Sunday, November 29, 2009

Online Voting: Deliberation

This will unfortunately be my last "official" weekly post for the autumn quarter. I may continue updating my blog, but it won’t be occurring as a weekly routine. In this post, I will focus on the implications of online voting for deliberation in voting. Though voting in general incorporates collaboration by using votes (outputs) in order to decide on a particular candidate, voting also incorporates key elements of deliberation as well. In attempting to incorporate these deliberative elements in online voting systems, we must consider the possibility of backfire and the steps we can take to prevent it.

In his article “Why Internet Voting”(2001), Loyola Law School Professor John T. Nockleby argues that Internet voting may at best promote formal political equality (as opposed to substantive social or economic equality) by increasing voter accessibility and participation. This formal political equality in the election process seems to directly mirror one of Beth Simone Noveck’s foundational criterion for a deliberative process: “procedural uniformity and the equality of inputs” (Wiki Government, 39).

Nevertheless, deliberation also “debates problems on an abstract level before implementation”(Wiki Government, 39). However, Internet Voting, according to Nockleby, privatizes connections between people: voters are at home, sitting in front their computers as opposed to standing in line at the polls. Is there some intrinsic, deliberative value in standing in line at the polls as opposed to sitting alone, staring at a computer monitor? I’m not entirely sure if there is an extremely obvious negative implication here. Voters can still engage in deliberation on the Internet: forums and online polls allow voters to discuss election issues prior to actually casting their ballots.

I think the greater problem, however, may lie in the backfiring of increasing voter accessibility through easy-to-use online voting technology. If an online voting system drastically speeds up and simplifies the voting process, voters may act impulsively rather than debate and refine their views prior to voting. However, there really is no set brink for how much additional efficiency or implication will result in these impulsive decisions, let alone the proof of a causal relation between these factors and impulsiveness. But even if we do assume that efficiency and simplification need to be constrained in order to prevent citizens from voting impulsively, what steps are sufficient? Are a set of identification forms prior to accessing the online ballot enough? Should voters be required to spend a set amount of time in a chat room/online forum with other voters before finally casting their ballots (what I’d call an online caucus)?

I think what’s missing in the discussion of online voting is that criticisms of online voting often lack alternative ways or approaches to tackle the very problems they criticize. Creating such approaches are important, precisely because if online voting does become prevalent in elections, sheer criticism will not aid in solving its weaknesses.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Promotional Discourse: A Facade for Security Concerns

This past May, the citizens of Honolulu participated in an all-digital online and telephone local election using the E1C online voting system. In his Huffington Post article “America’s Newest State Holds America’s Newest Election, Aaron Contorer, Chief of Products and Partnerships at Everyone Counts, Inc. (the city of Honolulu used this company’s E1C voting system in its election) argues that online voting promotes democratic values, increases voter convenience, and "is the best method ever invented for securely delivering information and decisions." While I will concede that online voting is a convenient voting method (especially since voters don’t have to go to polls), Contorer’s positive illustration of security in online voting should not be accepted at face value.

The hyperbole that online voting is the “best method ever invented for securely delivering information” is not a sufficient justification for its widespread use. Although Contorer points out that online voting in Hawaii ensured that “all of [its citizens’] votes are being secured using military-grade encryption technology,” such a phrase is mere selling point for the E1C voting system. It does not sufficiently address the scope and magnitude of security issues associated with online voting. According to Barbara Simons, a member of the Board of Advisors of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, “encryption is only a secondary part of any electronic security. It does nothing at all to protect against insider attacks, denial of service attacks, various forms of spoofing, viruses, or many kinds of ordinary software bugs.” Although there are a host of technical security issues involved, I do not want to focus on them. Instead, I want to focus my criticism on the use of promotional discourse in policymaking. Brief promotional descriptions such as “military-grade encryption technology” do not discuss what the security problems are and how effective encryption technology is at solving them. Consequently, such promotional descriptions distract attention from constructive discussion about reasonable security concerns.

Next, Contorer argues that “we have been banking online and shopping online for over a decade” and that we should be able to rely on the security of online voting as a result. However, this claim misunderstands that reason that online banking/shopping are secure is because such mediums have systems in place that allow police, bank officials, etc. to potentially detect fraudulent activities through transaction between people. By contrast, Simons argues that online voting cannot legally allow state officials to determine how people vote because doing so would be a violation of voter privacy. As a result, online voting presents a double-bind between the values of security and democratic procedure. Either a) we can verify if fraudulent activities have occurred in elections by tying the votes to their individual voters and thereby violating the voters’ right to a private ballot on a mass scale or b) we can protect voter anonymity, but jeopardize security.

