Thursday, May 16, 2013

Internet Voting: unreliable actions to capture voters

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos

According to Andrew Ellis, director for the Asia-Pacific region for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, one of the four factors that influence voter turnout is accessibility to voting: to make available polling stations and offer alternate voting practices such as e-voting or vote by mail. 

It’s true that voter turnout is an important indicator of a healthy democracy, but this does not mean that it must be attained at any cost. Internet voting is one of the electoral systems that governments have been using to attract more voters, but its use places democracy at risk.

Estonia has been renowned for its early adoption of online options for its elections. Switzerland has followed Estonia’s example and has incorporated Internet voting into its system. This is not a rare decision for the country, keeping in mind its antecedents with postal voting: by increasing flexibility, Switzerland’s turnout grew from 30-35% in 1995 to 50-55% in the early 2000s. It was no wonder then that the electoral authorities would push this flexibility even further by taking advantage of communication technology. Nowadays, over 90% of Swiss voters use the Internet to cast their ballot. The question here is whether we can trust the results of these democratic exercises.

The idea in itself is good and the results are favorable in terms of voter turnout. However, it is not exempt from grave flaws. Internet voting is hard to monitor, and therefore it could be easily tampered with. A senior advisor at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, when asked by the Election Assistance Commission to evaluate Internet voting, stated: “Internet voting systems cannot currently be audited with a comparable level of confidence in the audit results as those for polling place systems. Malware on voters’ personal computers poses a serious threat that could compromise the secrecy or integrity of voters’ ballots.”

With online voting, Switzerland remains devoid of a physical proof of each vote that can be audited at any given time. A voting platform that includes machines with paper trails (vote receipts) provides verifiable evidence for anyone to validate the results of an election if need be. On the other hand, Internet is largely accessible by anyone, and is in fact a harbor for identity theft. Some form of biometric registry and authentication is needed to prevent dishonest people from voting on behalf of dead citizens. This, too, is a problem that is solved with the use of voting machines.

We can’t be too flexible and forget auditability and integrity in the name of comfort. Voters need easy access to their right to suffrage, but the results need to reflect exactly the people’s intent as well as abide by the “one voter, one vote” principle. With its lack of verifiability, both of the voter and the votes, Internet voting can hardly guarantee either of these values.