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Reform America, Inc.

Internet Voting: Security, Experimentation and Innovation


The effects that Internet voting will have on access to the election process are one of the most controversial issues facing this new technology. Mark Strassman, an early proponent of Internet voting, who is now employed by Election.com, summed up the access issue with these words:

"One of the biggest arguments in favor of Internet voting is the increase in access to the democratic process that it would offer. In the past, barriers have been erected between citizens and their right to vote. Among these barriers have been: not owning property, not being of European extraction, not being of the male gender, not being able to pay a poll tax, and not being able to interpret a section of the U.S. Constitution to the satisfaction of election officials. None of these barriers exist in the law today, but there are barriers to voting that exist in an era of two-career or single-parent families, perpetual traffic jams, extreme professional and personal demands on one's time, and other obstacles to exercising oneŇ°s right to vote. Internet voting will make some difference in people's ability to participate in the selection of the candidates who and policies which will govern them. A well implemented Internet voting system has the potential, by making it easier for everyone to vote, to remedy the current disparity which, in fact, results in much higher voting participation rates for older and whiter voters." (Strassman, 5/6/1999)

The issue of Internet voting is already under debate and study by state officials and legislatures across the country. The Federal government is considering the use of Internet voting by military personnel living abroad in the 2000 elections. Its ease of use and decreasing equipment costs give the Internet the potential not only to increase awareness of issues and candidates but also to make voting more convenient and pleasant. Reform America, Inc. supports an investigation into any election technology that increases voter participation while safeguarding election integrity. RAI will support any Internet voting system that guarantees ballot secrecy, ballot sanctity and universal availability can be devised remains to be seen.

One of the most widely held misconceptions about Internet voting is that all of the proposed systems are the same. This is not an accurate representation of the variety of ideas that exist. There is a trade-off between security and convenience in Internet voting systems. The major difference between the systems is based on the degree of control that officials conducting the election have over the infrastructure and software used for voting. Centrally controlled systems are at one end of this "control spectrum". With these types of Internet voting systems, the actual computers and software used for voting, along with the networks to which they are immediately attached, and the physical environment of voting, are under the control of election officials (or their contractors, etc.) at all times. Remote voting systems are at the other end of the "control spectrum". These types of systems are intended to support voting from essentially any computer connected to the Internet anywhere in the world. With these systems, the computers used as voting machines, the software on them, the networks to which they are immediately attached and the physical surroundings are under the control of the voter or a third party rather than election officials. The distinction between the different types of systems is fundamental because, with systems that are not centrally-controlled, the voting environment is difficult to secure against some very important privacy hazards and security attacks. Hence, "vote from anywhere" systems must be substantially more complex to achieve the same degree of privacy and security as is achievable with a centrally-controlled system.

While everyone has read stories about hackers breaking into computer systems, there are many other security concerns that are just as important. For example, insuring the privacy of the voter is of utmost concern. Methods must be devised that provide verifiable privacy, and most importantly, the voter must trust the system. Another concern is the accuracy of the voting system in collecting and counting the votes. Internet voting systems must be proven to be at least as accurate and reliable as the current recording and tabulation methods. Finally, there is the issue of authentication and verification of the voter. Systems must be developed which ensure that the right person is voting and that each individual only gets one vote.

On an individual level, most existing Internet voting systems are about as secure as an absentee ballot. Just as you could sign an absentee ballot and let someone else fill it out, there is little to stop you from allowing someone to vote using your computer and PIN, or to stop someone else from forcing you to turn yours over. However, a person would have to obtain thousands of PINs and computers to influence any election. The election officials are far more worried about mass cheating. Since traditional polling places are scattered in thousands of locations around the country, large-scale fraud is almost impossible. However, if a federal election were to be run from a central server, there would be a much more realistic chance of someone affecting the outcome of an election.

Although there are a multitude of on-line voting opportunities on the Internet, most do not even attempt to offer the high level of security that would be necessary for public elections. Recent Internet attacks on the White House, U.S. Senate, FBI, NATO and the Pentagon illustrate the vulnerability of potential Internet voting sites. However, mechanisms are in use that would likely form the structure of security for an Internet voting system:

Personal Identification Number (PIN) or password. This basic security mechanism could be used to ensure that a voter's ballot could only be used by that person. However, password systems are frequently compromised. Precautions must be taken to protect password systems from a variety of attacks. In addition there are no guarantees that voters will not share their passwords with other people.

