momentum — at this point anyway.
To help readers (and myself) better understand the nuances of the arguments surrounding this issue, I decided to do a little research and write up a short summary of the main benefits of online voting. In an attempt to keep the blog balanced, I also recruited the help of political writer Michael Rivera to lay out the primary arguments of those opposed to online voting below.
Reasons to Allow Online Voting in Elections
There are four main reasons why we should allow online voting in elections: increased accessibility to voters, lower cost to taxpayers, less wastefulness, and improved accuracy in the all-important vote counting process.
One of the main benefits of online voting is that it makes the process much less of a hassle for the average voter. In more concrete terms, online voting means that people no longer need to take an hour or two (or longer) out of their day to travel to the nearest polling station and wait in line to cast their vote. Instead, all it takes is a few mouse-click or taps on the touchscreen — no transportation, long time commitments, or line waiting required.
Another huge win that we get from online voting is the lower cost to taxpayers. It’s no secret that voting machines aren’t cheap. In fact, the federal government spent around $3 billion for new voting equipment while preparing for the 2000 presidential election. What’s more, this cost is not a one-time thing, as these machines need replaced as they get older and the technologies become obsolete.
Online voting would free us from the responsibility of having to spend massive amounts of cash to purchase new machines every decade (or so). Of course, we would need to spend some money on the infrastructure required to support online voting, but when you consider that the horrendously mismanaged healthcare.gov website only cost $634 million (by the most liberal of estimates), the cost-savings potential of online voting starts to become a bit more clear. The logic here is that the online voting portal would need to cost around 5 times what the healthcare portal cost for it to not be more cost effective than our current system — a possible, but highly unlikely outcome.
Online voting has the potential to waste fewer resources for three main reasons:
(1) Since people wouldn’t need to travel to polling stations, there would be less fuel burned in the name of voting.
(2) Without polling stations, there would be no need for voting machines, which means there would be fewer resources used to develop, manufacture, and transport the machines around the country.
(3) With voting now taking place using digital media, there would be no need for paper ballots and therefore fewer trees would need killed.
The final argument in favor of allowing online voting is that an online vote tallying mechanism would be more accurate than our current system. If you have trouble believing that, consider that there are 3,141 counties in the United States. Let’s assume each county has just one polling station — which is probably a huge underestimate.
Now, consider how each polling station is ran by a different group of people and many polling stations have different voting machines than others. Add all of this up and it’s not difficult to see how easy it would be to make a mistake when collecting and tallying all of the votes made across the country. Again, there are thousands of “entry points” into the current voting system, many points of communication, and lots of room for human error before those numbers are propagated up to the federal level.
Now, contrast that with the system that would be in place for online voting.
The voting portal would likely have just one entry point: an encrypted website. The user would make their selections and then that data would be submitted to a central database. There would be no intermediate tallying steps, no voting machine maintenance, and no real opportunity for human error. Of course, a bug in the software is always a possibility, but that possibility already exists in the voting machines used at polling stations today. By centralizing the system, all voters would go through the same software system, which would actually reduce the chances of catastrophic bugs — since there would be fewer code paths to test.
In Defense of Security Concerns
One of the main arguments against online voting is that it wouldn’t be as secure as the current system and could allow voter fraud to flourish. There is, of course, some merit to this concern and it is something that most definitely should be considered when building the online voting system.
However, it’s also important to point out that it isn’t impossible to build a reasonably secure online voting system. Just about every major business in the world has some sort of online authentication system in place for an employee intranet or public-facing website, so this isn’t a new or unique problem. There are numerous best-practices to follow and countless security experts who could be consulted to make sure the portal met modern security requirements and was protected against the most common and most destructive exploits. Of course, it wouldn’t be full-proof, but neither is the current voting system in use today.
There are clear advantages to switching to an online voting system. We could save time, money, and resources by simply switching away from the archaic voting system that was put in place long before the invention of electronic communications. In the modern era where we can do just about everything online — from issuing bank transfers to ordering a pizza — it seems almost comical that we are still forced to travel somewhere to participate in one of the most important parts of democracy.
Looking at the big picture, online voting in elections is clearly the superior voting mechanism and it’s about time that we bring one of our most important democratic processes into the 21st century.
Reasons Against Online Voting in Elections
In today’s day and age, we use internet enabled technology in almost every aspect of our lives. From simple things such as messaging friends and family around the world or shopping online to more business oriented tasks such as managing one’s bank account or holding a video conference, the internet has fundamentally changed the way that we interact with each other and ourselves.
