Thursday, June 25, 2015

The burgeoning growth of online voter registration in the United States

Electronic voting technology can be implemented along nearly every step along the democratic process, empowering citizens to exercise their right to vote in the most convenient, most secure and most efficient manner possible. There are direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, for instance, that offer many profound benefits over traditional paper ballots. There are machines for recording, counting and tabulating the ballots to provide the results as quickly and as accurately as possible.

But even before a voter can make his mark on the ballot, digital or otherwise, he must first be properly identified, authenticated and registered to vote. In the United States, online voter registration is quickly rising in popularity across many of the states, making the democratic process more relevant and more approachable particularly for younger demographics. The growth has been pronounced and it has been rapid.

As recently as 2008, online voter registration was only available in Arizona and Washington State, providing this access to just 4 percent of all eligible voters across the country. Just six years later in 2014, these figures skyrocketed to the point where a total of 20 states were offering online voter registration to its residents, accounting for nearly half of all eligible voters in the United States. These include California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Oregon and more. It is also being used in the District of Columbia.

The growth is continuing in more states too as Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nebraska and West Virginia are all already working on implementing online systems of their own for the purposes of voter registration. More recently, just last month, Florida Governor Rick Scott approved the use of online voter registration in the Sunshine State. The motion received “overwhelming bipartisan support.” Six other states have also approved similar legislation for the development of online voter registration systems. In Florida's case, the mandate calls for its implementation by October 2017.

In its review of online voter registration systems in the United States, the Pew Charitable Trusts found that online registration was more cost-effective than traditional paper registration, it provided for more accurate voter rolls, it was more secure, and it was more convenient for voters to register too. The United States Presidential Commission on Electoral Administration similarly supports the use of online voter registration. It's no wonder that it has strong support in many of the remaining states without such a system, like New Jersey. Other states, like South Dakota, have less enthusiastic.

The bigger push toward online voter registration in the United States is both mirrored and further demonstrated in other countries around the world as well. A prime example of this is the recent general election in the United Kingdom. The overwhelming majority of voters in this election chose to register via digital means rather than through paper forms. 

This was more clearly demonstrated on the biggest registration day, April 19, when nearly 470,000 people registered to vote electronically compared to just under 16,000 chose to do so with paper forms. All said, 7.1 million people in the United Kingdom used the online voter registration system since its original introduction last summer. Just 2.1 million people used postal registration over the same period of time.

Even as the popularity and deployment of electronic voting machines continue to expand throughout the world, it is important to recognize the need to update the entirety of the democratic process. The ongoing rise of online voter registration in the United States demonstrates promise and gives hope.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Learning about the Du-Vote internet voting system

Proponents of Internet-based voting systems for official government elections continue to gain support in countries all around the world. Considering that so much of our daily lives is conducted online, including online banking and secure business transactions, it only makes sense that many voters would want to have the same level of convenience and security when exercising their democratic right to vote.

When voting in person at an official polling station, voters are typically asked to authenticate their identity in some form. They are also checked against the official electoral roll of registered voters. Since this involves some necessary interaction with an election official, the public perception is that this kind of voter identification is more safe and secure. By contrast, a person who uses Internet voting can cast his or her ballot from the privacy and convenience of the home, workplace, or even from a mobile device. Who is there to verify the identity of the voter?

While the I-voting system of Estonia continues to lead the way with its infrastructure of validated citizen identification cards, a different system is being developed by researchers from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. This system, dubbed Du-Vote, borrows much of its inspiration from the secure infrastructure and controls used by online banking.

One of the major concerns cited by critics and detractors of Internet voting is that election officials have no real way of validating the hardware on which the voter casts his or her ballot. This is stark contrast to the level of control an electoral commission would have over the development, deployment and use of electronic voting machines at traditional polling places. The machines belong to (or are being rented by) the electoral officials. With Internet voting, the citizen casts his or her ballot from a personal device, like a computer, tablet or possibly even a smartphone.

The Du-Vote system overcomes this concern by using independent hardware devices that are then connected to the end user's computer. Lead researcher Professor Mark Ryan explains that the system uses a “credit card-sized device similar to those used in online banking... you receive a code on the device and type it back into the computer.”

How is this advantageous? The credit card-sized device is fully controlled and vetted by election officials. It is made to be as secure, private and confidential as possible, just like with online banking. The security device is independent, so even if the home or work computer of the voter has been compromised with viruses and other security threats, the legitimacy and integrity of the security device is maintained. And because the security device is so much more specific in its purpose, it is far less susceptible to being compromised.

Many people may be concerned about the security of Internet-based voting and these issues are clearly worthy of debate. Even so, online voting could have the somewhat paradoxical effect of better securing elections than their more traditional paradigms and, at the same time, it could help to encourage greater voter turnout too.

The Du-Vote system has only been under development for two-and-a-half years and the researchers say they need further testing before the system can be suitably deployed. Current estimates are that it may be ready in time for the 2025 general election in the United Kingdom. That's in line with the more optimistic view of SRI International senior computer scientist Jeremy Epstein. He states that secure e-voting is at least 10 years away, but his more conservative estimate is more like 20 to 30 years. He calls for two-factor authentication, for instance, among other concerns.

More on the Du-Vote system will be presented next month at the 28th IEEE Computer Security Foundations Symposium in Verona, Italy.

