William Jackson | The future of voting IT

Cybereye'commentary: It's way too early to start picking winners and losers in the voting technology lottery

William Jackson

Voting is a deceptively simple task. The ancient Athenians did it with potsherds. When paper became cheaper than broken pots, paper ballots became de rigueur. Now, information technology is the latest thing in voting systems and there is talk of letting the power of the Internet bring the polling place to us, wherever we are.

But it is proving surprisingly difficult to come to a consensus on the best way to cast our ballots.

'A sizable population wants to go back to a mythical golden age' by requiring paper audit trails, said Daniel Casto, a senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundations, during a recent ITIF forum on new voting technology. Casto thinks the direct-recording touch screen is the best system, being reasonably secure and very convenient for most people.

Advocates of paper audit trails point out that touch-screen systems by themselves have not been proven secure. But then, neither have paper ballots, the other side says. And tying paper ballots to electronic systems adds another layer of complexity.

What about online voting? Will we ever feel comfortable trusting our ballots to the Internet?

'The jury is out on that,' said Aleks Essa, a Ph.D. student at the University of Ottawa who helped demonstrate a system for making optical-scan voting more transparent. But whether we like the idea of Internet voting or not, we should be doing our best to develop the best ways to do it, because several countries have adopted it already, he said. 'It's here.'

But Jeremy Clark, a Ph.D. student at the University of Waterloo also taking part in the demonstration, took a different position. 'We ought to question why we want online voting for everyone,' he said. There are some interesting indications that, technology aside, there are sociological reasons not to do it. More on that later.

Internet voting is not as much of a fantasy as you might think. The Okaloosa County, Fla., Board of Elections is conducting a pilot program to let overseas citizens who are registered to vote there cast absentee ballots online in November. The county is home to several military bases and has a fairly large contingent of voters living abroad.

'We're going to transmit the ballots over the network,' said Alex Yasinsac, co-director at Florida State University's Security and Assurance in Information Technology Lab. They will use hardened kiosks without disks, booted from CDs and managed by county election officials who will be present in three cities in England, Germany and Japan for the test. The voted ballots will be encrypted and transmitted via VPN to the election headquarters.

The voters will be a self-selected group, probably small, of registered overseas residents.

'The goal of the pilot is to provide a test that we can analyze,' Yasinsac said. 'This system will be under tremendous scrutiny' to determine its strengths, weaknesses and scalability.

If it works, the Okaloosa program could be a model for helping to enfranchise the millions of U.S. citizens living abroad who now have difficulty voting in their home elections.

But, to get back to Jeremy Clark's caution, is a good idea for everyone? Counterintuitive as it sounds, Clark cited several studies that he said show that online voting actually decreases voter participation. The reason apparently is that engaging in civic responsibilities is more likely when the process is visible. Our feelings of community are reinforced when we get out of our houses and make the effort to join our friends, neighbors and complete strangers at the polling place, and see that they also have made the effort.

So it's way too early to start picking winners and losers in the voting technology lottery. Maybe Internet voting is not as inevitable as some people might think. And maybe those 'I Voted' stickers they hand out at the polls are a more powerful tool than we thought.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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