Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Replace postal voting with secure internet voting

The traditional view of collecting votes during an election would entail having citizens visit an official polling place to cast their ballot. In the past, this may have been with colored balls in marked jars, but it has since evolved to involve paper ballots, pull-lever machines and direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, some with intuitive touchscreen displays and advanced security measures. 

While this standard, regardless of the exact mechanism used, largely remains the primary way that most democracies in the world allow their citizens to exercise their right to vote, it is not always enough on its own. Particularly when it comes to universal access and convenience, people living in rural areas or more remote parts of the country can encounter significant difficulty in making the physical trip to a polling place in the city.

The world as a whole is experiencing a greater level of urbanization than ever before, but this does not mean that people living outside of major metropolitan areas should have any greater difficulty in casting a vote than their urban counterparts. To address this, electoral commissions have typically relied on postal voting, offering an extended period of time where citizens could send their ballots in through the regular postal mail.

However, postal voting is “becoming increasingly problematic” for a number of reasons. The pieces of mail can easily become lost and sending private ballots through the postal service may not live up to the security and confidentiality standards that a legitimate election should have. Mail tampering is not uncommon and this could jeopardize the integrity of the election results.

A more recent solution to gain popularity in countries like Estonia is Internet-based voting. Also called i-voting, online voting may not necessarily replace precinct-based voting places for the majority of people, but it can provide much greater access and convenience to those who wish to use an online system instead. 

Naturally, there are also many concerns about security when it comes to anything to do with the Internet, but these concerns can be suitably addressed if the proper audits are in place and the right firms are handled to manage the elections. Online systems have the potential of becoming the victim of malicious attacks, but they can be prevented. The hacking of an online vote in the Canadian province of Alberta was suitably thwarted, despite “multiple attempts to infiltrate the website.” The internal security systems prevented these attacks from having any impact on the results of the vote.

Because of the possibility of such attacks, it is important that all online voting systems allow for an adequate period of time during which voters can cast their ballots online. The time needs to be sufficient to mitigate a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. Should the voting website go down for a period of time, there needs to be enough time to recover and to ensure that voters can still cast their vote.

As expert William J. Kelleher has asserted in the past, Internet voting can be safe and reliable and it is certainly a more viable, scalable and secure solution than the increasingly archaic system of postal voting.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

How Hybrid elections offer the best of both worlds

All change, political or otherwise, is inevitably met with some opposition. Traditionalists want to keep things the way they are and futurists want to abandon the status quo completely in favor of something completely new. Of course, neither group is wholly correct in its perspective and instead society far more commonly moves through a series of transitions. 

Ken Zirkel
For an extended period of time, horse-drawn carriages existed alongside the new automobiles. Landline telephones continue to be used in parallel with the growth of the mobile phone industry. And election technology is no different. It would be unfair and unrealistic to expect that the public at large can completely depart from voting practices of the past to adopt something brand new and unfamiliar.

The history of voting machines is a long and storied one. The original ballot box was actually used to hold little colored balls. This eventually evolved to paper ballots, mechanical levels, punch cards and, most recently, direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines. The move to touchscreen terminals specifically is in line with changes in society as a whole. More people are using computers, smartphones and tablets and the electronic interface is becoming more familiar and more comfortable than its analog counterpart. It also helps that e-voting technology provides tremendous advantages in terms of economies of scale, efficiency and timeliness. 

And as ubiquitous as the Internet has become for many facets of modern life, from communication to online banking, it has not yet become the cultural norm in many parts of the world to cast a vote in a municipal, regional or federal election via the Internet. Physical polling stations, supervised and managed by election staff and volunteers, are still the most widespread practice and it is the one that most people know.

While it does make sense to utilize electronic-based technologies for these physical polling places, it may not make sense to abandon precinct-based voting altogether in favor of an online-only solution. It is too drastic and too dramatic of a paradigm shift. 

In the province of Nova Scotia in Canada, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality recently ruled that it will be utilizing a hybrid voting system for its upcoming District 10 byelection rather than using an electronic-only system. People can vote via a secure website or telephone in a week-long advance poll or they can vote via paper ballot on the actual election day. Running a hybrid election like this does cost more money than if either system were used on its own, but this is a necessary cost to provide the greatest access to all citizens. 

In the last election, 56.4 percent of the voters in Cape Breton's District 10 utilized the e-voting system to cast their vote. The physical polling stations, which can be mobile in nature, are being used such that military veterans and seniors living in care homes can more easily exercise their “right to mark an X,” said Deputy mayor Kevin Saccar. 

There are risks and rewards, pros and cons to any voting system, whether it's a paper ballot, electronic voting machine or a secure website. By providing voters with the option for how they wish to vote, governments can help to encourage the greatest level of voter turnout possible.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Debating Internet voting in the UK

The Internet is used for just about every aspect of everyday life. It is where people go to connect with one another through dating sites and social media. It is where people go to shop for the latest fashions and gadgets. It is where they go to get the most up-to-date news and opinions on world events. It's where they do their banking and even use a range of government services.

Given this, it is somewhat surprising that voting over the Internet, sometimes called i-voting and occasionally included in the broader discussion of e-voting, hasn't already been more widely implemented in more countries around the world. To further this discussion, Senior Political Correspondent Jason Farrell of the UK's Sky News recently engaged in an online webchat via Google Hangouts with three guests on the merits and challenges of casting a ballot via the web. The full replay of the 22 minute debate has been uploaded to YouTube.