Friday, June 12, 2015

School in Northern India embraces the future of e-voting

A lot has been said about bolstering the level of political engagement among today's youth. Many young people from all around the world can feel as if they have been disenfranchised, ignored by the current politicians who focusing much more on the needs and issues of the older demographic. Many youth can feel as if the political climate is irrelevant and corrupt, feeling as if their actions, their voices and their votes simply do not matter. This needs to change, as today's youth will be tomorrow's leaders.

Interest in politics and the democratic process must start from a young age, engaging the fertile minds of children and teenagers. Just as there has been an increased push in encouraging children to participate in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, there should be a similar push to get them involved in the present and the future of the political process. And for a lot of today's youth, this means that the political process must also be modernized and brought up to speed with current technology. The traditional paper ballot can feel archaic and irrelevant, while e-voting processes can feel relevant and meaningful.

And indeed, this philosophy has been wholeheartedly supported by at least one school in Northern India. At the DC Model Senior Secondary School in Sector 7, Panchkula in the Northern area of India, students were able to elect their school council representatives using modern electronic voting technology. Candidates made their speeches in front of the student body, convincing them why they should be elected into student government. The students, as well as non-teaching staff, were then able to exercise their democratic right by e-voting.

The political process used at this secondary school is not unlike the e-voting systems used in formal governments in places such as Estonia. The voting students had their identities authenticated using their I-cards and then proceeded to cast their digital ballot. It is important to instil this interest in the power and responsibility of the vote in young people so they can best participate in local, state and federal government when they become of age too.

As the world's single largest democracy, India is also home to a growing number of young people who are passionate about and engaged in the political process. The electorate in India is youthful and tech-savvy and the democratic process needs to mirror and support this growing desire for modern technology. Voters should be able to register in an electronic manner, just as they should be able to cast their ballots digitally and the ballots should be counted electronically too. The entire process can benefit greatly from the intelligent and well-audited implementation of technology. Even for Indians who are living abroad, remote e-voting infrastructure should be in place.

Several key lessons can be taken away from the recent experience of the senior secondary school in Panchkula and these can be applied to other schools all around the world.

First, the political atmosphere of the school should be one that encourages meaningful and respectful political discourse among its students. Public speeches and debates empower the candidates to define and express their platform.

Second, the vote does not need to be collected through the more traditional means of raising hands or submitting paper ballots. Embracing e-voting technology is more efficient, more cost-effective, and more relevant for today's youth.

Third, this also demonstrates that if a humble school in India can afford to implement a robust and reliable e-voting system, there is no reason why proper governments and electoral commissions cannot do the same.

The future of politics is in the hands of today's young people. Let's arm them with the technology they need and desire for the safest, most secure, and most engaging democratic process possible.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Reviewing the 2015 UK General Election

The general election in the United Kingdom wrapped up early last month with Prime Minister David Cameron being selected for another term and the Conservative Party earning a majority in the Commons with 331 total seats. This was a shock to many political pundits and analysts, but more relevant to the context of this blog, much can be said about the continuing development and implementation of electronic voting technology in the 2015 UK election.

Leading up to the general election, there was much discussion about the future of elections in the United Kingdom particularly in terms of the adoption of electronic voter registration, electronic voting and even Internet voting. This continues to spark an ongoing debate about modernizing the democracy and bringing it up to the 21st century. It has been said that the more widespread use of technology in the democratic process would encourage greater citizen participation, particularly among the younger demographic. Recommendations have included the implementation of a two-step verification process for voter authentication and the creation of a central voting website.

But these are looking ahead to the future with an optimistic outlook of implementation in time for the 2020 General Election. What actually happened with the 2015 General Election? The United Kingdom has made significant strides, particularly when it came to an online system for voter registration. A last-minute rush saw nearly 470,000 people register online in just a 24 hour period, breaking the all-time record.

Despite progress in enabling the people of the United Kingdom to add their names to the official voter roll via the Internet, such progress was not witnessed to the same extent in other areas of modernizing the British election.

For Britons who are currently living abroad, the process for casting a ballot is frustrating and time-intensive. It takes so long, in fact, that many such individuals could not participate in the 2015 General Election because their postal ballots did not arrive in time. This is despite registering as much as two months in advance for individuals living as nearby as the Czech Republic or Spain. “Large number of citizens abroad,” said expat voting rights blogger Brian Cave, “have not received any ballot papers for the election.”

A secure online voting system with proper voter authentication could have overcome this major problem.

Even when voting in person, the UK electoral infrastructure faced significant challenges. Some polling stations had to turn away many voters who indeed had their polling cards but were not showing up in the electoral roll due to IT glitches. The voting systems need to have the proper audits and checks in place so that such errors simply do not occur. An electronic polling station connected to the central database could have rectified such issues.

Another fatal flaw of traditional paper ballot-based voting is the increased likelihood for spoilt ballots. This was precisely the case in the recent UK elections as an estimated 27,500 ballots were rejected, mostly because these voters ticked more than one candidate. Because of the secret ballot, the voters whose ballots were rejected were never informed that their vote would not count. This “voter confusion” could be avoided with a well-designed direct-recording electronic voting machine, as the software would be configured to accept only the correct number of inputs from the voter.

Looking ahead to the next General Election in a few years, the electoral officials in the United Kingdom still have a lot of work to do. Thankfully, they have some time to work out these problems and to start developing and implementing better, more modern solutions for casting a ballot. Internet voting, which 63% of those polled by YouGov stated would boost voter turnout, should be seriously considered. The UK would also benefit from better systems for the electoral roll, as well as the move toward offering direct-recording electronic voting machines in lieu of paper ballots. Democracy can only work when the infrastructure is working at its best.