Internet Voting: Interview with William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.

What do you feel are the greatest pitfalls of traditional paper-based ballots?
A: The history of paper ballots is replete with fraud, waste, and error.

Take error, for instance. An election for a seat in the US Senate was held in Minnesota in 2008. A Republican incumbent, named Coleman, was challenged by a Democrat, named Franken. Franken won, but the result was so close that Coleman sued to contest the counting. Then three million votes had to be re-counted by hand, under court supervision. The re-count showed that thousands of ballots were either uncounted or miscounted. Ballots were uncounted because the boxes they were in were misplaced, or some clerk rejected them because the marks were not clear, or a check rather than a circle was made by the voter, or the ballots were set aside because they were from absentee voters, and then forgotten. All of this is in the New York Times.

The election was held in November, 2010. But the final court ruling didn’t come down until June, 2011. This is the “hi-tech” US, and it took more than six months to decide an election. And this re-count and law suit cost the Minnesota taxpayers millions of dollars.

Waste is a huge problem. Ballots are expensive to print; including paper, ink, transportation, and storage. Often, more ballots are printed than used. Ballots are easily lost, and misdistributed. Sometimes voters loose the opportunity to vote because all the ballots at a polling place have been used up. Sometimes voted ballots are lost or misplaced, as we saw in Minnesota. Sometimes votes are disqualified because the voter didn’t mark the paper ballot correctly – for example, he marked a check rather than filling in a bubble; or, she put an ‘x’ next to the bubble, and didn’t fill it in.

Of course, examples of fraud are well known. Ballots voted by dead people. False count reports are easy to make, and to get away with. Boxes of uncounted ballots have been found in odd places – such as floating in a river, in the back of trucks, or under somebody’s desk. Since paper ballots are collected in specific jurisdictions, an unscrupulous partisan can trash the ballots from a district known to be democratic or republican, or to have a lot of people from some race the bad guy doesn’t like.

Do you think America is ready to go beyond e-voting and jump completely into Internet-based voting?

A: Public opinion about Internet voting in the US is mixed. Some people favor it. But other people have been terribly misled by a small group of anti-Internet voting extremists. These groups have no science to show that Internet voting is not secure or open to fraud.

When Americans do use Internet voting systems, they are very happy with the process. For example, in the 2010 elections 33 states used some form of online voting for their overseas voters. Most of it was by email or fax. West Virginia tried an experiment with real Internet voting in a few jurisdictions; that is, voters in the military from those jurisdictions could vote on their PCs. The Secretary of State for West Virginia, Natalie Tennant, was so pleased with the results that she asked the state legislature to allow all the counties to use Internet voting. Close to 90% of the voters liked the system, and said they would use it again. King’s County, in the state of Washington held an Internet voting election a few months ago. Voters were very positive about that, too.

Secretaries of State in all the states of the US know about Internet voting, and many are willing to experiment with it. They understand that it can be as secure as anything in e-commerce, and that it is so convenient for the voters.

So, is America ready for Internet voting? Well, once a critical mass of the public learns that some scary stories have no science behind them, then they will demand Internet voting from their state governments.

“What does the science say,” you might ask. Science, of course, is based on facts and experience. Scores of Internet voting trials have been conducted in Europe, Canada, and in a few US states. One time, using 2003 technology, a denial of service attack on an election in Toronto held up the vote for about 45 minutes. That is the only time any sort of security problem has ever been reported. Indeed, Tarvi Martens, who designed the Estonia Internet voting system, says it’s “more secure than Internet banking”

How do you address the concerns in relation to security and confidentiality for Internet-based voting, especially in light of the recent attacks at Sony and other major corporations?

A: In Chapter One of my new book, Internet Voting Now!, I discuss the social science method for assessing the risks of Internet voting. There have been several stories in the media and online about supposed hacking into the systems of big companies, like Sony, or Google in China. So it is easy to get the impression that the lone hacker can break into any system in cyberspace. The truth is that most hacking jobs are the result of human insiders abusing their positions, and very few hacks are the direct result of an outsider who breaks the security code of a system. Go to, to see hundreds of reports on data loss and its causes. This site shows that lone hackers were effective in the late 90s and early in this century, but the learning curve of the companies has shot way up. Now, lone hackers only succeed on old and unprotected systems. Without insider information, up-to-date professional security systems are nearly impossible to break into.

So, today, there is usually human misconduct involved in hacks. Look at how hugely rich multinational banks and corporations are. They run through tens of thousands of big money transactions everyday, without loosing a cent. Internet voting can use that same security technology – in fact, it already does, like I said above.

Internet voting can be both secure and confidential. Suppose you are watching two candidates debate online or on TV. After the hour you turn to your PC or cell phone. You log on to your state’s secure Internet voting web site. You punch in your user name and security code. The state’s web site is based on its own server. The server consists of several modules. The first module checks your voter registration. If that’s OK, then it passes you on to the second module. The first module keeps your name, so that you can’t vote again. But it does not pass your name over to the second module. In that module, you are just a voter without a name.

In the second module, a ballot window comes up and you vote. After that, a third module stores and counts the votes. Your vote is kept confidential and secure.

What sort of audit system can and should be in place for Internet-based voting?
A: There are many different systems for auditing elections based on Internet voting. In the example I gave above, I supposed a system based on three primary modules. Each module will have its own memory. So, one way to audit an election after it is over, is to simply compare the data in each module. The first module should show “X” number of registered voters. The second number should show the same “X” number of votes cast. The third module should show the same number of total votes.

Of course, sometimes the numbers will be a little different; not because of computer error, but because humans do weird things. Somebody might log on, and get a phone call before completing the process of voting. They might log off and not return, or forget, or have a heart attack (old people vote more than any other age group). But usually this sort of audit will be proof enough that an election via the Net was done well.

By the way, each module can be programmed to set off an alarm if there is any intrusion or messing with its system. Anytime the module goes off code for any reason, “ding dong.” The system shuts down, and a back up module goes into play. Furthermore, one inventor, Ed Gerck, has patents on his “Witness Voting System.” That is, an electronic witness is attached to each module to monitor its operation – like a second alarm system. Any political party can place its own witness on the modules to know for sure if the election is honest.

About the interviewed: 
William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
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