Tuesday, November 4, 2008

More on E-Voting: The Human Element

It's too early to say whether the polling place issues that have emerged in the first hours of voting today will add up to serious problems in the final election counts. Among these preliminary reports you'll see that several voters in Shaker Heights, Ohio, received paper ballots that left off the presidential race. And a precinct in Raleigh, N.C., did not open on time this morning because its chief judge's grandson drove off with the ballots in his pickup truck.

Mistakes will happen. But it's hard to read these and other accounts and not be amazed that people still think paper is the key to secure, fair and accurate elections. Electronic voting certainly has its problems too, but is paper the answer?

I ask because my recent CQ column on the obstacles to Internet voting in the United States (reposted here last week) generated some interesting comments, mostly about online security.

One writer, a former colleague of mine, asked about the online voting system in Estonia that I wrote about in the column. "How would the Estonian e-voting have gone down if had happened during the Russian cyber attack in May of '07?" he said, citing a Guardian article on the incident. "Assuming we kept something along the lines of single voting day and didn't open it up to a voting month... couldn't a denial of service attack plus a strict reading of/adherence to voting laws ('deadlines are deadlines') lead to as much or more trouble than single voter ID fraud?"

My answer to this and other comments was that online voting has many potential vulnerabilities, a denial of service attack or some kind of other cyber assault among them. But our current offline systems for managing elections also are vulnerable to all manner of disruption too. The 9/11 terrorist attacks happened to be on primary day for New York City's 2001 municipal elections; voting was postponed, needless to say. That is not an argument for or against Internet voting. But the tendency to see vulnerabilities in electronic voting systems (whether online or systems at the physical polling place) as significantly different from non-electronic systems (missing paper ballots or manual manipulation of registration rolls) is interesting, if not mysterious.

Any process involving humans is vulnerable, and I am not convinced that current offline election practices are especially efficient, reliable or secure. My wife and I waited 70 minutes to cast absentee ballots in Fairfax County, Virginia, one night last week. The main hold up: Election workers had to read each paper absentee voter application and call someone on the phone to verify details. Much of the time we were there, the six available voting machines were idle while the harried poll workers managed the line and the phones. Not so efficient.

On the other hand, the very next afternoon the state board of elections Web site let me use my name and the last four digits of my Social Security number to verify that I had indeed applied for an absentee ballot and cast my vote in-person the previous evening. While that online confirmation message gave me great confidence that my vote had in fact been counted, others just as easily might have found it creepy. In a society in which people are perfectly comfortable swiping credit cards at kiosks to get boarding passes at airports or conduct other private-sector transactions, many Americans still seem to distrust government use of technology for equally routine purposes.

That kind of anxiety may reflect more how Americans feel about government than they do about technology. It's an emotional reaction, understandable in a country built by people who largely fled other forms of government. And that innate anxiety and distrust will continue to drive our future decisions about voting systems and processes -- perhaps far more than technological considerations alone would merit.

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