Commentary

06/06/2012 by John Guenther

Voting online not ready to solve low turnout

The primary is over and the results are in: Non-voters won in a landslide, garnering a predicted 75 percent of Californians eligible to vote.

Granted, you have pundits telling us it was a very low-impact election and also there are not enough “voter bait” initiatives or contentious recall elections to get people running to the polls.

While I love getting an "I voted" sticker, it's clearly not enough to turn people into voters. One solution would be to bring the polling station to your computer. Online registration, approved last year in California, should boost voting numbers. A new online system in Arizona almost doubled registration rates among 18-24 year-olds.

But what about going whole hog and just letting people vote online? If Facebook can get younger people to click to become organ donors in droves, voting over the Internet would be a surefire way to get new voters. Why not let them click “Like” for their next mayor in between posting videos of flying cats?

It’s because it's not ready for primetime, according to most security experts.

While West Virginia had some success getting members of the military to vote overseas over the Internet, the current state of technology caused a top security expert at Homeland Security to argue this year against online voting at this time.

And two years ago, a team of white-hat hackers from the University of Michigan busted into the online voting test system created for Washington, D.C. and elected the cartoon character “Bender” for school board president. They did it in 36 hours after the system went online.

Even though we give out valuable info over the Internet every day, like credit card numbers, security experts say online voting must be essentially invulnerable because a bad vote can't be "reversed" like a credit card charge.

Still, some tech evangelists see Internet voting as something of an inevitable thing. The blog Cyber the Vote, says paper is so passe and that it’s a wonder we still vote on it in the Information Age.

“Paper is obsolete," a recent entry said. "Obsolete everywhere except in the world of American voting and, more importantly, the world that exists in the minds of some of our largest 'election integrity' organizations.”

But, the National Institute of Standards and Technology gave online voting a thumbs down last year in a report because:

  • It's difficult to authenticate a voter over the Internet
  • It’s harder to audit a remote voting system, as opposed to a physical, in-person system
  • You can't ensure the voter’s computer is secure

Would you trust using the computer of the person next to you in Starbucks for logging into your bank account? As a person who used to clean up infected computers as part of my job, I would not.

One possible gateway to online voting is letting people markup an absentee ballot online, print it out and mail it.

However, problems with e-voting machines in recent years haven’t inspired much confidence in new voting technology and software. And that is a very bad thing when it comes to close elections.

With voting numbers this low, I have no doubt an accurate, secure system must be developed in the future, along with jetpacks and flying cars. But, the more online voting gets going, the bigger target for hackers it will be.

So, it will take some big leaps in security tech and software before you can ever hit the “+1 Vote” button in the next California election.

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