Democratization of Democracy. Or can e-commerce experience help us to conduct online elections?

During the last couple of decades, we have been introduced to technological innovations and tools that help us deal with daily activities much more easily and effectively. The way we shop and communicate with each other, consume information, travel, and pay bills has changed dramatically since the introduction of the Internet. Notwithstanding these innovations, when it comes to political elections we are stuck with the old-fashioned paper ballot system.

Internet voting would have eliminated problems related to distance and accessibility, allowing every eligible citizen to vote, regardless of their location at the moment. It would have also eliminated long queues and save time at polling stations, which eventually would have caused a meaningful increase in voter turnout. Moreover, Internet voting would have drastically reduced election expenses, which governments could direct toward education or investments in healthcare.

If we look at election procedures through the perspective of the younger generation, the entire process that involves physical voting ballots in school buildings looks unattractive and outdated. How can we expect the youth to show up at voting centers, stay in line for some time, and mark the name of certain politicians or political parties if they do almost everything with the involvement of digital tools?

So, after thinking about the aforementioned positive effects, it is quite logical to ask, “If we trust the Internet when we do money transactions, then what stops us from implementing voting over the Internet?” The answer is pretty obvious when we think deeper about online business and the philosophy of elections.

First, online transactions are not as safe as we think. Well, it is notably safer for consumers, but for merchants and financial institutions that are involved in e-commerce, it is quite risky and they lose billions of dollars every year. The reason why we have the perception that it is safe to spend money online is that these institutions never held consumers responsible for loses, and reimburse clients if losses occur.

Secondly, even though it sounds rational to compare e-commerce with the online voting, the procedures and requirements are significantly different, mainly in issues related to security, anonymity and verifiability.

Security. Losses from online transaction fraud could be acceptable for merchants, if they compare it with their overall profits. It is okay for them to have a few cases of theft amid thousands of transactions. However, it is not an acceptable ratio for elections, given how often candidates win with tiny margins.

Anonymity. It is a vital part of all political elections. Voting should be done anonymously, which prevents voters from being pressured and influenced before, during and after the elections. It turns out that nowadays, it is very difficult to build a system that will satisfy both the security and anonymity requirements of elections. Basically the more secure the system is, the easier it is to figure out who voted for whom.

Verifiability. Although the paper ballots look outdated, they are being used as physical proof that indicates that a “certain number of people in certain district voted for a certain political party or a candidate.” Is there any other way to verify votes after online voting, given that we also need to maintain anonymity of each voter? Experts say, “None so far.”

Essentially, online voting requires technology and security measures that we do not currently possess. But hopefully in the near future innovations that are being developed by businesses will respond to the security, anonymity and verifiability requirements of political elections, which will eventually help democratize the democracy.

Note: There are several countries, including the U.S. and U.K. that have been conducting experiments with online election at the local level. However, so far Estonia (the country where the Skype was built) is the only country that is conducting online voting countrywide. Unfortunately, the experts group that monitors online elections in Estonia found serious problems that basically question the legitimacy of online voting. 

References:

1. De Castella, Tom. “Election 2015: How feasible would it be to introduce online voting?” BBC. April 27, 2015
2. Gross, Doug. “Why can’t Americans vote online?” CNN. November 8, 2011
3. Cameron, Dell. “Online voting is many years away, thanks to widespread security concerns.” The Daily Dot. Jul 13, 2015
4. Duncan, Geoff. “It’s the 21st century! Why aren’t we voting online yet?” Digital Trends. November 5, 2012
5. Charlton, Alistair. “Election 2015: Why can’t we vote online?” International Business Times. April 17, 2015
6. Talbot, David. “Why You Can’t Vote Online. Fundamental security problems aren’t solved, computing experts warn.” MIT Technology Review. November 5, 2012
7. Arthur, Charles. “Estonian e-voting shouldn’t be used in European elections, say security experts.” The Guardian. May 12, 2014
8. Kobie, Nicole. “Why electronic voting isn’t secure – but may be safe enough.” The Guardian. March 30, 2015
9. Jefferson, David. “If I Can Shop and Bank Online, Why Can’t I Vote Online?” Verified Voting.

By: Vugar Salamli


2 Comments

  1. Great post. I can't even imagine the cybersecurity necessary to defend an online presidential election platform from state and non-state actors. The "air gap" provided by physical voting booths seem to be the best defense against such folks. However, this air gap doesn't always defend against commonplace vote manipulation. For example, US Deputy CTO Ed Felten (full disclosure: my undergrad thesis adviser) has shown repeatedly how easy it is for an average CS major to manipulate votes cast via the most commonly used voting machines. See https://freedom-to-tinker.com/blog/felten/securit

    However, according to work performed by Ed and his collaborators, the most common type of voting machine fraud stems from simple engineering errors and code bugs that lose votes or place them in the wrong candidate's column. See http://www.pcworld.com/article/153187/felton_vote

  2. Really interesting topic and discussion. I see a lot of general public distrust similarities between this issue (electronic & online voting) and the prospect of self-driving cars. While electronic voting and autonomous passenger hauling vehicles do present their own unique and non-trivial risks, the alternatives may actually be a much worse. An honest look at the analogue world status quo in both of these categories is a little alarming. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in 2013 alone 32,719 motor vehicle fatalities occurred–an alarming 10 deaths per 100,000 US citizens[1]. In the voting world, Americans should not forget that a confusing "butterfly ballot" in Palm Beach County, Florida resulted in 2,000 Al Gore votes going to Pat Buchanan, ultimately swaying the national election in favor of George W. Bush[2].

    It is easy to decry the theoretical risks of new digital technologies, particularly when they underpin our most fundamental institutions. But I also feel that it is easy to over inflate the accuracy, verifiability, and security of manual voting. Online electronic voting should certainly not be rolled out in time for the 2016 US federal elections. But similar to autonomous vehicles, I believe that the public would be far better off if this technology were prudently adopted in the near future.

    1. IIHS, HLDI: http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/general-statist
    2. Everett, Greene, Byrne, Wallach, Derr, Sandler, & Torous, http://chil.rice.edu/research/pdf/EverettGreeneBW… (p.883)