Thursday, October 23, 2014

Why the New Brunswick election struggled with vote counting

E-voting technology, both in terms of direct-recording e-voting machines (DRE) and with technology used for the electronic tabulation and administration of the elections themselves, has been slowly gaining in popularity in many parts of the world. As with any new technology, however, it has been met with its share of growing pains.

A recent example of this is the election in the Canadian province of New Brunswick where some votes “disappeared” from the system. Opponents of e-voting quickly jumped at the opportunity to criticize the technology, saying how it can be unreliable and how further problems may come up in future elections.

In the case of the New Brunswick election, what happened was that the software program being used to tabulate the votes malfunctioned such that it failed to transfer the polling data correctly from the computer server in the city of Fredericton to the Internet website where journalists and media outlets could access the results of the election. The software, according to Dominion Voting president John Poulos, is designed to get the results to media in as fast a manner as possible. 

The problem that occurred was not with the election software or administration itself. The votes were never “lost” in the final, official tabulation, but rather they temporarily went missing for the media-facing website. The intense pressure from the media to receive results as quickly as possible hastened and exacerbated the issue. 

In the days that followed, it was confirmed that there was “never a problem with the tabulation machines themselves.” The integrity and legitimacy of the election results were upheld. There may have been a discrepancy between the results posted to the website and the results as tabulated from the machines, but that discrepancy was suitably addressed and rectified. It was merely a software glitch that caused the delays in reporting. 

There are several lessons from the New Brunswick experience that can prove valuable to other jurisdictions and governments considering e-voting technology in any form, as well as to the e-voting community at large. 

First, it is important to choose the right company to handle the automation of the election. The company that New Brunswick chose seemingly had some issues with its software and that is what effectively caused the reporting delay and subsequent controversy. 

Second, it is important to prioritize the legitimacy, integrity and security of the election over the need to provide the results in as timely a manner to the media as possible. If the commission overseeing the New Brunswick election didn't have to worry about the media website, the final tabulations would have held to be true and accurate.

Third, it is important to have a paper trail. The final results of the New Brunswick election were confirmed with a manual count and this may not have been possible had there not been a paper trail in addition to the automation system.

Fourth, it is important to have a robust audit system in place for before, during and after the votes have been cast. A good pre-election audit of the software may have revealed the glitch ahead of time and it could have been suitably addressed in a preventative manner.

E-voting technology offers many positives, like reduced costs, that far outweigh the negatives.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Online voting needs to be an option in future elections

Democracy has taken on many different forms over the years and the exact mechanics utilized in capturing the will of the people have also adapted with the times. In the earlier days of democracy, votes were cast in a very public fashion, but the concept of the secret ballot has become a cornerstone of many modern democracies. Whereas people may have once selected to place a ball in one of two jars to signify which candidate they supported, the vote is now captured in a number of different ways.

The now traditional paper ballot allowed for some flexibility, as several candidates could be listed and it would be possible to get votes on multiple issues or elections at the same time. And while traditional paper ballots may continue to persist, a number of more modern technologies have really started to pick up in popularity. Direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines are increasingly widespread and, more recently, Internet-based voting has been used in many parts of the world.

It is true that Internet voting (sometimes called “i-voting” to differentiate from “e-voting” on voting terminals) has ran into trouble here and there. A recent article in The Mississauga News, by way of the Waterloo Region Record, has stated that online voting in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada is “worth the risks.” One of the primary reasons for promoting online voting raised in the article is that it may help to boost voter participation. Voter turnout rates have continued to drop in many countries and part of the explanation is that the tech-savvy generation of today have become disenchanted or disinterested in the electoral process.

It has become abundantly clear that young people can be very interested in human interest issues and in politics, as evidenced by the events in places like Hong Kong and Cairo, but they may not necessarily participate in politics in a more traditional manner. Online voting can help to make the electoral process both more accessible and more relevant to this demographic. The convenience of voting “from the comfort of your home” cannot be understated.

The issues surrounding the security and reliability of online voting have been a topic of hot debate. In the case of Cambridge, Ontario, Internet-based voting is still in testing phases. However, online voting is not new to Canada and it has been experimented with in the past and it continues to be explored across the country. 

The author of the article recognizes the risks of online voting, including the potential for hacking the system and for compromising the integrity of election results, but these can be substantially minimized with the right provider using the right software, under the right guidelines for a robust audit system throughout the election process. There are challenges to be faced in maintaining the privacy of the secret ballot and protecting the system against distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, but it needs to be recognized that traditional paper ballots also come with their own set of challenges and difficulties to overcome.

The goal, at least in the short term, is not for online voting to replace traditional ballots altogether. Instead, it is far better to combine the best elements of both systems in order to promote greater voter turnout while maintaining a high level of security, reliability and integrity. An online voting system can work in parallel with paper-based ballots or with direct-recording electronic voting machines situated in official voting places, as the former provides greater access to those with disabilities, those living in remote areas, or simply those who enjoy the comfort and convenience of voting anywhere they have an Internet connection.

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.