Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bangladesh exploring e-voting technology for future elections

Many democracies clear across the globe have adopted e-voting technology in varying capacities and the popularity of electronic voting machines, both for vote-capturing and for counting ballots, has been steadily rising. Brazil has had a long history with e-voting, for example, and countries like the Philippines and Estonia continue to set positive examples for the rest of the world to follow. 

While there is still much research and exploration to be conducted, a delegation from Bangladesh recently visited with election commissioners in neighbouring India and they were “impressed” by the Indian electronic voting machines. As the world's largest democracy, India has proven not only that e-voting technology is viable and advantageous, but that it can also be utilized on an incredibly massive scale, improving accessibility to its citizens. 

The Indian electoral system with its deployment of e-voting technology was designed from the start to be as cost-effective as possible, particularly given the grand scale of the Indian election, while still maintaining high levels of security and integrity. The Bangladeshi delegation, which was led by Muhammad Faruk Khan and consisted of 10 members from the Bangladesh Parliament, sought to “know the traits of conducting free and peaceful elections” from their Indian counterparts.

Harinshankar “HS” Brahma, one of India's Election Commissioners, emphasized the importance of increasing voter enrollment and encouraged the appropriate use of technology. He said it has been a real game changer in elections, addressing many of the major challenges that elections can face. 

One of the most common challenges is engaging the youth electorate and India has been largely successful with this, empowering the tech-savvy youth with political start-ups like Grassroute, MumbaiVotes and Know Your Vote. 

The Indian officials provided their visitors from Bangladesh with a demonstration of the electronic voting machines and how they worked in tandem with the voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT), a vital component for audits and recounts, ensuring that the correct voter intent was properly captured and recorded. Accountability is of great importance.

It is through delegations and meetings like this that the state of electronic voting can continue to improve and grow well into the future. Countries do not exist in isolation and it is through collective collaboration that they can leverage their expertise in a synergistic manner. This is why events like the EVOTE International Conference in Austria are so valuable, gathering together many of the most important decision makers from different democracies. The budgets and details may vary, but the primary objectives remain the same. 

The history and politics of the region are such that India and Bangladesh have not always gotten along as the keenest of allies, but major strides like this for mutual benefit can also help to foster goodwill and peace between nations. By encouraging further collaboration and partnerships between countries all around the world, e-voting technology can continue to be strengthened for elections of all sizes. It is far more cost effective to co-develop e-voting solutions than to develop them individually.

And by learning from the experience and missteps of those who moved to e-voting before them, Bangladesh can position itself to be as problem-free as possible for its elections in the future.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Internet voting improving voter turnout and securing the system

The Internet is used for just about every aspect of everyday life and it has become an integral part of the modern lifestyle. Friends communicate online through e-mail, social media and instant messengers far more often than they would send a regular letter through the postal mail. Companies conduct their business online, buying and selling their products and services. And in many parts of the world, correspondence with government agencies can also be performed through the Internet, filing income tax returns and applying for employment insurance benefits. Why hasn't Internet voting become just as widespread and commonplace?

Internet Voting, Election, Positive Impact

In the case of the town of Ajax near Toronto, Canada, Internet voting was incredibly popular in its recent municipal election. The election was held almost exclusively online and voter turnout, at 30.4%, was significantly higher than the voter turnout in the previous two elections: 23% in 2006 and 26% in 2010. There is still much room for improvement in terms of voter turnout, but the trend is positive and a full 92% of people cast their vote online. 

And while Internet voting does appear to have a positive impact on voter turnout, it should never replace all other forms of voting. The online system is convenient, to be sure, but Ajax supplemented that primary system with the opportunity for voters to cast their ballot over the phone or at one of 10 polling stations with computer terminals set up on Election Day itself. The goal of Internet voting is to improve accessibility, not hinder it. Internet voting is particularly effective in substituting for postal voting as the ballot can be received and tabulated instantly. This also saves significantly in cost, both for the postage and for the printing of paper ballots. 