Contorer, Aaron. “America’s Newest State Holds America’s Newest Election.” The Huffington Post. 14 May 2009. Accessed 15 November 09.

Simons, Barbara. Justin Moore. “The Internet and Voting: Worth Doing Right.” Verified The Huffington Post. 2 June 2009. Accessed 15 November 09.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Reforming, Transforming, and Reconsidering: An Evaluation of Dr. William J. Kelleher's Model for a Direct Election System Based on Online Voting

Dr. William J. Kelleher, a social science researcher on Internet Voting, kindly shared his own blog and articles about online voting with me, so I thought I would take the liberty of using this post to evaluate his article “How to Organize the Direct Election of US Presidents in a Way which Will Restore Reason and Eliminate Costs to the Candidates, Based on Internet Voting.”

As a brief summary, the article advocates for the deconstruction of the two-party system into a more direct electoral procedure in which anyone eligible to run for office can do so at an equal footing via public funding. The procedure advocates for a series of debates between candidates in various states, regional areas, and a final presidential debate. In order to adjudicate which candidates move up in the debate hierarchy, voters use Internet Voting in order to preferentially rank candidates’ performance in debates on a 0-9 scale (voting will be open for 24 hours following the final debate in each series).

While I will concede that online voting systems can be more efficient than current paper ballot counting, the potential benefits and disadvantages of these systems for democratic procedure are highly dependent on the election structure that they are being used to support. Online voting is one tool for a larger project; if the end project itself has inherent shortfalls, can the tool be used to fix them?

The integration of online voting with the proposition for structuring elections around a series of candidate debates is an interesting attempt at responding to this question. From one perspective, Dr. Kelleher argues that candidate debates seem to grant those interested in running for president a comparatively more competitive opportunity to participate than the status quo does. However, are debates a sufficient for allowing the public to make informed decisions about the candidates they choose? Answering this question is crucial to the integration of online voting with this election structure because in all likelihood, a voter would value their justifications for voting for a candidate prior to the system they use to vote for that candidate. While Dr. Kelleher’s article criticizes the media for its “name conditioning”(14) of candidates, unrestricted media can also play a role as a watchdog on certain substantive and credential issues regarding candidates that debates cannot convey (e.g. the candidate’s level of education, occupations, political experience, actions, etc.). Lastly, even if the debate-centered election structure does prove to promote more direct democratic procedure, how feasible is it? Even if Dr. Kelleher’s model as a prescriptive one, it needs to take into account pragmatic considerations in order to have meaningful real-world applications.

The ranking system in Dr. Kelleher’s proposal brings up some important considerations inherent to the online voting medium. Are the ranking systems entirely objective? There are a host of issues that the ranking system may take into account: How sound were the candidates’ arguments? How charismatic were they? How intelligent did they sound? All of these factors carry different weight for voters and a 0-9 ranking system seems to arbitrarily amalgamate these various questions into one numerical system. Moreover, the numbers can carry different meanings. For instance, a nine for one voter could be a synonym for the “perfect” candidate while a nine for another voter could indicate that a particular candidate is comparatively the best one. Because these numerical rankings control the magnitude of a voters preference for a particular candidate, the rankings systems may indeed contain numerous inconsistencies.

Though Dr. Kelleher has previously referred to security problems associated with online voting as “The Great Security Scare,” I would argue that potential security concerns are reasonable in that voters have a right to know if their votes count. Dr. Kelleher says, “One secure method of registration would be to have each voter appear once for biometric registration. Thereafter, all changes of address or other communication with state elections officials can be conducted online.” If biometrics is a field used for recognizing humans, what are the specific forms of biometric registration that can adequately secure the online voting system? Moreover, if individual state officials are the ones controlling election commissioning, how feasible is it to establish consistent security measures for all fifty states? One such security concern is voter verification. Although Dr. Kelleher argues that “the voter can use the vote number to verify that his or her vote has been counted,” how does the system account for malicious programs that may tell the users that their votes have been counted when, in fact, they have not?

