It just may be the most confounding dilemma of our era: Despite having long embraced (or at least accepted) the digital transition in virtually every aspect of our lives, from banking systems to utilities to personal communications, we still remain curiously dedicated to upholding an expensive and fragmented system for voting — what is perhaps the central act of the citizenry in a vital democracy.
It’s not that we haven’t tried to bring voting up to date. In the U.S. we’ve employed a variety of electronic solutions for more than half a century now, from punchcards to touchscreens. And in fact, the concept of online voting — that is, casting a vote over the Internet via a personal computing device — is already employed in some form in more than 30 states, though it’s typically reserved for citizens living abroad and other extenuating circumstances (the notable exception is Alaska, which allows any voter to cast an absentee ballot online.) In other words, this isn’t pie-in-the-sky technology we’re waiting for: It’s here.
Yet our current system of voting, especially for general elections, is a mishmash of old and new and deserves to be updated to better reflect the habits and pace of modern life. The reality is that the process and requirements for registering and voting vary wildly, and so a voter in a given county or state may have a completely different election day experience than someone right over the border in a neighboring state — different ballot, registration rules, polling policies, physical hardware, and so on. No wonder the U.S. is regularly near the bottom of the list among industrialized nations when it comes to voter turnout.
Key elements to consider
The keystone of an online voting system will be security. The public should have full confidence in the system, after all. There is justifiable concern, notably from the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Cybersecurity and Communications, about the prospect of making our electoral system vulnerable to online attack. However, it’s worth pointing out that there are acceptable levels of risk for any secure system, and there’s no reason to believe an online system of voting would have greater risks than our current voting system. Besides, studies show worry over widespread voter fraud are misplaced.
Other crucial issues are the need to build in anonymity, so that voters can be recorded but have their choices remain private, and a receipt-type system for verifying that a vote was cast, and correctly. Again, transparency, accountability, and consistency should underlie the design of any online voting system. One of the most effective ways to ensure security is to forge public-private partnerships between the government and innovators to develop secure solutions. A shining example to emulate is the modern aerospace industry, which is in the midst of an exciting renaissance, with the government partnering with private companies.
A modern system built for the future
Imagine being able to cast a secure vote via smartphone, tablet, or computer in as little time or trouble as it takes to post an update to Facebook, Snapchat, or Twitter. Or knowing the results of a national election in a matter of minutes, not hours, with effectively zero chance of lost ballots, recalls, disputes, or other preventable hiccups — not to mention the elimination of millions of cumulative lost hours wasted in lines and disenfranchisement due to bureaucratic errors, or the billions of dollars in savings from not needing to stage polling stations (and of course no worry of hanging chads.) A well-designed, secure, and transparent digital electoral system is achievable and, if adopted, could transform citizen participation in our government overnight.
Gary Davis is chief consumer security evangelist at Intel Security. He drives strategic alignment of products with the needs of the security space and oversees Intel Security online safety education to educate businesses and consumers. Follow him on Twitter: @garyjdavis.