However, not all systems are made equally. While the online voting experiment in Ajax was deemed a success, there were significant issues experienced by the nearby town of Innisfil, also in the province of Ontario in Canada. Voters were unable to access the Internet voting system “due to technical errors.” Reportedly, the top cause for the online voting issues was that some people typed the website code into a search engine rather than into the address bar. 

Worse yet, overall voter turnout dropped by six percent compared to previous elections in Innisfil. 

This demonstrates that Internet voting isn't necessarily the magic bullet for improving voter turnout and it is of paramount importance that municipalities and governments select reputable and reliable vendors to manage their elections. An adequate audit system needs to be in place and the i-voting infrastructure needs to be thoroughly tested. Estonia is perhaps one of the best examples of Internet voting done right with a high level of voter and ballot authentication. 

One issue that has been brought to light is that voters casting their ballot over the Internet can be coerced and their votes can be bought or sold. This is a problem inherent with any remote voting solution that is not supervised by election officials. However, this concern can also be remedied in a rather simple manner: multiple voting. By allowing voters to cast more than one ballot and allowing the latest one to supersede any previous ballots submitted, online or otherwise, even votes that are coerced or bought can be overridden by a newer ballot. This is how Internet voting works in Estonia. 

Online voting can be an incredibly powerful tool to improve voter turnout and to empower a democracy. However, it can and should not be the sole solution, as voters should have the option to vote in other manners. Regardless of which system is used, maintaining the security and integrity of the vote is crucial.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Scytl’s 2014: Annus horribilis, or may be not

2014 was a peculiar year for the noisiest, albeit not the only Spanish company specialized in voting technology and solutions. Despite some major setbacks resulting from ill-developed voting solutions, it managed to close a $104 million financing round this year.

Image: Pixabay
The year had a bumpy start for Scytl. For Ecuador’s 2014 Sectional elections in February, Scytl was to deliver a solution that would help the Ecuadorian Election Commission to process the tallying of the votes with the goal that results could be announced within 72 hours after closing the polls. Yet, one whole month after the election was over, Scytl was still counting votes and was still unable to provide final results. In the mean time, Ecuadorian authorities were confronting the herculean task of convincing public opinion that the results would “soon be announced”- were legit. As a result of the scandal and ensuing public unrest, Domingo Paredes, head of the electoral management body, declared that the Election Commission had unilaterally terminated the contract, demanded payment of guarantees, and began taking legal actions against the company. Oddly enough, after the fanfare published in Scytl's website news in February and March about projects "in the works" as if the February election had been "a successful implementation", there has been a complete silence on Ecuador the following months.

A few months later (June) Norway —one of the countries leading the crusade to make internet voting a reality, and a client of the Barcelona-based company—, halted i-voting experiments amid security fears. As evidenced in the video posted by the Norway electoral authorities (2:31:13), the secrecy of 54% of the vote was in fact compromised during the September 2013 pilot due to a bug in the encryption key. These cryptography issues were also reported in the Expert Study Mission Report from the Carter Center.

Even though bad news are the ones usually travelling faster, neighboring Peru seems not to have found out about Ecuador’s ordeal with Scytl. And only five months after the infamous incident aforementioned, the National Office for Electoral Processes (ONPE) of Peru experienced first-hand the mishaps of a poorly designed in-site Internet voting solution. In August, while conducting an Internet voting pilot using Scytl technology, voters ran into all sorts of trouble to cast a ballot. In spite of the simplicity of the contest –only 186 polling centers serving 34,672 voters– the company was once more unable to deliver up to the expectations.  

To cap off the year, on October 27, Scytl ran into trouble once again— this time staged by its branch in Canada, while providing its internet voting platform for elections in 20 Ontario municipalities.