In order to ensure that people are actually selected their leaders through democratic procedure, it is imperative to ensure that people’s votes count. I therefore am not considering security issues out of mere fear or paranoia; security is inextricably-linked with democratic procedure. If a project has room for security lapses or inconsistencies in design, it is pivotal to evaluate the problems inherent to the project before using tools to build the project.

Works Cited:

Kelleher, William J. “How to Organize the Direct Election of US Presidents in a Way which Will Restore Reason and Eliminate Costs to the Candidates, Based on Internet Voting.” The Empathic Science Institute. 4 August 2009. Accessed 9 November 2009.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Regina, Canada: Is Online Voting the Solution to Poor Voter Turnout?

This past Wednesday, only twenty-five percent of registered voters in the city of Regina, Canada cast ballots for the local election. In an effort to increase voter turnout for future elections, government officials in Regina are considering implementing an online voting system. Though these officials have begun painting a pretty picture of the implications of such a system on election accessibility, they have hastily overlooked the potential for adverse effects as well as the possibility that it may not be the appropriate remedy for substantive problems inherent to Regina’s elections.

In my previous posts, I highlighted a host of security concerns associated with online voting. Though questions of security are always relevant to the implementation of online voting systems, let’s make the hypothetical assumption that Regina can use systems perfectly secure from malacious hackers, viruses, and other possible ways to tamper with the systems. Viewing Regina’s consideration of using online voting under this assumption will allow for a more specific, critical evaluation of the specific implications of online voting for voter accessibility and democratic procedure.

Regarding voter accessibility, CBC News claims that Regina began its consideration of implementing an online voting system the Friday after the election. If this is true, why did city officials immediately turn to online voting as a potential solution for low voter turnout? Pinning elected officials on this question is a crucial one; absent any proof from elected officials on how exactly online voting would increase accessibility in elections, constituents of Regina would be blindly allowing their leaders to transform electoral procedures without any guarantee of solvency for low voter turnout. Even if elected officials do somehow provide a clear and accurate proof of how an online voting system will increase accessibility in future elections, will it do so fairly? Requiring elected officials to answer this question is imperative because otherwise, they can use online voting as tool for targeting specific demographics that are more likely to keep them in power.

Though Joni Swidnicki, the Regina city clerk, states that the city should continue its consideration of online voting “so that folks might have the opportunity to vote anytime, anywhere,” such a political hyperbole paints an exaggerated, idealistic picture of the reach of online voting. Poor constituents who cannot afford computers cannot “have the opportunity to vote anytime, anywhere,” and neither can older voters who do not have as much knowledge of computer use as younger ones. Because an online voting system has the potential to unequally increase accessibility across demographic lines (e.g. poor and middle-class/rich, old and young, etc.), elected officials may be dangerously tempted to analyze which particular demographics will have greater access to online voting, determine if those demographics tend to support them, and then position themselves on the online voting discussion based on whether or not their supporters will gain access to online voting. Without considering these corruption concerns, an online voting system may not be the appropriate solution for low voter turnout.

One particular consideration that Regina’s officials should make is whether online voting targets the root cause of low voter turnout. Without attacking the root cause of a problem, a proposed treatment cannot effectively solve the problem. For the city of Regina, election accessibility doesn’t seem to play the most significant role in causing low voter turnout. According to CBC, “three years ago, the turnout in Regina was 36 percent,” eleven percent higher than this year’s twenty-five percent. Because no significant structural changes in voting procedures have occurred in the past three years that have blocked accessibility, politicians cannot reasonably attribute the drop in voter turnout to accessibility. Proposing an alternative causal mechanism for low voter turnout, Don Ravis, a spokesman for Lead Saskatoon Futures Inc., notes in his interview with CBC News that “Fringe candidates don’t help the process…we had examples of many making a mockery of the system.”As a result, “Ravis laid some of the blame for the poor turnout on the quality of people standing for election.” Though it’s worth noting that the views of a single spokesman cannot be reasonably extrapolated to claim that all registered voters felt that most of the candidates in Regina’s election were not particularly great, there’s a possibility that registered voters may have intentionally opted out of partaking in this election due to the lack of strong candidates. If this is true, then online voting is an ineffective solution; it only alters the way in which constituents vote for those ineffective candidates. Without considering the root causes of election problems, politicians cannot make an educated justification for why online voting is essential.

"Regina Considers Online Voting." CBC News. 30 October, 2009. Accessed: 1 November, 2009.