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.