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E-Voting: The Future of Democracy

By Rob Enderle
Aug 2, 2004 6:00 AM PT

I've been watching the e-voting concerns increase as the related technology proliferates across the country and have come to the conclusion that we are once again seeing the government act first and think second.

E-Voting: The Future of Democracy

There is nothing inherently more unsecure with regard to electronically taking votes than in physically taking votes. What can make one more unsecure than the other are the practices that surround them. The important thing that is being forgotten is that, done right, e-voting can actually reflect more accurately the views of the people. It has the potential to make the U.S. more democratic.

But change impacts the status quo, and the concerns being raised about e-voting have a lot to do with that. They also have a great deal to do with the fact that the advantages of the changes are not being properly articulated and the risks are being overblown. In our industry, that is called fear-uncertainty-doubt, or FUD, and, in this case, it is focusing the nation on the wrong things.

Voting Accuracy

The core argument surrounding e-voting is one of assuring voting accuracy. For instance, what if the system were hacked and the vote compromised? It is a good concern no different than what surrounds ATMs, and individual ATMs have been compromised. However, these compromises have been limited to a small number of machines and are generally caught by the bank long before it becomes material.

The process used to identify and catch bank fraud is one of audit, and effective electronic internal audit has existed for decades. With electronic audits, because the sample size can actually equal the entire population if need be, the chances of catching the fraud are actually much better, if the proper tools are used and the people are properly trained in their use. Both big and important "ifs."

This has been one of the problems with e-voting, the machines have gone in but the tools to ensure accuracy seem to be more consistent with the last century than this one. With e-voting, you could e-mail or mail back an automated report to every voter detailing how they actually voted. If a voter had a problem, he or she could lodge a complaint electronically.

If the complaint number crosses a certain threshold, then it would trigger an investigation and might invalidate the vote. Doing this in real time is possible but might introduce a way to void an otherwise accurate vote that was trending against a favored candidate or issue.

The problem could be a confusing screen as much as it is any actual fraud, as in one part of Florida, during the last presidential election, where the voters found the form confusing and made errors. Whether by intent or not, caught early enough, the screens could be dynamically updated, and at least the potential is there to save the voting process without incurring the massive cost of a revote.

You could also stop the process early, make the call that the screens need to be redone and make a more timely decision on how to reschedule the vote. Granted, this would be only in the case where testing was incredibly inadequate, but at least you would have a less expensive option than you have today.

Protecting the Voter

When you currently go in to vote, there are practices to separate you from the vote you make. These practices are what make auditing the vote nearly impossible. What I said above would only work if you and the vote were connected to each other. The problem with a paper trail is that the trail isn't connected back to the individual voters either, at least not without a lot of work to backtrack physically to the initial forms, and if that can be done, the privacy concerns exist anyway.

The foundation -- which is so last century -- for these practices is the feeling that if someone is voting under threat, once in the safety of the voting booth they will vote their conscious. Personally I think that, if that is our concern, we have much bigger problems. In today's Internet age, the chance that an activity like this would go unnoticed is much lower in the first place.

Even if it were true, there is a reasonable chance that should the criminal candidate lose, they would assume that key voters had not kept their word and retaliate against them anyway. The goal needs to be to better deal with the threat and protect the independence and integrity of the voter in a more comprehensive fashion, not just during the few moments they are in the voting booth. Personally, I think this is mostly a smoke screen to prevent change, but that may simply be my own paranoia speaking.

Cost of Anonymity

As I watch the Democratic Convention, I see thousands of people who clearly are not afraid to show the world how they intend to vote. When the Republican Convention starts, we'll see thousands more all at risk of not only being penalized for disagreeing with others who may have power over them, but of being killed by terrorists. That's guts and, in my mind, every one in both parties that considered this last risk and went to their convention anyway is a hero.

I think that U.S. citizens have the guts to stand up and be counted and that when you separate the people from their votes, you introduce distrust and the potential for fraud, because if you can't go back to the voters and assure their votes, you really have no sure way to know how they really voted. This is true regardless of the technology; the paper trail argument is incredibly flawed.

Years ago as part of executive training at IBM, we had a speaker come in and point out the problems associated with anonymous voting, which is commonly used inside companies to get employee opinions. The first was that surveys had shown that the employees didn't really believe their votes were anonymous, and the second was the practice actually fostered distrust.

Much like a person who says, "I am not a crook" is immediately thought by many to be one, evidently the claim by a company doing a survey that the employees' responses are anonymous implies that the employer can't be trusted. Why would we want to reinforce the belief that the U.S. government can't be trusted?

People need to feel free to express their political opinions, granted only where appropriate, but the use of anonymity implies that they cannot, and that implication is wrong. This suggests that by providing this anonymity, we are disengaging the voters and creating an unnecessary degree of distrust between politicians and their constituents.

We get a statement from the bank showing us what we deposited in an ATM, so why wouldn't we want a receipt from our government showing our votes were, in fact, counted? This is supposed to be the country of the people, by the people, and for the people; isn't it about time we assured the truth of that statement? What could possibly be more important?

Internet Voting Is Here

Strangely enough, politicians are using the Internet to ask their constituents about issues they are faced with. There is no great effort to preserve privacy, and they try hard to make you feel you are having a conversation with them. In some cases you probably are.

This engages people into the issues and undoubtedly has the potential to make the representative republic we live in more democratic. However, how do you know that when they do this that the results of the surveys provided back are really accurate? Could they not simply be used to convince you that you were in the minority even though you are not?

This is the power of information on the Web, and the voting process is moving to the Internet, ready or not. Voters can increasingly be influenced at the last minute by biased news groups, accurate and falsified surveys, and both real and phony Web sites.

Isn't it time we stepped back and focused on driving democracy into our own country, anticipated the problems and actually use the potential available to create more informed and engaged voters, and, for once, actually think though the problem before implementing a solution?

I, for one, am getting really tired of watching my hard earned money wasted because our government wants to act first and ask the critical questions later. Let's do it right this time, because if we can't make democracy work here, we can't make it work anywhere.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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