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Austrian Ballot

Some computer scientists who are opposed to Internet voting say the key to safe and secure elections is paper. Without paper, they say, you cannot have a verifiable election. I say, with paper, we have no guarantee of a perfect election and, with more paper, we open up new opportunities for fraud. Paper ballots present many problems. Printing them requires taking down tens of thousands of trees and costs tens of millions of dollars. Ballots are not recycled. In Austria, the Presidential election had to be postponed because the glue did not properly seal ballot envelopes. I suspect many voters found it hard to believe, in the 21st century, we are dependent on glue. Dependency on paper can cause other problems. For example, in the Florida 2016 primaries, some polling places ran out of ballots. In one case a truck driver got lost while delivering the paper ballots to a polling place. Voters who were standing in line were told to come back later. Paper companies and printers love paper ballots. The printers sell them for up to 30 cents each. Paper ballots are yet another case of protecting the status quo.

One argument for paper ballots is to keep a record of a vote and be able to verify it. Billions of of other kinds of records are stored securely online. I placed my first order on Amazon on November 12, 1996. It was for The Impressionist and the City: Pissarro’s Series Paintings. The order remains retrievable in seconds at amazon.com. If I click on the item, I can verify the purchase, purchase it again, or print a PDF of the invoice. My most recent vote was in August 2016 in the Florida primary. I used the Florida Vote-by-Mail process. I placed my ballot in a secrecy sleeve and placed the sleeve in an envelope and put the envelope in a second envelope on which I put my signature and address. Hopefully, the glue will hold. The envelope has a barcode which is scanned when received. After verifying my signature and that I am a registered voter, my ballot goes to a canvassing board which enters a record in their database confirming I had voted. The votes are counted by a tabulating scanner. The process works, but it is costly, and involves trusting the people who handle the ballots and the software in the tabulating machine. The process is open to the public to witness.

Most of America’s voting machines and scanners are 10-15 years old. The technology is old and the software the machines use is outdated. Some states are encouraging Vote-by-Mail to reduce the pressure on the failing machines at polling places. Vote-by-Mail is convenient for voters. They fill out the ballot and put it in the mail. Most do not check to see if the ballot ever arrived and got counted. Someone wishing to influence an outcome could theoretically bribe postal workers to keep an eye out for ballot envelopes from a certain voting jurisdiction known to vote for a particular party. The postal worker could then easily deposit such envelopes in a trash dumpster so they would never be counted.

The Vote-by-Mail process can be replicated with Internet voting. It has been done in Estonia for ten years with no security problems. A company called Helios has developed an online voting process which allows for end to end verifiability without a paper receipt. Internet voting is not ready for prime time yet, but it can be done and it can be done with security, privacy, and audibility. Three states, Arizona, Utah, and West Virginia, have had successful trials. Voter satisfaction was high. People overseas at election time were able to vote online. The constitution gives the states the responsibility to manage their elections as they see fit. They will need to do more research and more pilots.

The technology for future elections is being developed.  The TrustTheVote Project (“OSET”) Foundation, a nine-year-old non-profit 501.c.3 election technology research institute, is working to build a modern election technology framework which election officials can adapt and deploy. The framework does not include Internet voting, but at some point it could. A number of vendors are also working on new voting technology including Everyone Counts, Inc., Helios Voting System, Smartmatic, Scytl, Follow My Vote, and Blockchain Technologies Corporation. There will never be a single national voting system, but hopefully OSET and the technology vendors will work together and develop standards which the states can use as the base for updating and modernizing their voting systems.

My friend and colleague, Harris Miller, has much more political insight than I, and he has written an interesting article, “Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Glue”, which adds an interesting perspective on paper ballots. Click here to reed it.

Note: Election Attitude included commentary about OSET which contained a few errors. These have been corrected. The affected parts of the book can be found here.