Amid calls to install online voting from the technologically illiterate who are appear to be unaware of the risks, there is clear disagreement from those who do know the risks. Politicians should listen to them.
The current debate centers around the continuing failure of postal voting. This years turnout in the local body elections looks appalling and is likely to only get worse. I seldom bother digging out the snail mail these days because everything important comes through my email or is paid directly. I really only get junk mail, mostly from politicians, through the restricted mailbox in the foyer of my apartment building – and the local body elections.
It is the same in the other direction. When I was sending a response to a summons for jury service the other day, the envelope rode in my pocket for 2 weeks because I couldn’t find a postbox when I was biking to and from work. It looks like they have almost all been taken down since the last time I had to respond via mail.
But the solution to falling voting isn’t going to be online voting. It is going to be to revert back to the safety of paper and polling booths rather than trying and failing to set up safe and secure online voting.
I’ve been a computer programmer for a long time. I started writing code on university networks back in 1979. I’ve been wired in one way or another ever since. I’ve written a lot of networked systems to join people in cooperative system. Most, like this one, have been pretty successful at the task they were designed to do.
I’ve also had a hobby of being involved in politics. A lot of time that has been helping to create or run canvassing and election day systems. Frequently stretching the available technology to get everything to work. Those who know me well usually say that my two main interests are programming and politics. It is a vast simplification – but a great and justifiable tagline.
Over the years my viewpoint about the possibility of online voting has waxed and waned with the technological innovations. But as each innovation has revealed its underlying flaws, the more and more that you realise the basic problem with applying them to voting.
It is damn hard to create any computerised system that doesn’t have single points of failure or failure that are lethal when you have something as important as voting.
Having humans in a decentralised system to point out the flaws and any corruption is what makes democratic voting work. It is simple, transparent, cost efficient and highly effective. Going to the local polling booth down the street on a particular weekend day at a booth fulfills all of the needs of a busy society.
It eliminates almost all of the possible failure points in a system apart from politicians finding reasons for voters to vote. With pre-voting at a booth it makes it a system that appears to be sustaining its turnout. Adding a “None of the above” no confidence vote would probably add the incentive to get more people out to vote.
As a system, it doesn’t require massive amounts of pre-election day testing because humans are pretty good at being adaptive and fixing any of the little glitches that inevitably arise. There are also no single points of failure because there are always multiple eyes on all parts of the system. Even where there are problems, they are mostly isolated to small portions of the voters. And physical voting is incredibly hard to hack or subvert directly.
Just think of the safeguards that people already inherently add to most online systems. The frequent analogy by people of the banking system that is used in support of online voting is a classic case of false projection. They ignore the feedback loop provided by the customers in the system.
What makes online banking work is that banking customers have an vested interest and a rapid response to money disappearing from their accounts. Any corruption or flaws in the system are usually detected and subsequently blocked very fast.
What I can’t see in any online voting schemes that has a way to provide that kind of feedback loop – at least not without making it easy for hackers or leakers to steal and use voting records.
Online voting is one of those ideas that seems good superficially – that doesn’t appear to be cost effective or be particularly worth pursuing.
Personally, my basic response to implementing any such system would be to see how many inherent flaws and exploits in any such system so that I could find and publish them widely. I’d consider that to be my public duty. Now that would be fun…