Given the multitude of ways we use the internet both personally and professionally, many have wondered why in the United States citizens aren’t allowed to vote for our elected officials online. While some may argue that enabling online voting would allow for greater accessibility and potentially increase voter turnout and participation, the reality of the situation is murkier than it first appears.
The Risk of PC Malware
The debate for and against voting online in America ultimately comes down to two factors in contention with one another: Accessibility versus Security. While it could be true that allowing for a new form of voting allows more citizens to participate in elections, the risks necessary to implement such a system in the United States today pose too great a threat not only to the authenticity of our elections but the legitimacy of the system itself. Former cyber security experts argue that implementing a system of voting via one’s personal computer or mobile phone allow for security breaches. There’s no guarantee that someone won’t develop a type of malware for phones or computers that could change your vote without you knowing, a risk all too real when considering that over 30% of all household computers are infected with some kind of virus or trojan horse.
To make matters worse, this is only one front from which one’s vote can be corrupted; the possibility exists that your vote could be tampered with en route to a central server where the votes would presumably be tallied. There is also no guarantee that the server or system itself would be secure despite being government run in the year 2015, especially given that this year 21 million Americans had their social security numbers stolen from government computers.
A Lack of Robust Security
While the threat of a rogue virus taking over your vote might be scary enough on its own, the threat of someone else voting in your place should your smartphone or PC get stolen is potentially even scarier.
In a world where online voting exists, what kind of system could be put in place to prevent another human from using your vote as their own? Surely the first idea that comes to mind is a password however, like a manual virus, it wouldn’t be difficult for someone who has installed a key logger on your computer to take your information and pose as yourself, even remotely. If recent data is to be believed, someone monitoring your computer browsing may not have to even wait for you to log in to the hypothetical voting application as three out of four consumers duplicate passwords between accounts, many of which have not been changed in over five years.
Another option would be to follow the route of Estonia which has successfully used online voting for nearly a decade throughout their country with the use of National ID cards and a system that attaches to their personal computers via USB. This solution, however, could be deemed problematic as the use of National ID cards in the United States has been linked with efforts to suppress votes and, if we were to enable such a system to vote online, it follows that this system would likely carry over to voting in person as well. Furthermore, the population of Estonia, just over a million people, is positively dwarfed by America’s population of over 300 million citizens meaning that, barring a severe change in implementation and infrastructure, the project would likely fail due to population density alone.
The Danger and Implications of a Hijacked Election
Then, there are the consequences of a breach in security to consider: what if the entire country votes for a position as important and powerful as the presidency only to find out after an inauguration that the votes from the election had been hijacked? Just what, in fact, are the implications of having a new leader of the free world being elected falsely? Would we expect this new leader to give up the position until a new election can be held? Who would serve in the leader’s place? Would it be ethical to have the former president, potentially someone who could be breaching their term limit or (if they were a first term incumbent) someone who was after all not elected, take that place? How would our laws handle an error that could change the shape of our country and the global stage, an error that no law on the books today could have anticipated? Or, perhaps an even scarier thought, if in fact an election had been hijacked, how could we even know? These are questions that need careful and thoughtful consideration and, ultimately, a realistic and sustainable solution before we even consider an internet enabled election.
A Dearth of Results
Finally, we look to the other side of the debate: the promise of Accessibility as opposed to Security risks. What if we take away the threats and potential for voter fraud? What do we gain by allowing voting online? The crux of the argument is, of course, an increase of accessibility to voting. If voting becomes more accessible then it may follow that more people will participate in the civic process, thus making elections more equitable. While this sounds like a realistic and practical advantage, it is by no means guaranteed. Take for example the case of Oregon which allowed for mail-in ballots as of the year 2000. While the system has been a popular addition to the voting process in the state, it’s effect on voter turn-out over the course of the last decade was largely negligible as the percentage of voting Oregonians stayed within the same range as it had in the previous decade. Ultimately, while a system of voting online would most likely be popular in America, it would likely be popular among those who were already turning out to vote, much like the case of Oregon.
In today’s connected society, the internet allows us the freedom to do many tasks quickly and conveniently that would take ages to do manually such as doing research or shopping. And, it should be noted, that it does these things very very well. But just because it’s made our lives easier in many different and exciting ways doesn’t mean it’s capable or secure enough yet to revolutionize our civic process.
For the time being, the convenience is simply not worth the risk.
Well, I must say that Michael makes a pretty strong case. Nevertheless, I think there’s still plenty of room for debate here.
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