About 8 years elapsed from John F. Kennedy's proposal to put a man on the Moon to the Apollo 11 mission. And on July 20, 1969, Man set foot on another world. Setting that foot involved an enormous amount of engineering and technology, much of which didn't exist when the project began.
About 8 years have elapsed since the debacle of the 2000 election. But can we really have confidence in our elections? Can the government actually prove what the correct lawful vote counts were in Decision 2008? More to the point, can the state of Minnesota demonstrate what the correct vote counts are in its on-going U.S. Senate contest?
Since CHANGE is in the air, what's changed in 8 years?
What's inexcusable is that our uncertainty is all so unnecessary. The solutions are simple; nothing new need be invented. Whereas the Moon Shot involved attempting something that had never been done with technology that hadn't been invented, America has been conducting elections for 220 years and the technology to fix the problems has existed for decades. But America's elections are still suspect.
Convenience, Flexibility and Cost
American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE) estimates that voter turnout in 2008 (PDF) will prove to be between 60.7 percent and 61.7 percent. The CSAE pegs the number of eligible voters at 208,323,000 and estimates this year's turnout at 127,500,000.
Despite early voting, absentee voting, mail-in voting, and lower-than-expected turnout, we still saw long lines at the polls this year. What would the lines have been like if all eligible voters had voted? Well, there would have been 80+ million more folks in line. How many voters dutifully came to the polls, saw the long lines, and then turned right around and left?
The solution is the Internet. Internet voting would allow voting from anywhere at anytime--from your bedroom in the wee hours of the morning, from Wi-Fi hotspots, from public computers in libraries, even from abroad. How convenient is that?
Internet voting requires no special equipment, such as touch-screen voting machines and card-reading machines. Instead of countless polling stations, you'd have a single computer server in each state capital to collect votes. Indeed, it would be possible to do away with polling stations. You wouldn't need to manufacture ballots, signature rosters, and such. Internet voting would be far cheaper. What's not to love?
Unlike ballots that must be printed and then transported to polling stations, you have the flexibility with the Internet to change ballots right up to the moment voting begins. If, say, a candidate were to die right before an election, a new candidate could have his name actually on the ballot. If the wording of a ballot proposition or initiative must be changed, perhaps by court order, it can be done easily with an Internet system at the last minute. It's the same flexibility you have with online journals: If something needs changing, you change it in one place and it's good for everybody. But with printed journals that have gone to press, the deed is done, and all you can do is print an erratum in a future issue.
I've always regretted that I don't have records of my votes. But with Internet voting, you could print off the final feedback screen that shows how you voted, or save that screen to your hard-drive. Call it a "voting receipt".
Employers who allow their employees to use company computers to vote from work wouldn't have to pay for time-off on Election Day. And rather than an Election Day, the Internet makes it easy to allow folks to vote for an entire week--24/7.
Without computers, life as we know it would come to a screeching halt. If an EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) fried the nation's electronics, America would be thrown back into the mid-1800s. We depend on computers for just about everything. We trust computers with our very lives.
But many folks are still wary of computers. And when it comes to the vote, the basis of Democracy, they're right to be concerned. When they think of Internet voting, they might have visions of some scoundrel using someone else's ID to vote, or voting repeatedly.
When you vote by Internet, you will not encounter a kindly retiree asking for your name to match against the voter registry. Instead, you'll have to type in your ID. In an article urging "automatic registration", I recommended that this ID should be the Social Security Number. This means that a computer handling an election would carry the voter registry, including the SSN. But that wouldn't be enough; the voter would also need to enter additional information, such as a PIN (personal identification number), which would be listed in his voter registry entry as well.
As for "repeat voting", before a voter is allowed entry into the system, the computer would reference a "switch" on the voter's registration that will be set when the voter finalizes his vote. If the switch is on, the voter won't be allowed in, as he's already voted. Additional steps could make repeat voting impossible. One would be to make electronic ballots "key-sequenced", with the voter's ID as the key--it's impossible to write a record that already exists.
What I envision is that all 50 states would use identical software, and each state would have a single computer server dedicated to elections. During the election, the server would conduct no other business but the election, and would carry no software but the election software, and no data but election data, such as the voter registry and the electronic ballots the software will produce. Because the servers would be dedicated to one activity, elections, they should be less susceptible to hacking, viruses and malware.
Internet voting presents no problems that haven't been dealt with in countless other computer applications. Indeed, it seems a piece of cake, not very complicated at all. For years now, America has used the Internet for commerce, banking and to trade securities. If we can trust the Internet with our money, can't we trust it with our votes?
Election law is left to the states (Article I, Section 4.1). And just in time for this article, Hawaii conducted the nation's first all-digital election. However, before all 50 states adopt a full-blown Internet voting system, prudence might demand that one state serve as a pilot project to demonstrate how well it works. Perhaps that state should be Minnesota.
The real snag in migrating to Internet elections is the government--incumbents like things just the way they are.Continued in Part 2...
Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.