With the American midterms approaching, computerized voting is getting significant media attention. Depending on the state, ballots can be lengthy and confusing, poll queues long and slow, and voters frustrated. At first blush, a computerized voting option seems a plausible solution to these concerns. However, any change to the electoral process ought to be carefully scrutinized, as the integrity of voting systems affects a country's economic stability and legitimacy as a democracy.
What is Computerized Voting?
"Computerized voting" means any electronic system by which votes can be both cast and counted. In particular, we focus on online voting. In this post, computerized voting does not include the use of computers to tabulate paper ballots that were filled in by hand.
Where is it Used?
In Canada, while federal and provincial elections use paper ballots submitted in person or by mail, many municipalities have used computerized voting. At the political party level, Justin Trudeau was elected leader of the Liberals in 2013 by online and phone voting.
In the United States, computerized voting goes as far back as at least 2004, when thousands of votes were lost in the North Carolina general election due to voting machines accepting votes past their memory capacity.
In the upcoming midterms, West Virginian military personnel posted abroad will vote using their smartphones. The voting app will validate identity by prompting the user for a photo of his or her ID and a video of himself or herself blinking.
What are the Benefits?
Voting in person requires a voter to leave their home, work, or school, for an unpredictable amount of time. For marginalized groups, such as the elderly and those with disabilities, this is particularly burdensome. Reducing the amount of time a voter has to spend in the polling place could improve turnout. Reducing that time to zero and letting people vote anywhere, for example by implementing an online voting system, would remove almost all barriers to voting.
The internet is easy to access, and voters are familiar with using it. We use computers routinely for security-sensitive tasks including banking, filing taxes, shopping, and emailing confidential information. The internet has made all of these tasks easier, faster, and more convenient. Online voting, the argument goes, would do the same for elections. People would have little excuse for not voting, and the results could be tabulated instantly and without human error.
What are the Security Risks?
West Virginia's pilot project has been widely criticized by experts. There are two broad security risks at issue: personal privacy and integrity of the outcome.
Recent public hacking of voting machines, and discovery of unsecured internet access to other voting machines has raised the alarm that voting machines may not be properly configured, maintained or updated, and thus present very enticing targets to hackers—both as a challenge, and perhaps to distort election results.
Stealing and selling voter information is big business. Bad actors are selling millions of voter registration records on the dark web for tens of thousands of dollars. At present, hackers can only access information about who is registered to vote, since there is no record of who votes for whom. Experts are concerned that computerized voting gives hackers the opportunity to complement their data set with ballots matched to voters.
Computerized voting also presents the opportunity for hackers to manipulate the outcome of the election. Hackers can do so by changing the ballots themselves, or by passively monitoring the votes as they are cast and using that information to influence people yet to vote. This risk is even greater if voters are able to cast their ballots online using their unsecured devices.
Blockchain is a promising solution to both of these security risks. A growing list of cryptographically-linked records, blockchain was initially conceived for bitcoin. It is now used for many other purposes, such as music distribution, insurance, and computer game asset catalogs. Blockchain resists manipulation and falsification of records it contains because it requires agreement among a majority of validators, i.e., computers connected to the blockchain network and configured to participate in the consensus protocol. Conversely, if a hacker can control a majority of validators, he or she can manipulate the blockchain as desired.
Online voting has enormous advantages, if security concerns can be overcome. For some polls, such as shareholder votes or local elections, those advantages may outweigh the risks. For a large-scale election in a prominent democracy, a more convenient election day may have to wait.