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.


  1. I have to agree with you on the security issue. I think that online voting would be much more efficient than the current paper voting system; however, as you said, the main problem with online voting is the security issue. If somehow in the future, online voting could be monitored correctly it would be interesting to see how the government would change because, even with an online voting system, the traditional two-party mode of thought might be hard to change.

  2. Daniel, it's really great that you could enter into a discussion with the people who are experts in the area. I agree with many of your points. I look forward to seeing further dialog.

  3. Hi Daniel!

    I just came across your review of my two draft chapters. I wish I had known about this earlier. I’ll get back to you with a more detailed reply later.

    You did a fine job of summarizing what I wrote, and questioning my premises.

    Just one point for your readers, those, and other draft chapters can be read or downloaded for free at:
    William J. Kelleher, Ph.D

    All feedback is welcome!