Friday, November 23, 2012
E-voting: Efficient Democracy or Hacker’s Holy Grail?”
Our country recently experienced an extraordinary two weeks, encompassing Hurricane Sandy and the presidential election. This marriage of natural and political events brought a new level of prominence to the issue of electronic voting. New Jersey’s Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno encouraged residents displaced by the storm to vote via email, being treated as overseas voters. In New York State, where voters were allowed to cast their ballot at any polling place because of relocation, the State Board of Elections rejected e-voting, citing its susceptibility to fraud.
The contrasting views of e-voting by these bordering states similarly affected by Sandy reflect the issues surrounding its use on a national scale. Over 121 million Americans voted in the recent Presidential election; 3.5 million of them did so electronically. In a day and age when electronic services are so accessible and popular, can e-voting be securely used to facilitate the democratic process?
There are several types of e-voting, including computer-like touch screen voting machines and voting over email, typically available to overseas residents and military personnel. Some e-voting machines provide no paper record of the votes cast while others produce a record of each vote, providing a back up record if necessary. New Jersey residents who voted via email send a copy of their completed ballot via either email or fax and then mail in the original paper copy as soon as possible.
Many Americans wonder why more states have yet to implement online voting as people perform common, secure tasks online, such as paying their taxes, shopping and banking. Experts have conflicting viewpoints on what is an acceptable and secure model for protecting Americans votes. Many in the technology realm, including security experts, hackers, and cryptologists, challenge the security of current e-voting technology. Groups such as Verified Voting and Common Cause monitor the security of e-voting. Along with the Rutgers University Law School, these two groups recently published a paper citing numerous problems that currently exist with the e-voting methods and machines in America.
They argue that despite the obvious benefits, e-voting has had several notable incidents of failure. The U.S. military attempted to create an online voting system for service members stationed overseas known as the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE). However, this project was abandoned as a result of numerous security flaws.
Another example of a system failure was in Washington, D.C. Prior to launching, District officials invited the public to try to hack into the system. Within 36 hours, hackers gained complete control of the system and were able to switch votes and even made a song play once voters submitted their electronic ballots.
Experts also say that the hardware on some e-voting machines can pose security problems. In one experiment, security specialists revealed how some e-voting machines could be altered and controlled remotely using a few cheap and simple computer parts and a paper clip. Tampering with hardware becomes even more of a threat when expanded early voting practices have put votes on machines stored in schools, churches and other polling places for weeks before Election Day.
Others believe that every state should use e-voting because this new method would increase voter turnout, lessen the time and burden of traditional voting, and instantly and accurately report results. Everyone Counts, a company that creates e-voting machines and technology, cites the successful use of iPad voting in a local election in Oregon last year. They argue that the dangers and “hacking” incidents sighted by opponents are over reported and therefore the threat seems larger than it actually is. “Cyber the Vote” is a voting blog from a former IBM IT employee. It advocates that e-voting can substantially help the voting process by eliminating human error in the vote counting process, preventing future “hanging chad” situations. E–voting could also facilitate any last minute changes to the ballot. Proponents urge more states to embrace e-voting because it would be impracticable to wait for all possible problems to be eliminated as the traditional paper ballot system has inherent flaws.
Hopefully it will not take another Superstorm for states to cast a clear decision on the place of e-voting in the American democracy. The question remains if the benefits of quicker voting and increased turnout outweigh the potential risks of security and fraud. Other countries, including Canada, Sweden and Switzerland, successfully use e-voting systems; perhaps the move to e-voting will happen over time with our country’s voting system.
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