In that discussion, WebRoots Democracy founder Areeq Chowdhury points out that it's almost a common sense point to modernize the democracy in the United Kingdom and bring it up to date by offering an online option for voting in elections. The Internet, as mentioned above, already infiltrates such a wide range of daily activities and to retain the archaic pen-and-paper method of casting a ballot as the primary method of voting feels incredibly outdated.

Indeed, just as Sir Richard Branson feels that the Internet is the future of voting, all of the guests on the program also support its adoption, but not without some hesitations. There is the risk of security threats for “hacked” votes that would compromise the integrity and legitimacy of election results. Chowdhury agrees that there are risks and there will be flaws. He also agrees that the lack of a paper trail to verify votes cast can also be worrisome, but he feels that the bigger risk at play is the risk of losing even more voters. The drop in voter turnout has been alarming and it needs to be address. The electorate needs to be more engaged with the political process and taking the vote online, along with other tools related to the election, can help to keep the modern political system relevant for voters both young and old.

To this end, Emma Mulqueeny of the Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy feels that should an i-voting system be implemented in the United Kingdom, it makes more sense to look at the things that people are already engaging with online. She uses the example of social media, like Facebook, as a possible route for developing an online voting system rather than spending excessive amounts of money to develop a brand new system from scratch that could just as easily be riddled with flaws and problems.

In response to critics and naysayers who fear an online voting system that can be hacked by criminals, Mulqueeny says it is actually far easier to trace a digital footprint online, looking through servers and IP addresses, than it is to trace any ill-doing and tampering through paper ballots. It is harder to be completely anonymous on the Internet. Chowdhury agrees that everything has flaws and nothing is 100% secure, but people are still willing to utilize services – online and offline – that are equally as insecure as an online voting system. The issue is whether or not you can secure it to an adequate level.

Perhaps one of the most telling perspectives came from National Youth Council in Estonia member Marju Tamp as Estonia has been a leader in the I-voting revolution for a number of years. She says the security has been “flawless” and the Internet-based voting has been a very positive experience overall. Surprisingly, the older generation is actually accepting i-voting more happily than youth in her country.

Internet voting offers a compelling possibility in the United Kingdom and throughout the rest of the democratic world. Watch the full 22-minute Stand Up Debate from Sky News on YouTube.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Technology and the 2014 Brazil general election

The 2014 general election in Brazil will see the election of a Brazilian President, as well as the National Congress, state governors and state legislatures. Incumbent President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers' Party, the first female president of the country, is running for re-election and she has been the front-runner in the first round of opinion polls. This election will also prove to be intriguing because of the increased role that electronic voting technology will be taking in the process.

Electronic voting, or “e-voting,” has had a long and strong history in Brazil. Each successive election has introduced greater measures and technology to help ensure improved security and increased automation. The 2014 Brazilian general elections are no different.

For those who are casting their ballots from abroad, Brazil's Federal District Regional Electoral Court (TRE-DF) is deploying over 900 voting machines to nearly 100 countries around the world. Remote voting for expatriates and those working abroad is an issue that is sometimes downplayed in other elections around the world, but the TRE-DF is treating it as an important priority.

The process for preparing, sealing, shipping and deploying the electronic voting machines is being very carefully monitored and controlled. The TRE-DF is working closely with consulates and diplomatic missions from the different countries. An audit team checks all the machines before they are securely stored for transport and the transportation process falls under the same rigorous scrutiny for security as those machines used in Brazil itself.

Brazil started testing electronic voting way back in 1996 with the goal of extreme simplicity. The machines were meant to be easy to use and easy to deploy, automating the electoral process as much as possible. In the nearly two decades that have followed, Brazil has continued to utilize technology, including direct-recording electronic voting machines (DRE). Efficiency, confidentiality and security have improved greatly.

In an effort to further improve security, Brazil introduced a biometric voter authentication system in a 2008 pilot project that continued with the elections that followed in 2010 and 2012. The system, overseen by the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) utilizes a high-definition biometric fingerprint scanner. The pilot project only saw use by a 100,000 voters across three counties, but this number grew to over a million voters in 60 cities for 2010. In the 2012 election, some 7.7 million voters were authenticated and identified via the biometric system. Voter fraud is minimized and the legitimacy of the vote is upheld.

For the 2014 general election, the deployment of biometric authentication is expanding once again. Over 22 million people will be identified by their fingerprints.

With a geographical area of 8.5 million square kilometres (3.2 million square miles), Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world. While the majority of its citizens do live in urban areas like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil still has many remote rural areas where voters may struggle with access. By deploying over 1400 Broadband Global Area Network SABRE satellite terminals, a Smartmatic-led consortium called Smartitec is securing data and voice communications in Brazil's 15 most isolated states. Voters in remote areas have just as much of a right to choosing their government as their urban counterparts.

Between the deployment of voting terminals for remote voting abroad, the expanded use of biometrics for voter authentication, and the inclusion of secure satellite terminals for voting in remote areas, Brazil's 2014 general elections illustrate the powerful use of technology in the modern electoral process.