Thursday, October 22, 2015

The future of Internet voting in the US

Even though the actual election itself is still over a year away, all eyes both home and abroad have turned their attention on the United States. As Barack Obama has already served two terms and is not eligible for re-election, it means that this upcoming federal election will necessarily name a new President of the United States. It could be Florida Governor Jeb Bush. It could be former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It could be self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. It might even be real estate mogul Donald Trump.

And while the magnitude of who will eventually emerge as the winner cannot be understated, there is another very important story related to this upcoming election that should not be ignored. The technology and infrastructure involved in running the election are in dire need of improvement and upgrading.

A recent report published by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law indicates that 43 states will be using electronic voting machines that are at least 10 years old for the 2016 elections and as many as 14 states will be using machines that are more than 15 years old. This is well past their expected lifespan, especially when you consider that many of these machines are no longer manufactured and replacement parts are increasingly difficult to find. This problem is particularly notable in a number of swing states, like North Carolina and Virginia.

While some of the wealthier counties have been able to afford the purchase and configuration of new equipment, poorer and more rural counties have been left with older, more dated machines that are more prone to issues and inconsistencies. A lot has changed in the last decade and the electoral process in the United States needs to reflect this.

Consider that the United States is only now adopting the “chip” technology for credit cards, a technology that has long since been used in a number of other developed countries. Moving ahead with the democratic process requires a similar update to the machinery and infrastructure used.

Some progress has been made in expanding the availability of electronic voter registration in the United States ahead of the 2016 election. The next major step would be to not only update the electronic voting machines that some constituents may use in person, but also to update the process to include the possibility of voting online.

To this end, the US Vote Foundation has put together a comprehensive report describing the future of Internet voting in the country. More specifically, it calls for end-to-end verifiable Internet voting, or E2E-VIV for short. This system would need to provide the proper balance of security and transparency that the democratic process requires, protecting the privacy of the vote while providing voters with the ability to check the system. Voters can see if their online ballot was recorded correctly and whether the vote was properly included in the final tally.

All current systems, according to this report, are currently inadequate in guaranteeing “voter privacy or the correct election outcomes.” The proposed Internet voting system must be usable and secure, with protections in place against “large-scale coordinated attacks, both on its own infrastructure and on individual voters' computers.”

The reality of the situation is that the United States will not be ready for widespread Internet voting in time for next year's elections. However, by following the guidelines outlined by the US Vote Foundation report, the first steps can be made to move in this direction in time for the next election. There are several fundamental challenges that need to be overcome before Internet voting can become a reality on a mass scale in the country. In the meantime, America can look to positive examples elsewhere in the world where e-voting and i-voting have been successfully deployed.

Electoral officials just have to recognize the immense importance of end-to-end verifiability of any online-based voting system they consider.