According to the company, five election files had been mislabeled due to human error, creating tabulations problems that delayed results. On November 6, the 20 municipalities got together to discuss the issues and demand explanations. Scytl apologised and offered a discount of 25% from the charges for their services, plus a 10% discount on a future project, as if Ontario's woes were of financial nature. Read more here.

In spite of all these incidents, Scytl managed to raise over 100 million dollars from capital investors. Among them: Vy Capital, Vulcan Capitan and Sapphire Ventures, formerly SAP Ventures – the independent venture capital firm associated to Europe’s largest software company.

Scytl’s PR department deserves a standing ovation for not allowing such a poor track of performances ruin a financing round; especially in the age of global communications and instant scandals when such blunders happen.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The problems with e-mail voting

Most discussions surrounding how elections can and should be run generally focus on the core group of people who will make the trip to a polling place in order to cast their ballot. This makes a lot of sense, since the vast majority of voters in elections all around the world will place their vote in this manner, whether it is through a manual system or with electronic voting.

A smaller demographic would be made up of absentee ballots. These may be people who live in remote or rural areas and they cannot or wish not to make the journey to the closest polling station, which could be a considerable distance away. And then there is the other cohort of voters who are not physically present in the region or country itself, but these expatriates and citizens working abroad have just as much of a right to have their voice heard (though an official vote) as those who are physically present.

To address this growing demographic, the Election Commission in India has submitted its recommendations to the country's Supreme Court to facilitate remote voting by Non-Resident Indians (NRIs). While there are considerations for casting a ballot through proxies or through electronic voting machines, another proposal calls for email-based ballots that the NRIs can send directly to the Election Commission. 

From a convenience standpoint, this may appear to be a sound proposal. Under an existing ordinance, non-residents could vote, but they would still need to register and come back to a local polling station. However, many NRIs “cannot afford to travel, or they only come once in many years,” according to petitioner Dr. Shamsheer Vayalil. Email can provide near instant communication and it is already a technology familiar with the grand majority of users globally. 

However, email-based voting presents multiple problems that may be difficult to overcome. First, emails inherently carry a significant security risk, as the messages can be intercepted and mailboxes can be hacked. Second, the identity of the voter cannot be suitably verified as there are no existing measures to guarantee the correct person is casting the vote. The email account can be compromised and even if it isn't, the email address can be easily spoofed by those wishing to commit election fraud. Third, it can be difficult to maintain the level of privacy and confidentiality required of an official ballot. Fourth, as the ballot is sent directly by the voter himself or herself, the sanctity of the secret ballot is compromised without further measures being taken to protect it.

Voting by email has its merits, but these challenges are too overwhelming to make the system viable for most intents and purposes. There are suitable alternatives that present their own set of challenges. The 2014 Brazilian general election saw the ambitious deployment of over 900 voting machines to nearly 100 countries around the world. The electoral court oversaw the process of preparing, sealing, shipping and deploying these electronic voting machines. A similar strategy was utilized by the Philippines with precinct count optical scan machines in major international locations. 

The cost and logistics involved with deploying electronic voting machines globally can be significant and this is another reason why turning to an existing infrastructure, like the Internet, must be explored. To this end, while email-based voting might not be the best idea, it may be possible to use far more secure protocols that are specifically designed for the purpose of casting, recording, and securely transmitting a ballot over the web to the appropriate officials. A vote through a secure website or with a secure application may work far better, so long as the protocols are in place to verify the identity of the voter, maintain the secrecy of the ballot, and securely transmit that information.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Are biometrics the future of e-voting security?

Combating electoral fraud will always be a major priority for any given election, as the electorate must have confidence in the integrity of the election and respect the election results. Each voter needs to be properly and suitably identified, just as each ballot should be adequately and reliably verified. 

The traditional method of voter registration and voter identification typically came in the form of government-issued picture ID, as would be the case with a driver's license, but these cards can be forged and the electoral roll (sometimes called the electoral register or voter registry) can also be manipulated. Technology can play a critical role in improving both the convenience and the security of running and election, but as Joseph Hall from the Center for Democracy and Technology points out, an “uncontrolled platform” for online voting represents too much of a vulnerability. To mitigate and to overcome these problems, biometrics can be a very viable solution.

