February 17, 2004

Commentary: Online voting? Of course it can work

Author: Chris Preimesberger

You might have read the news today -- oh boy -- about how the Pentagon really, really wanted to use a new Web-based system called Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE) to allow 6 million military personnel and their relatives around the world to vote in U.S. elections from their laptops. After all, just because a voter is 13 time zones away from home or whatever shouldn't exclude him or her from exercising the single most important tool of democracy. So the motive is certainly okay.
Chris Preimesberger

Then you might have seen the followup news that four impartial hacking experts hired by the Pentagon agreed that it was just too easy to crack into SERVE, cause all kinds of havoc, and negate any sort of fair election. The Pentagon, as pushy as ever about getting its way, fought the experts until the last minute before the Feb. 3 South Carolina primary, then pulled out the white flag and surrendered. SERVE was effectively ambushed. The Congressional experts said, in effect, that voting can't be done online -- at least not in the Windows-dominated world we have today. Especially now in light of Thursday's Windows code leak.

"Internet voting presents far too many opportunities for hackers or even terrorists to interfere with fair and accurate voting, potentially in ways impossible to detect," the computer experts said in a stock statement.

Oh, really?

Web-based election tampering, as we all know, is certainly possible. But don't tell that to the Michigan Democratic Party. They conducted their Feb. 7 primary vote using a voting-via-Web option, and it came off without a hitch. You didn't hear about any Florida 2000-type "hanging chad" and rejected registration mishaps there, did you? They're been receiving congratulations from around the world ever since.

Any system can be hacked. But the difference here is at the back end preparation, where the right controls and human administration eliminated duplicate votes, pranksters, and other problems to deliver a clear result. This is something the Pentagon in all its power and glory couldn't figure out.

"We went above and beyond the call of duty to bring us to an accurate voting result," said Adrienne Marsh, communication director for the Michigan Democratic Party. "We made it kind of difficult to actually vote online; some people complained about it, but in the end it worked very well. I don't think anybody even attempted to hack into it."

In the end, 123,000 registered Democrats were eligible to vote online, two-thirds of them registered online, and 46,000 actually voted using the system, which featured two firewalls, redundancy (you had to register, then have the party email you a ballot, then email it back), voter ID numbers, random assigned passwords, two kinds of encrypted data, and two forms of other personal information -- city and date of birth. If any detail was wrong, you couldn't vote online.

The system was designed by -- and the servers housed -- at a New York-based firm called Election Services Corp., which has "run Web-based elections around the world," said Jason Moon, Webmaster for the Michigan Democratic Party.

ESC is a descendant of Election.com, which attempted to do an online election in Arizona four years ago and ultimately failed.

"I even had some trouble; I put down the city of the hospital where I was born, instead of where I lived when I was born," Marsh said, "and I couldn't get into the system. I had to go back and start over."

Michigan proved that voting by Web is not an impossibility. When the right system is put into place, we'll be able to run our democracy in this fashion. This is a true definition of the phrase, "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

Just think of all the advantages that secure Web-based voting could bring:

  • Voter participation, of course, would increase big time. It's just easier all around.
  • Shut-ins, the disabled, agoraphobics (see the U.S. television show "Monk,", the one about his brother who hadn't been out of the house in 32 years), and shy people could vote fearlessly in the privacy of their homes or offices. (Check out this information for blind voters.)
  • It would cut down greatly on paper and administrative costs of publishing paper/mailback absentee ballots, which amounts to untold millions of taxpayer dollars saved.
  • Recalls would be much more efficient. My home state, California, took a year and several million dollars' worth of administrative costs to overthrow Gray Davis in favor of The Governator, Arnold Schwartzenegger. Voting via the Web would have saved lots of time and effort, not to mention news coverage.

Eventually, secure Web-based voting could be used to ask voters about what they really think about various other issues, such as gun control, same-sex marriage, government-funded abortion, etc., rather than have to funnel everything through individual government representatives, who can't get through all their mail by themselves.

In fact, we could probably do away altogether with city councils, state assemblies, state senates, and Congress and instead run everything by vote of the computer-using public.

Power to the people with computers!


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