Monday, November 10, 2008

citizen engagement and e-voting

Before you work on the solution, you must first decide upon the problem, about what is important to you.

For many people concerned about democracy and about electronic voting, the problems we consider are:

* preserving the secret ballot
* retaining the right to an uncoerced vote
* the integrity and accuracy of the vote count (all votes gathered and correctly counted)
* the simplicity of the system (can voters understand how the entire voting system works?)

I call the above "The Democracy Requirements".

You will very rarely hear advocates of electronic and particularly Internet voting talking about any of the above concerns. What they talk about is:

* efficiency
* modernity
* convenience and customer service
* voter turnout (# of votes cast, % of eligible voters who cast votes)

You will notice this is a completely different set of problems.

I call the above "The Voter Engagement Requirements".

So in a sense, we're talking at cross-purposes.
The computer security experts say "electronic voting can never be secure, and you can never know that your vote was counted properly" and they say "we think security is a non-issue because (other technology with unrelated requirements) is 'secure', and e-voting is modern and convenient and young people will use it".

The Democracy Argument Against Electronic Voting (and some paper voting too)

It should be mentioned, the first set of issues applies to many, many other voting options. As soon as you compromise chain-of-custody and the private-in-public vote, you risk all except simplicity.

For example: mail-in voting.
1. If I can identify the sender (by watching the mail they send, by identifying their handwriting, by some unique identifier on their ballot), then no more secret ballot.
2. There is a huge chain-of-custody issue - anyone in the mail stream can intercept and destroy, replace or alter your ballot
3. Your enemies can stand beside you and force you to vote the way they want

These are not abstract issues and rights. People are injured and even die every year in countries where voting is taking your life into your own hands.

Even just advance voting introduces chain-of-custody issues.
(Battlestar Galactica showed a simple fictional scenario for compromising a paper-based election, by having collusion in the chain-of-custody so that an original ballot box was changed with one stuffed with votes for a particular candidate.)

So let me make it very clear: voting on one day privately, in public, on paper, with a hand-count of ballot boxes that never leave the polling station, with scrutineers from all parties watching the count - this is the most elegant solution I can think of to the key issues of secrecy, non-coercion, integrity, accuracy and simplicity.

A machine-mediated vote, or a machine-mediated count CANNOT do this, because you CANNOT (as in, technologically impossible) know what program the computer is actually running. You cannot meet these requirements with an electronic system. I know this is a world where there are few absolutes, but trust me, any computer security expert can tell you this.

The Voter Engagement Argument for Some (non-voting) Use of Electronic Systems

Ok, assuming you want to engage your citizens in some meaningful way, and not in some Canadian Idol illusion-of-convenience superficial way, then I thought it came out quite clearly in the TVO discussion that you need:

* leadership
* engaging issues
* a real connection with voters, particularly young voters

Do you see any mention of technology in the above three items?
There is no website that is going to make you a leader, there is no social network that is going to make your issues engaging, there is no blog posting that can substitute for actually listening to your constituents. IF you already have addressed those issues, then you can reach your voters using...

* radio
* television
* and maybe you've heard of this Internet thing?

Technology is not a solution. Technology is one channel to communicate your message. You have to have an interesting message, first.

If you want more people to vote, give them something they care about to vote for, convince them that their vote matters, and connect with them before and AFTER the election, to demonstrate that you value them for their opinions, not for their increment to your vote count.

If you do that, they will wait in lines for hours. Voting technology doesn't matter. It doesn't solve a problem that Canada has.

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