The implementation of a strong biometric-based voter identification system can address many of the common concerns and issues raised with electronic voting and with fighting electoral fraud now and into the future. The so-called “zombie vote,” where someone attempts to cast a ballot in the name of a deceased person who is mistakenly still included in the electoral register, can be eliminated, because biometric identification would be required. This is most commonly your fingerprints, but additional technologies like an iris scanner, or finger geometry recognition could also be considered.

The use of biometric technology in the context of a major election is not new, but it is still in its developing stages. It has already been used successfully to identify and authenticate every voter in the 2012 presidential elections in Venezuela and there are plans in place to adopt a biometric voter identification system in the 2015 Tanzanian national elections. This adds a much needed layer of security and accountability, as every voter is stringently identified. 

Experts have also recommended the adoption of two-factor authentication to further bolster the verification process. Voters would be identified by fingerprint or other biometric-based methods, in addition to a government-issued smart ID card or something similar. The concept of two-factor authentication is also not completely novel, as it is already available on a variety of online services like Google and Dropbox. The new Apple Pay system also uses the Touch ID fingerprint reader on newer iPhone devices to authenticate the user and to authorize the transaction. 

Indeed, looking ahead to the future, many of the technologies already in use with consumer and business space can be adapted for major elections. In the times to come, voters may identify themselves with a fingerprint scanner, a smart ID card, and by tapping their NFC-enabled smartphones on a reader at the official polling station before being granted access to a direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machine.

Technology is very much at the core of our modern existence and it infiltrates every aspect of daily life, from online socialization to online banking, secure mobile payments to the submission and processing of confidential government forms. There are technological hurdles to overcome with biometrics in the context of elections, but these are the hurdles that need to be suitably addressed in order for elections to move forward into the future.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Lessons from the EVOTE 2014 International Conference

Issues related to the administration of a local, regional or national election may sound like they would only be the concern of the locality, region or country where the election is being held, but this is never quite the case. No part of the world exists in true isolation and great lessons can be learned through the collaboration of great minds around the globe.

And it is with this kind of philosophy and mission that EVOTE2014 was hosted at Castle Hofen in Lochau / Bregenz, Austria. The sixth international conference was held from October 28 to October 31, 2014 and it was attended by some 100 representatives from 33 countries from five different continents. Several topics related to electronic voting technology were discussed and presented at the conference.

It was noted, for instance, that many of the major advances and expansions in e-voting technology have come from developing countries, particularly in Latin America, rather than from more established democracies where more “traditional” manual elections have a stronger foothold. Estonia is widely viewed as a leader in pushing i-voting technology forward, along with developments in countries like Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Ecuador. 

Of particular interest at the EVOTE2014 conference was the submission by Julia Pomares, Director of Political Institutions at the Center for the Implementation of Public Policies Promoting Equity and Growth (CIPPEC), in collaboration with Guillermo Lopez Mirau, Teresa Shepherd and California Institute of Technology's R. Michael Alvarez. Winner of the Best Paper Award at the EVOTE 2014 conference, the paper focuses on the experience of Salta district in Argentina where e-voting was rolled out to the entire electorate in 2013.

A big lesson from that election is that it is of critical importance that the electorate has confidence in integrity of the election process and supports e-voting technology. If the public does not support the implementation of e-voting technology or it does not trust how such technology is being used, then further strides in advancing and improving electronic voting technology will stall or be hindered. 

Positive perception of the voting process and the belief that the voting system is easy to use are of great importance. Furthermore, people who have more positive views of technology in daily life are generally more positive about how e-voting is changing how elections are run around the world. 

