A 2017 headline from e-Estonia, reads, “Online voting has become a norm in Estonia—and it is now more secure than ever.”
Wired magazine called Estonia, the Baltic nation of about 1.4 million people, “the world’s most advanced digital society.” Today, 99% of state services are online and 46.7% of voters vote via the internet. It’s an increasingly popular option.
Meanwhile, in the United States, in the midst of what is arguably the most important U.S. election in modern history, our discussion about voting technology is from the buggy-whip era. We’re focused on how to assure that the U.S. Postal Service can safely and securely deliver ballots in a timely way. In the 21st century, voting by snail mail is so old fashioned we might as well be talking about how to buy more horses for the Pony Express.
How is it possible we are not e-voting when so much of what we do is already online? We freely give shopping sites our credit card information to make purchases online. We keep our medical records online. We file our tax returns online. We trust our precious money to be handled online including banking and equity trades. Why don’t we vote online?
Voting is a fundamental process in a democracy and the right to vote one of our most important individual freedoms. Yet, a persistent issue in the United States for decades has been low voter turnout. According to the Pew Research, just 56% of eligible U.S. voters cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. The U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout by a lot. Yet e-voting is proven to increase voter turnout.
Clearly, e-voting is not possible for the 2020 election. But it can happen by 2024. The technologies and safeguards that can solve most of the biggest concerns about online voting are available today. They just haven’t been applied to online voting.
Take the concern of voter fraud. We have technology for iris scanning, fingerprint detection, facial recognition, and other identity verification techniques that are used routinely in billions of transactions each day. We do not think twice about answering simple security questions or responding to visual quizzes to prove that we are who we say we are and not robots.
Then there is the need for privacy. Voter anonymity must be protected. If someone were to register to vote electronically, it is possible to, and the local election authority could be required to, create individual encrypted, personal identifying information for that election alone. The information could be disposed of after the election.
Estonia figured this out years ago. Time magazine reported that in its 2015 election, 176,491 citizens cast their votes online. A centralized digital identity system with citizen ID numbers prevented fraud and IDs and identifying factors were removed as votes were logged to ensure anonymity. In addition, voters were able to change their minds as many times as they liked before polls closed. Only their last decision was counted.
Of course, it’s imperative that a U.S. online voting system could not be hacked by Russia, China, Iran or any other predator, foreign or domestic. The security required for e-voting is a serious concern and it must be addressed. Here, too, awareness of possible threats is increasing daily and counter-measures being deployed in e-enabled systems such as the IRS e-filing system. The IRS system uses encryption technology to protect tax returns and continually works to increase protections.
Importantly, Americans do not worry about transferring income information via e-filing. As of December 2019, the IRS had received 158.8 million returns for the 2018 tax year and of those, 138.2 million were filed electronically. The IRS deals with problems as they arise, as were hacks of the IRS by China and Russia in 2015 and 2016.
An argument against e-voting can be made that in the United States, we have digital haves and have nots and the have nots would not be able to vote online. This is undeniable. But, according to Pew Research, 9 out of 10 Americans use the internet, including more than 97% of those between the ages of 18 and 49. Even Americans who don’t have a computer are online: 81% have a smartphone, including 71% of Americans who make less than $30,000 per year.
Further, adding e-voting as an option doesn’t mean we eliminate the options of voting in person or by mail. Even if voters were to take Donald Trump’s suggestion and try to illegally vote more than once, the technology exists to cross-reference in-person ballots, mail ballots, and online votes to prevent duplication.
Beyond the world’s beta-test case of Estonia, in the United States right now, e-voting has begun. Residents with disabilities could vote online in Delaware’s primaries and New Jersey’s nonpartisan municipal elections in 2020. West Virginia offered internet voting for this year’s primaries for overseas residents, military service members, and voters with disabilities. Separately, alumni associations, trustee ballots, and public companies routinely hold shareholder votes electronically.
Of course, there is the question of scale. Estonia is a tiny nation and the U.S. cases cited here involve relatively small numbers of people. Further complicating matters in the United States, we have 50 states, and the District of Columbia and five territories with partial voting rights, each with their own election rules. So, a remaining question is: Can e-voting be implemented for elections at state and local levels and scaled up for national elections?
The answer is yes.
As previously noted, we are already able to scale up technology nationwide to transfer highly sensitive, private information with IRS tax filings every year. Scaling e-voting is not dissimilar in that elections are run locally even when we are voting for statewide and national offices. So, e-voting systems would need to work flawlessly at local levels and seamlessly integrate to reconcile data and report results at state and national levels.
The most effective way to meet these requirements is with cloud computing, which is both elastic and infinitely scalable. Plus, cloud providers must meeting SOC 2, the most stringent standard for storing data.
Given that the federal government and most states have already adopted the cloud as part of their IT infrastructures, and have existing relationships with cloud vendors, creating an integrated e-voting system should be possible
Bottom line, with technology that can scale up and secure the tax U.S. system, and additional efforts at the federal and state levels to deploy in the cloud, we should be able to implement e-voting.
We should start now to apply existing technologies to elections and continue to pursue new ones so Americans have more choices for voting in 2024… and more Americans can vote.
About the authors: Nicholas Allard is former President and Dean of Brooklyn Law School. He is also senior counsel with Dentons. He is a leading educator and lawyer with national and international prominence in higher education, public policy, government relations, technology and innovation.
John Gentry is Chief Technical Officer of Virtana, the leading hybrid cloud optimization platform for digital transformation. He is the only CTO of a tech company who majored in economics and sociology. He has dedicated his professional life leveraging technology to deliver economic value while making people’s lives better.
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