Encryption. This technology can be used to protect digital ballots and passwords as they travel across the Internet. Cryptographic protocols can also be used to help preserve ballot secrecy and prevent some types of voting fraud. However, such systems may still be vulnerable to attack and should be carefully scrutinized before use in a public election.

Digital Signature. Digital signature systems can be used to authenticate documents and verify that a document was digitally signed using a particular "key." Election authorities can sign digital ballot forms so that voters know they have received an authentic ballot. A voter can sign a digital "ballot envelope" so that the election authorities know that a registered voter cast the ballot. However, it is important that the digital keys be properly protected in order to prevent fraud. It has been suggested that digital signature technology is the key to securing the Internet voting process. Digital signatures provide the best level of security in electronic transactions, however they are not inexpensive, and questions about funding are important. If the government provides a digital signature for all voters, the cost would be very high. Conversely, if voters who are willing to buy a digital signature are the only ones who are allowed to vote over the Internet, then economic barriers to participation are being created. Additionally, there are several "classes" or security levels of digital signatures. Some digital signatures are obtained without requiring any personal identification, while others require high levels of identification, including personal interviews.

Smart Cards. Smart cards are credit card-sized cards that contain small computer chips. Such cards could be mailed to voters with pre-programmed ballots as well as encryption keys. Besides potential security problems with the cards themselves, postal mail theft could pose additional problems.

Biometric Identifiers. Voice recognition, fingerprint recognition, and similar biometric techniques could be used to make sure that only registered voters cast ballots. Voters would not be able to give their passwords to other people and those techniques would bring added security to an online voting system. However, use of these techniques may raise privacy concerns.

In the same way that we have laws pertaining to current voting systems, there will need to be new sections of law created to punish certain behaviors in order for Internet voting to be effective, as well as reward initiatives and innovations to make Internet voting more effective.

Claims that voter turnout would increase have been made for other well-intentioned election policies, such as no-fault absentee voting and early voting, but turnout has continued to decline dramatically. There is even evidence to suggest that such decreasing turnout be may a result of very policies which were enacted to address it.

The Internet is already being viewed by some as the perfect mechanism to promote new election policies such as proxy voting and proportional representation, which would have profound impacts on our current form of government. Internet voting would introduce a whole new crop of election vendors, many of whom have no prior experience in public elections.

A downside to Internet voting is the potential for bottlenecks, which causes problems similar to jamming, except that the jam is caused by an overwhelming number of legitimate contacts occurring simultaneously rather than a hacker. The solution to this is to create over-capacity, either by spreading the voting period over several weeks, or by using higher-capacity equipment. Internet capacity problems have previously been experienced on election day from large numbers of people attempting to view election results on the Web. Further research must be done to determine what "adequate capacity" should entail for Internet voting servers and equipment.

When forming Internet voting standards, it is important to keep in mind that commercial goals are driving the development of Internet voting systems. Accepting that this is the engine for development, the question to ask is how we might integrate the needs of both businesses and our republic? If we can engineer the best technical methods to facilitate electronic commerce, how can we best engineer the Internet in order to ensure that important aspects of democracy remain valid and cherished? In developing Internet voting systems, experts on both sides of the issue argue that the government should work proactively with vendors to define standards and to set minimum acceptable guidelines, while allowing innovation and competition in the marketplace to benefit the development of the technology.

Internet voting is a new and exciting frontier for democracy. Some promise that Internet voting will change the way that our democracy functions. This may be true; however, a truly binding general election has yet to be executed over the Internet and the standards established by the FEC will be the cornerstone for the future of Internet voting. In order to capture the potential that this new technology offers, it must be implemented correctly and upon a well-conceived framework of standards and procedures. At the same time, the FEC must seek the advice of industry leaders as well as social activists in order to avoid the many obstacles that will undoubtedly arise.

Reform America, Inc. calls on Universities and colleges, corporations, political parties, and other entities to experiment with Internet voting for student government elections, board elections, etc. In the course of this experimentation, it is imperative that the highest standards of electoral accountability be upheld and the basic tenets of democracy be preserved. RAI calls for this noble experimentation in the future of our democracy to include the use of alternative voting systems, such as the Instant Runoff Vote (IRV) and Single Transferable Vote (STV), and to be free from restriction for those individuals and political parties that wish to compete in the electoral process. RAI is a partner in these efforts.

Reform America, Inc.