Friday, July 26, 2013

The Pros and Cons of Internet Voting

Most discussions on electronic voting usually focus on direct recording electronic devices (DREs) or the use of electronic technology in counting the ballots. Under these circumstances, the voter must still cast his or her ballot in person. However, there is another voting technology: remote or Internet voting.

In a more pop culture context, Internet voting has really taken off in popularity. Sometimes called I-voting, because most of these votes are usually cast over the Internet, remote e-voting is used for television shows like American Idol and it is also used for instant polls on popular newsmagazine shows and other programming. Given this, why can't a similar kind of technology be used for government elections and other important electoral events?

There are some advantages to Internet voting:

1. Convenience: Voters can simply log on to their computers or use their smartphones to cast their votes. In an age where convenience is so heavily valued, this is a huge "pro" for remote e-voting.

2. Encourages voter turnout: Related to the first point, having a greater level of access and convenience should theoretically encourage people to vote who may have otherwise skipped the opportunity. By having better voter turnout, the results of each election will be more representative of the overall popular opinion. That said, a study jointly released by M. Bruter and S. Harrison with N. Anstead, S. Banaji, B. Cammaerts and LSE Enterprise for the European Commission actually found an opposite effect on turnout among first time voters. Clearly, further study is warranted.

3. Streamlined Absentee Ballots: With military personnel serving overseas or businesspeople traveling abroad, it can sometimes be difficult for these citizens to cast their votes from afar. If the elections are held online, however, these demographics can be better represented, as long as they have Internet access.

4. Eliminate Long Lineups: One of the problems plaguing many elections, particularly those in the United States, is that there can be remarkably long lineups at the official voting locations. There is a definite bottleneck with paper ballots and manual ballot collection. If the votes can be cast online, assuming the bandwidth is adequate; there can be virtually no lineups at all.

Although these features sound very appealing, there are many issues that come up related to Internet voting:

1. Security concerns: Websites, regardless of their level of heightened security, get hacked all the time. When the magnitude of a major national election is considered, these threats should not be taken lightly and they could potentially compromise the results of any election.

2. Transmission problems: As with anything else conducted over the Internet, a remote electronic vote may encounter some errors and issues as the data is transmitted over the web. Since there is no real paper trail for each ballot, this can be make recounts and error corrections virtually impossible.

3. Bandwidth and server issues: When there are major sales at certain online retailers, the servers may not always be able to handle the increased traffic. The same problem can occur when the servers cannot handle the increased traffic of a major election. Bandwidth needs must be considered and addressed.

4. Authentication: When a voter arrives at a physical voting place, his or her identity can be confirmed by the government official or representative. With remote e-voting, the voter is not physically present in front of a government representative and, thus, the identity can be more easily faked. That being said, given the authentication processes for online banking and other government websites, authentication is an issue that may be more easily addressed.

5. Less thoughtful voting: A recent ICEP study on electoral ergonomy found that voters tended to take less time thinking about their vote when engaging in an electronic ballot (20 seconds) than when using a French ballot (60 seconds). Furthermore, voters aged 18-25 in the 2010 British General election were twice as likely to choose an extremist party if voting by post (remotely) than at a polling station, even when controlling for prior voting intentions. Remote e-voting could further amplify this effect.

 The current systems for Internet voting are far from perfect, but they do represent a paradigm that should be opened for discussion in the future to improve the overall democratic process.