we can make online voting safe and secure. but why should we?
Just before the midterm elections, writer and computer scientist Ryan North wrote a truly odd article which criticized the idea of online voting by painstakingly covering the basics of how software works, introducing the idea of a computer virus, and concluding that because one could write a virus to undermine voting, computers can’t be trusted to handle the task. Yes, someone was wrong on the internet, which means that Weird Things must spring into action. Try as North might to explain himself to the critics, his argument against involving technology in the electoral process is nothing more than an extended Nirvana fallacy, or the idea that unless you have a solution that works flawlessly 100% of the time, the whole notion is doomed.
Now, before we get into the weeds, let’s ask the simple question of why one would want to vote online. Well, for one, far more people are likely to get involved if voting becomes as simple as ordering a pizza. Taking time off work to stand at the polls in states where you can’t vote by mail or cast an early vote will be a thing of the past, fixing one of the numerous deliberate roadblocks to voting certain politicians would otherwise love to keep in place. Likewise, while we always need a paper trail in case of audits and recounts, something North admits he ignored to make his gloom and doom scenarios sound plausible, paper ballots can be misplaced or need extra time to process.
But what if you can’t access the internet? You can vote at libraries or go to the polls to stand in the now much shorter lines served by just a handful of machines so stunts to suppress votes by refusing to make enough voting machines available and closing polling places, something we saw in Georgia this month, will be equally futile. On top of this, votes for entire counties could be tallied extremely quickly and made public the minute after the polls officially close, negating the need for election night political cable news theater and quickly flagging problems with vote tallies. In short, there’s a host of advantages to allowing voters to cast digital ballots. And yes, you could use a blockchain to make sure each vote is cast and counted only once.
While blockchains are often rightfully bashed as a fad, they can be very useful for certain tasks and it’s a real shame that frivolously advertising them as a panacea for every problem that ails society turned them into a punchile. In essence, blockchains are decentralized records of non-reversible, unique data transactions. Elections in America are done at a county level, which means that every county would have its own blockchain in which every ballot can be a block, cast exactly once. The county blockchains can then talk to each other to figure out state level votes, and state level blockchains can give the results for presidential choices in what amounts to a digitization of the current process more or less as is.
That said, we shouldn’t rush to make online voting a reality for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with viruses. We could easily have county-level servers that verify what software tracks votes and audit it often to make sure it’s done correctly. But what we couldn’t control are massive Distributed Denial of Service, or DDoS attacks against such servers. Leveraging the traffic to and poor security of internet connected devices on top of other painful tricks, hackers can summon tsunamis of garbage traffic, overwhelming online voting infrastructure. We would also need to create a new infrastructure which sends special, one time use codes to voters to ensure they’re the ones who are casting votes, otherwise we open ourselves to easy to commit mass fraud.
And when it comes time to audit election results for recounts, we would need the paper copies of ballots cast, meaning that voters would need to mail in a copy of their voting receipt, which is basically what they already what they do when they vote by mail. It’s also a lot harder to meddle with hundreds of thousands of mailboxes and millions of postal employees than a few thousand servers, making many of the steps needed to secure a digital vote obsolete while allowing for even more voter convenience. Sending the right ballot to every citizen 18 or older a few months before the election, then collecting and counting the votes at a county level as they come in also seems pretty simple. In short, online voting isn’t a bad idea due to hackers and viruses to which North grants omnipotence and invisibility in his essay, it’s a bad idea because it’s a solution in search of a problem.
Voting in the United States can be troublesome not because it has to be, but because it’s often designed to be for the benefit of certain politicians who want to be free of the popular will to do things that are much more lucrative. It’s further diluted through gerrymandering, the Electoral College, and what are not officially known but should be, absolutely legal “dick moves” to make it as hard as possible for certain demographics to vote. Online voting would solve very few of these problems or accomplish anything vote by mail doesn’t already. Independent committees drawing districts, Electoral College reform, and hard legal action against voter suppression, on the other hand, could accomplish far more than a technical gimmick.