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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Elections Canada and the Very Bad Online Idea

I've written here before about the false idea that if we make voting "convenient" by enabling online voting, it will increase turnout.

If you want to increase turnout, have a campaign to increase turnout.
Have ballot boxes at workplaces, or make the entire day a holiday.
There are lots and lots of ways to increase turnout.

Supporting Internet voting is asking for catastrophe in many different ways:
* it turns the solemn act of voting, one of the few acts of citizenship, into something no different than adding an item to your Amazon.ca shopping cart
* it means that you're using inherently unsafe, unsecured machines to provide the infrastructure for the most critical process of our democracy
* it means that someone can stand with a gun to my head and force me to vote the way they want while they watch (which, incidentally, also applies to voting by mail)

If you seriously think online voting will engage "the youth", then why not just go all the way and let them vote on their cellphones and called it "Greatest Canadian Idol"? (The sad part is that their cellphones are almost all much more secure than their computers.)

Here's what prompts this latest concern:

Elections Canada hopes it has the answers.

The federal agency has adopted a five-year strategy to boost turnout, with a focus on youth engagement.

Key planks in the plan are to communicate more frequently with voters between elections, via education programs, and to make voting more accessible to all Canadians.

Elections Canada is hoping to adopt online voter registration in two years, a tool already available in some provinces like Alberta.

Perhaps more importantly, the agency hopes to test web voting within five years, beginning with a byelection.

"The general philosophy is to take the ballot box to the voter," says Mayrand, Canada's chief electoral officer.

If the Internet gamble proves successful and security concerns can be addressed, Elections Canada would ask Parliament to amend legislation to include e-voting for general elections.

"Youth are quite familiar with technology. They expect to be able to use it for most of their life activities," Mayrand adds.

Black Mark - Calgary Herald - September 6, 2008

The problem being, voting is not like "most of their life activities".
Voting is not banking, voting is not surfing the net, voting is not listening to music, voting is not texting a friend.

Banking is an example that is often used, or online taxes, but these are completely false examples. The bank knows exactly how much money you have, as does the government, and every transaction has an audit trail and can be reversed.

Voting must not have an audit trail, and cannot be reversed (if you are going to retain a system of private, secret ballots).

Voting, since it provides the transfer of power from the very many to the very few, is a very attractive attack point for malicious actors, and I mean "attack point" quite literally - people die for their vote already today, can you imagine how much more tempting for all of the negative forces in our society to take advantage of the vast computer networks that already exist for spam and attacks ("botnets") and use them to throw the election or to write a targetted virus to compromise the election?

That's not even to touch the issues of just running the election assuming everything actually goes right. The Do Not Call List site just went down because of high demand after it was launched. The Tax servers routinely get overloaded when millions of Canadians use the online systems near filing day. That's not a problem, because those transactions are repeatable.

What happens when the election servers go down from heavy demand on election day?
People resubmit their vote? We have the vote again another day?

A human-run, human-counted paper voting system has a very small number of failure modes, all of which anyone who understands the physical world can easily work out (people can steal the ballot boxes, etc.)

Computer-run, computer-counted voting systems have almost unlimited failure modes, which almost no one except computer and network security experts can fathom.

A paper voting system must work during the voting, and during the counting, and then it just disappears.

An electronic voting system requires servers that must be secured both physically and electronically 365 days of the year, every year, in case a vote is called.

The whole idea that you would get any benefits from online voting is patently ridiculous. The only way you can make it appear to work is to ignore all of the security issues, ignore all of the ongoing cost issues, treat it as if it were a banking or other repeatable and auditable transaction, as if voting is something that should somehow be made "efficient", and make a bunch of claims about turnout.

It is a Very Bad Idea.

Previously:
November 28, 2006 let's have a discussion
November 15, 2006 Geist on e-voting

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Comments:
Maybe you have heard this before (I am sure you have), but I don't understand, why electronic voting is more dangerous than paper one. If we have trustworthy system, I believe our elections will be protected. If not, no matter what is the way of voting, cheating will be possible. More, I believe electronic voting will make democracy more objective and it will enable us to make much more "own" decisions, instead of the government...
Just my opinion
Take care
Julie
 
What if we gave a 6/49 ticket to everybody who voted? They have lotteries every year where they have to give away extra money that people didn't bother collecting - you could take that money and use it to finance a lottery for people who vote.
 
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