Internet Voting Security

Posted on Mon, October 31, 2016 in Business Strategy, Development Tips, User Interface, Web Design, by Mike Joyce

Time to Evolve

Technology is a tool that we can utilize to improve processes across all industries. It’s being realized in a variety of ways in a variety of arenas – travel, communications, healthcare, and more. Considering this, there’s no reason for us to be stuck in the dark ages when it comes to one of our country’s most foundational areas of interest – voters indicating their preferences through the democratic process. The original bureaucracy and governing systems that were designed at the birth of our nation were intended for a citizenry that was a small fraction of our current population’s size. It’s unrealistic to think these same systems would be optimized for the diverse demographics and large population of our country today.

Precision, Speed & Safety

Internet voting has inconveniences, risks and concerns. So do other voting systems such as punch cards with hanging chads, mail-in voting ballots, and in-person polling stations which are only open at specific times of day and are monitored by minimally-trained volunteers. As our society has matured, we’ve accepted that when precision, speed and safety are required, we bring machines and computers in to help out. They help remove the very large potential for human error. This is why bank vaults are monitored with electronic and online systems, and why the stock exchange has gone digital. It’s why surgeons use robotic arms and health institutions store data digitally. And it’s why professional pilots who work for commercial airlines turn on auto-pilot to safely land jet-planes full of people.

These highly trained professionals use incredibly complex digital tools and systems because in all these areas, the task at hand absolutely must be done right. We wouldn’t feel right having underpaid administrative staff using outdated surgery tools to perform an operation. But we do trust the selection of future governing bodies of our nation to a similarly underpaid (or unpaid!) administrators and volunteers using outdated tools to collect the votes of our populace. The future of our nation is in this person’s hands – someone who might be smart but has received very little training or education with regard to the task at hand, is not adequately financially incentivised, and who is using sub-par, outdated tools.

Benefits of Internet Voting

Some positives available to us through internet voting:

  • Higher precision in successfully recording a person’s intended vote – internet systems can offer a summary results screen showing the voter who they’ve selected to confirm that the entity recording the vote (the computer) has successfully “heard” what the voter is trying to say. Paper voting systems and punch cards lack this. This presents it’s own security concerns regarding the auditability mechanisms required to prove that what’s displayed to the user is actually what is recorded and included in the vote.
  • Reduce costs and turnaround time associated with absentee ballots – every election state and local governments spend tax dollars on accommodating absentee citizen with paper ballots – sending, collecting, and processing – who might be deployed military or overseas for other reasons.
  • Enable largely disenfranchised populations the ability to vote – our voting system is very difficult for some segments of the population such as the blind or otherwise handicapped, those who work long or unorthodox hours, who belong to social groups who are unwelcome in their home neighborhood, or young adults who might move frequently.
  • Reduce processing time associated with tallying votes – digital systems can crunch numbers nearly instantly.
  • Provide a more voter-friendly solution for districts that offer preferential voting – in preferential voting the voter ranks all possible candidate choices in order of preference instead of selecting only one candidate – like in San Francisco. The voter selection process could be much improved if it was digital, and the burden to admin in tallying the votes would be dramatically reduced.

Reducing Risks

Advocacy for and against internet voting is focusing on the wrong issue. People are obsessing about an internet voting system getting hacked. However the issue at hand is not finding a 100% failsafe system – that’s unrealistic. It’s about lowering the risk of the current system and improving it.

Our current voting system is riddled with opportunities for error and influence. The conventional antiquated technology and human-based systems in use fail all the time. However we turn a blind eye to them because we consider them to be acceptable risks that are unmanageable.

Investing in Democracy

Of all the things our government could spend billions of dollars on, you’d think that the voting system required for democracy to exist would be of vital importance. Instead we have largely rudimentarily-trained and minimally-educated, under-paid professionals (sometimes volunteers!) using unreliable and outdated tools to gather the opinions of our populace – the foundation of our democracy.

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If we want to improve our voting system, the US government is going to have to make an investment. Just like other industries like healthcare, travel, communications and manufacturing who have sunk major sums of money to invest in top digital tools, the US’s voting system and the federal government are going to have to make a similar investment to leap from the 1700’s into today’s modern digital age.

Other governments and voting entities are adopting internet voting – the US is lagging behind. The governments of Norway, Switzerland, India, UK, Canada, and Estonia are all using internet voting. Here in the US, we have actually offered internet voting since 2010 to overseas citizens via the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) but officials are highly resistant to offering this to our stateside citizens – even though in theory we have increased control over all variables as opposed to overseas. The incredibly high-profile Oscars and Grammies have also adopted internet voting. ( This doc from the US government has some interesting additional information on overseas electronic voting.)

Why Are People Against Internet Voting?

From the grumblings reported by the media, we can surmise that the main objection to internet voting is that it changes the way things have always been done. We’ve heard politicians say that the system that voted them in office worked for them, so why should they change it?

We’ve heard folks who are uneducated about digital security measures conjecture that Russia is going to hack into the system and rig voting to be in their favor. However this objection can easily be mollified with a technical implementations like WORM drives, mixnets, zero-knowldege proofs, and other advanced cryptographic protocols that, when used properly, can safekeep systems.

There’s also a possibility that the “experts” protesting the most against internet voting are interested in the inclusion or exclusion of demographic groups which correlate to the desire to vote online. Some countries make voting a mandatory action and fine anyone who doesn’t vote (Australia for example). In this case, it doesn’t favor one party over another to make voting easier since everyone is going to vote anyway. However in our country, the likelihood that citizens will vote is a very real way to influence election results. It’s possible that those who are outspoken against internet voting receive support from interest groups who are happy to keep disenfranchised demographic groups from gaining easier access to being heard at elections.

Final Thoughts

Since security is the main concern voiced by dissenters, we think it’s important to clarify that internet voting is not a promise of perfect security. It’s better security. There are real concrete problems that internet voting solves at a lower risk than what is currently used in our voting system. Not zero risk, but less risk – because with any system there’s always risk.

How do we counter this risk? Build a state-of-the art security and storage system for voting, then hire highly trained professionals to implement and manage it. The more secure the system, the more difficult and cost-prohibitive it would be for nefarious parties to compromise the system. There are far more reliable, less difficult, and less expensive methods of swinging an election – like donating money to one of the political parties. There will always be entities seeking to influence an election, but if we make security compromise the most difficult way of achieving this, they will be more likely to turn to more legitimate tactics.

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