Barbara Simons: The Internet and Voting: Worth Doing Right

Recently we were dissapointed when the Huffington Post ran a PR piece from Everyone Counts touting their risky election technology used in a Honolulu election: Did Hawaii and Honolulu Defy Own Laws, Science, and Common Sense?.   Now, Huffington Post has provided a platform for an expert technologist’s view.

Barbara  Simons is the only technologist on the Board of Advisors of  the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.  She is a recognized expert on voting integrity and security.  She was also President of the Association for Computing Machinery.

She refutes the contention that technologists are intimidated by technology:

In response to multiple efforts to allow voting over the Internet in major elections, many of our nation’s prominent technology experts have signed a statement cautioning against adopting Internet-based voting systems without first understanding and guarding against the numerous and well-documented dangers. This is not because, as Mr. Contorer suggests, those opposing Internet voting find “[t]he introduction of technology to any process … scary”. The signatories to this statement are not at all intimidated by technology; in fact many are established experts in voting systems who are most certainly aware of the major risks associated with Internet voting.

Simons then explains that ATM Banking and voting are different:

The article asserts that since we are able to conduct banking and commerce over the Internet, we should also be able to vote over the Internet. This is a common misconception (or misrepresentation) that is often made when attempting to support Internet-based voting. Banks spend considerable time and money to ensure the security of our assets, yet there are still risks. Identity theft and fraud affect millions of Americans and cost billions of dollars each year. When we can detect such fraud it is because we are able to track our money through each transaction from start to finish, including the people associated with those transactions.

However, elections by their very definition disallow this type of explicit end-to-end auditing. Voters must cast their ballot in secret and not be able to prove to others how they voted. Election officials must not be able to tie votes to citizens except in very narrow circumstances as carved out by law. The lack of these basic protections make Internet-based voting a dangerous idea and place it so far from the realm of Internet banking or commerce as to make the author’s point moot.

There are significant security issues that any vendor must address before declaring such a system fit for public elections. Yet the author glosses over these security issues raised by Internet voting, referring several times to “military-grade encryption.” It is a well-known marketing technique of voting system vendors to tout the strength of their encryption because it sounds impressive. But the fact is that encryption is only a secondary part of any electronic security.

Technology can help in elections:

Americans deserve the best electoral system available. There are many options for making elections more accessible, secure, and efficient, and the Internet will have a role to play. Current possibilities that show promise include the easier maintenance of voter registration records and the distribution of blank absentee ballots. But we should not subject our democracy to the costs or risks of current Internet-based voting schemes.

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