New team seeks to take online voting from fantasy to reality

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

You can do almost anything online; your banking, shop on Amazon, pay your bills. And yet one thing that forever evaded Californians is the opportunity to vote online, due to the myriad of security and privacy issues. But a new project from the Overseas Vote Foundation is putting a team together that could be the catalyst toward bringing democracy to your DSL connection.

The project is called End-to-End Verifiable Internet Voting: Specification and Feasibility Assessment Study, aka E2E VIV Project. It brings together experts in computer science, usability, and auditing and adds in the expertise of local election officials from counties throughout the U.S. to examine potential solutions to the current roadblocks toward online voting. The main challenge? How to maintain the anonymity of your vote while making sure it’s secure and stays the same from sender to recipient.

The safeguards that come with a regular ballot that prevent fraud and making multiple votes aren’t in the online world, where “your online ballot is subject to interference in transit,” said California Voter Foundation’s president Kim Alexander. “Once it arrives, you have to create a system where the person receiving it can verify that you are who you say you are, you only voted once, all confirming that without seeing your ballot.”

Those that wonder why you can bank and shop securely yet not vote are comparing apples to oranges, says Alexander. “To spell it out, when you bank online or shop online, the content of your transaction is not secret from the person you’re making it with,” she said. “With the ballot, it’s a secret ballot. Most people who have looked at this question have come to the conclusion that the Internet is not a safe place to transact ballots.”

Alexander would know. She served on the 1999 California Internet Voting Taskforce, and in the wake of so many high-profile break downs in security leading to identify theft, the optimism of what was possible online in the 90s is long gone. “Back in ’99 people were very pie in the sky with what we could do with the Internet,” she said. “What I learned serving on the taskforce is that voting is unlike any other transaction we make in society and that hasn’t changed.”

With things like the hacking of Target’s debit card database getting headlines across the country this week, it almost feels as though we’re moving further instead of closer to the ability to vote online. “I think we didn’t know back in ’99 how many vulnerabilities there are,” said Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting. “I think we’ve moved down the road [toward voting online] some, but as we move down the road the target moves too. Each day a little bit more of the Internet’s vulnerability is displayed to us in graphic terms.”

This is why both experts have cautious optimism for the project, because it takes a pragmatic approach to the problem and doesn’t try to gloss over how difficult an undertaking this is. This is why California Forward is equally optimistic that in the long-term, this could be the first step toward reversing our troubling voter participation record. “Providing Californians with safe, secure and accessible voting options is the right move in a state ranked 45th nationwide in voter turnout,” said CAFwd’s Caroline Bruister. “We applaud the study’s goal which could help restore and grow trust in the system, bringing more voters to the polls.” 


Matthew Grant Anson

All stories by: Matthew Grant Anson