Electronic voting

Monday, September 26, 2016
by Cameron Shelley

With election day approaching in the US, issues around the mechanics of the voting itself have returned to the limelight.  Voters in many states will use a variety of electronic machines—many connected to the Internet—to cast their ballots.  In this day when government and private information have been leaking (or leaked) like sieves, this fact gives rise to some trepidation.

Various bills before Congress would try to declare voting machines as critical infrastructure and task the Department of Homeland Security with figuring out how to make it secure.  This measure would bring voting security more into federal hands—it is currently a state-by-state matter—and take advantage of the expertise of federal agencies in securing national infrastructure.

It is unlikely that many states would be keen on this transfer of authority nor is the DHS in any position to do much about the issue, certainly not before this November.

Should the DHS or some other agency take a hand in the matter, it is not clear that many of issues with electronic voting can readily be fixed.  Consider the following:

  • Malware could be programmed to monitor or alter people's votes, and malware has proven quite difficult to get off people's computers so far.
  • Vendors of e-voting systems tend to exaggerate the level of security they can provide, using expressions such as "military grade encryption", and "unhackable".
  • E-voting systems effectively remove the right to a secret ballot, a right some current systems actually require users explicitly to waive.
  • E-voting is essentially unverifiable.  That is, voters cannot be sure their votes are recorded as intended, and recounts cannot be made against original ballots.

On the bright side, ballot selfies may be OK.  Ballot selfies are photos that voters take of their ballots before entering them.

Many jurisdictions have banned them, including Ontario.  The concern is that voters will use the photos to prove how they voted, thus leaving open the door to selling ballots or to voter coercion. 

However, US courts have tended to strike down such bans.  They hold that ballot selfies are a form of political speech (e.g., "I support so-and-so!" or "These guys all suck!") and so are protected under the Constitution.  Since states have little evidence that vote selling or coercion are serious problems, then there is not sufficient reason to ban this form of expression. 

Certainly, ballot selfies are not proof-positive of how someone has voted.  A ballot can be marked, photographed, and then altered, for example. So, a vote buyer runs a substantial risk of spending their money for no result.

Besides, ballot selfies may help to encourage voter turnout, something states should be trying to boost.

So, while voting on your phone may not be a great idea, sharing your vote with your phone via Snapchat may be something fun you can do after standing in line for the old-school ballot booth.