The final programme for EVOTE2014 followed the overall conference theme of verifying the vote. While electronic voting technology can be used very successfully in quickly and efficiently counting the votes, in addition to voting machines being used for auditable ballot submissions, these votes must also be suitably verified in order to maintain the privacy, confidentiality and integrity of the final tallied results. 

At EVOTE2014, a workshop was held covering 10 pillars of end-to-end online voting verifiability, for example, while another session discussed how verifiable Internet voting works in Estonia. Other sessions included a talk by Vanessa Teague from the University of Melbourne on Trust and Verifiability in Australian E-voting, a session hosted by Rajeev Gore and Thomas Meumann on verified vote-counting, and a panel discussion on public attitudes toward Internet voting in Greece, particularly on the issue of verifiable e-voting. 

While each region, each nation and each service provider will continue to make their own decisions in regards to how e-voting and i-voting are best administered, international conferences like EVOTE2014 provide the perfect platform for these industry leaders to meet, collaborate and discuss the pertinent issues.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The advancing innovations and trends of voting technology

All industries and business sectors should aspire for continuous innovation, ceaselessly moving forward with changes that make for a better product or experience by all. In the case of mobile phones, the rise of the smartphone and mobile apps has completely revolutionized the way that people communicate on the go. Modern cars are packed with an increasing assortment of technology, providing drivers and passengers with more comfort, better safety and improved fuel economy.

In the context of elections, the pace of innovation can sometimes feel slowed by the bureaucracies of government, but this should not thwart the continuing advances in creating a better and more efficient voting process. This should include innovations for the election infrastructure, hardware and software for collecting ballots, and advances in the tabulation and reporting of results.

Traditionally, innovations that impact how the voter casts a ballot tend to create friction as they have direct require legal framework adaptations. As a rule of thumb, the closer the technology is to the voter, the harder it is to implement it. 
That is why, some of the innovations being implemented in the industry address problems either before the voter casts a ballot, or after when the vote is being processed. To better illustrate our point, let’s look at three recent elections that employed technology in different stages. 

Voter authentication
Biometric technology can help to protect against election fraud, giving voters greater confidence in the integrity and legitimacy of results. In Brazil, approximately 21 million voters where authenticated biometrically before casting a ballot, thus eliminating the possibility of voter impersonation. Authorities are expecting to extend the use of the biometric devices to the entire electorate by 2017. 

Electronic poll books 
Among the many recommendations made by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration electronic poll books emerged as one source of possible innovation in the field. The report, handed to the President of the US on January 1st, 2014, sees e-poll books as a way for jurisdictions to make voter processing at polling places more accurate and efficient. The report stated “In the national survey of election of­ficials, e-poll books was one of the most frequently identified innovations that respon­dents desired.”

The Onondaga County Board of Elections recently tried a new electronic poll book during the recent midterm elections in the US. Using an electronic pad similar to what it is used to pay with credit cards at grocery stores, polling management got much easier. 

According to Onondaga County Elections Commissioners, Dustin Czarny, and Helen Kiggins Walsh voters at three polling places were asked to sign their names on the electronic pad. Also, elections inspectors typed voters' names into a database, to pull up information.

Promising to end long lines at polling stations, an election technology provider, everyone counts is also promoting their Electronic Polling Book in their website. 

Results processing

Oonce voters have left the precincts, there are still plenty of instances where administrators can use some help from technology. 

Recently, the West Heath Ward by-election of the Rushmoor Borough Council in the United Kingdom, used a digital pen to streamline the transmission of results. The digital pen, adapted to elections by Smartmatic, was employed in two aspects of the West Heath by-election. It was used by the election officials during the official tabulation and reporting of the election results. More specifically, it was used by officials with the ballot box verification form and the election results verification form. The former aggregates the final tally in each box, while the latter records the results for each electoral candidate. In both cases, the ePen was able to digitally capture the important information, allowing election officials to quickly and easily verify and transmit the results. 

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

Source: www.cbc.ca
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.