Online voting? Don't count on it anytime soon

William Jackson

Ever since the November elections, people have been saying, 'There's got to be a better way.' Not surprisingly, companies that market digital certificate technology are saying digital certificates are that way.

Yes, digital certificates can provide strong authentication and encryption for legally binding digital signatures.

'The technology is certainly mature enough to handle voting,' said Mike Yaffe, marketing manager for SHYM Technology Inc. of Needham, Mass.

But is the public ready for it? 'I'm not sure,' Yaffe said.

Digital certificates and a public-key infrastructure could make possible digital voting over the Internet or over a LAN at a polling place. Either way, the ballots could be tamperproof and easily counted: no ambiguous results, hand tallies or challenges.

But there are two big roadblocks: giving every voter a digital certificate and putting the infrastructure in place.

The infrastructure issue will probably preclude online voting via the Internet. Not every voter has access to a smart-card reader, which is the most efficient way to distribute certificates. And you can imagine the voter outrage if election servers went down.

Despite encryption, security will remain an issue. Even the best security in the world cannot forestall allegations of hacker tampering, which could undermine public confidence even more than last November's events.

Having voters cast digital ballots on a LAN at the polling place makes a lot more sense, but there is still the problem of giving out the authentication certificates. It would be possible to issue a certificate on a smart card when a voter registers. That, however, would require local jurisdictions to maintain large certificate systems.

What would make more sense would be for the state to put the certificate on a driver's license with an embedded chip. Voting could be the kick in the pants to get electronic delivery started, Yaffe said.

But don't expect many digital ballots to be cast in the next presidential election, or even the one after that. Distributing digital certificates via new driver's licenses would take at least eight years.


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