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younger generation, the entire process that involves physical voting ballots in school buildings looks unattractive and outdated.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


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Technology plays an increasing role in every U.S. election.  The 2008 and 2012 presidential elections saw new modes of civic engagement through social media and other tech-enabled, interactive channels such as YouTube and blogs.  In point of fact, Twitter saw 31M election-related tweets sent this November 6th even before President Obama was declared the winner.  Traffic then peaked at over 320K tweets per minute when networks called the election.  A recent Pew survey suggests that two-thirds of Facebook and Twitter users have conducted political or civic activity with social media.  Unsurprisingly, users with the strongest – often the most extreme – political beliefs were most likely to engage using social media.  Controversy sometimes follows:  according to one Facebook “friend” of this author, others’ political status updates are the “#1 reason to reduce your friend count.”

Such sourness aside, it’s worth considering what effect, if any, social media has had on election outcomes.  Definitive evidence is scant, but I’ll suggest three premises.

First, social media reinforces political positions within social circles that already share similar beliefs.  If one is leaning toward a particular candidate but harbors reservations, a barrage of negative tweets and Facebook posts about the opposing candidate can quickly influence a young person, in particular, to vote for the original candidate.  This groupthink is hardly novel to democracy, yet the sheer number and frequency of interactions enabled by social media presumably amplifies conformism.  “These political rants on Facebook made me switch my vote,” said no one, ever.  But for potential voters leaning toward a candidate, a supportive social media environment can help solidify that decision.

Second, social media alters both the quantity and quality of information that users receive about candidates and policies.  Critics argue that YouTube videos, candidate Facebook pages, and 140-character tweets are unserious faux-media that can’t possibly do justice to the complexity of the world’s oldest democracy.  I disagree.  While not an adequate substitute for all exposure to deeper traditional media coverage, Facebook and the like play a crucial role transmitting real-time information to citizens.  By enabling immediate two-way communication, these channels also allow candidates to understand how their supporters (and detractors) react, and to quickly adjust messages.  Moreover, social media users often have substantial control over which election content they choose to experience, increasing the likelihood that they’ll continue to stay engaged.

In fact, limited evidence suggests that social media engagement has meaningfully increased voter turnout among younger Americans, the heaviest social media users.  Any U.S.-based person who signed in to Facebook on Election Day noticed the gaudy “Vote Tracker” tool, which allowed users to “share” with friends that they’d voted.  Twitter recorded over 3K tweets per minute to the same effect throughout the day.  Several new apps for Facebook and other platforms allow users to organize friends into likely voting blocs, and to send (and track responses to) voting reminders.  While the effect of these tools is unproven, a recent non-profit survey suggests that Facebook reminders are by far the best tool to get young Americans to vote.  Nearly 60% of respondents preferred Facebook reminders over texts and in-person communication.  All things considered, the 2012 election saw the highest-ever level of democratic engagement on social media.  It may be no coincidence that under-30 voter turnout, at ~50%, continued to exceed historical levels while overall turnout fell significantly from 2008.

What to make of all this?  The social media landscape is still evolving:  it’s impossible to predict how technological progression will affect democratic engagement in 2016.  More certain is that social media will continue to be a powerful force shaping how citizens interact with their civic leaders, and with each other on topics of public consequence.  If nothing else, perhaps next time around, the traditional media will moderate its collective awe at the scope and reach of social media during elections.  This technology is the new normal, and elections are no exception.

 


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