Ten Things To Know About Voting Technology

By Kim Alexander, President & Founder
of the California Voter Foundation

This essay appeared in the March 2001 issue of the California Journal and March 11 edition of the Sacramento Bee. It is a synopsis of the remarks Alexander delivered in January 2001 at a computerized voting debate organized by the Democracy Online Project at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Like many people, I was initially excited about the idea of using the Internet to cast and count votes. At the first meeting of California's Internet Voting Task Force in 1999, I was the one suggesting it was something California should pursue. I'm grateful that my fellow task force members rejected my suggestion. In the months that followed, my own opinion changed dramatically. The more I learned, the more I realized how risky Internet voting can be. Here's what I believe Californians should know:

1. Voting is unlike any other transaction. People ask: "I can shop on line, I can bank online, why can't I vote online?" The answer is that voting is not like those transactions. Credit card companies and banks tolerate a degree of fraud in all of their transactions. We could not similarly accept any degree of fraud in voting. It is not impossible to build an online voting system, but it poses unique challenges.

2. There are two kinds of Internet voting. Polling place Internet voting takes place at an election precinct or station in a secure, private booth. Remote Internet voting means from your computer at home or at work.

3. Remote Internet voting is highly susceptible to voter fraud. Voting on a computer that's not maintained by election officials puts that computer at great risk of a hacking attack. Remote Internet voting likely would give rise to a whole new wave of voter fraud attacks.

4. Remote Internet voting undermines the secret ballot. If we vote at work, our co-workers or supervisors might watch or, worse, coerce us into voting a certain way. Even if someone wasn't standing over your shoulder, the company computer could retain a copy of your ballot.

5. Remote Internet voting poses a threat to personal privacy. How would we authenticate the identity of voters? The most secure way is to use biometric scanning procedures, such as finger-printing or retinal scans. Many Americans find such security measures invasive. For every degree of convenience we gain through technology, there often is a corresponding loss of privacy.

6. A huge gap exists between politics and technology. Too few people have a working knowledge of both politics and technology. Many political experts who talk about Internet voting don't appreciate the technological risks of voting online, while technologically savvy people often fail to appreciate the complexities of our voting process. Closing the politics and technology gap will make for better public policy.

7. Voting technology spans a generational gap. Last year, a Public Policy Institute of California survey found that support for Internet voting is highest among 18- to 34-year-olds (59 percent) and lowest among those 55 and over (27 percent). New technology may provide an opportunity to engage alienated young people, but we must be careful we don't alienate older voters in the process.

8. More voter education is needed. There is a profound lack of reliable, nonpartisan voting information. Most information comes in the form of campaign mailers and 30-second spots designed to confuse, manipulate or scare voters. We can begin to address this problem by appropriating federal and state funds to nonpartisan voter education efforts.

9. "Transparency" in the voting process is essential. Whatever changes we make to our voting technology, we must not sacrifice the trust that is gained by having a transparent process where voters can see their ballots and know that they will be counted fairly. Requiring that new voting software code be open to public scrutiny also will foster security.

10. Voter confidence may require a mix of paper and computers. To foster voter confidence in new voting technology, it would be wise to consider using a mix of paper and computers, so that we could create a paper audit trail and thwart attempts to rig voting software.

I raise concerns about Internet voting not because I am pessimistic. On the contrary, I am very optimistic about the opportunities to advance and transform democracy using computers and the Internet. But because I cherish democracy, I view computerized voting as both one of the most exciting and potentially dangerous ideas of our time. Whatever we do to upgrade voting technology, we must ensure that all voters have an equal chance of having their votes counted.

Kim Alexander is president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization she started in 1994 to advance new technologies to improve democracy. An expanded version of her comments is also available on the CVF web site.

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This page was first published on March 13, 2001 | Last updated on March 13, 2001
copyright 1994 - 2001, California Voter Foundation. All rights reserved.