Monday, January 7, 2013

The alluring idea of Internet voting

Image: The Pragmatist Blog
The extensive use of the Internet in almost all phases of our life has made the following question a recurring object of arguments and disagreements: How far are we from Internet Voting?

The idea of casting a vote at the moment and place that best suits the voter is indeed a very powerful one. Nonetheless, are we ready?

In a sense, it could be argued that, in the case of the US, postal voting paved the way for Internet voting by creating the legal and political conditions to allow early voting and remote voting, two key features for this convenient method to cast a vote.

Now, although the Internet is the one technology that can make voting easier, promote participation, and make the task of casting a vote as simple as sending a greeting card, many experts agree that we are not ready yet to undertake this form of e-voting. Some of the main arguments against Internet Voting are:     
  • Coercion: As opposed to precinct voting, in which the casting of a vote is done in-site, Internet voting mostly occurs from a remote location in an uncontrolled environment. That opens the possibility for the coercion of the voter. Who can guarantee that the selection was done free from any kind of any pressure? At the moment, no one has the answer to that question. 
  • Access: Even in the most developed nations, access to Internet is not sufficiently widespread. Forcing voters to adopt this voting system could disenfranchise voters with lower income or older generations of citizens that may not be acquainted with this technology. 
  • Authentication: Internet voting opens the door to voter impersonation. How do you know that the cast vote really belongs to the person who sent the vote through the Internet? 
  • Security: As of today, there is no way to guarantee that integrity of the will of the voter is not compromised. Moreover, being a part of a world wide web, Internet voting can be attacked from anywhere in the world.
Although the UK, Switzerland, USA, and a myriad of other countries have experienced Internet voting in regional or other minor elections, Estonia is the only country brave enough to take a national security matter, such as a national election, to the Internet.

According to a research paper called Internet Voting in Estonia, published by Alexander H. Trechsel, R. Michael Alvarez, and Thad E. Hall, in the Voting Technology Project, Estonia managed to mitigate the effects of the arguments explained above, and carry out successful elections. The 4 keys to the success of the Estonian experience are:
  • Access: Widespread broadband Internet penetration. 
  • Legal: A comprehensive legal structure supporting Internet voting issues. 
  • Authentication: Identity cards distributed in Estonia posses an embedded digital certificate that, when combined with a unique personal identification number, allow for the authentication of the voter. This method depends on the voter's possibility to buy a $7 ID card reader and plugging it to his computer.  
  • Political Culture: a political culture that is supportive of Internet voting. Political will.
Although Estonia is a happy example of the possibilities Internet is opening for the elections industry and democracy in general, it must said that only 140,000, nearly 25% of the eligible voters chose to vote online, while the rest of the voters went to their pre-assigned precincts to vote. 

The idea of Internet voting continues to gain adepts; nonetheless, for the sake of efficiency, transparency, and legitimacy, there is still a ways to go.