Lee Hachadoorian on Dec 3rd 2011
Estonia is apparently a leader in secure digital signature and voting. 95% of adults have electronic signature credentials, and the country’s national elections take place completely online. I found this out during Day 1 of the CUNY IT Conference, in the keynote address by Robert D. Atkinson of The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. Atkinson claims countries with smaller territories, like Estonia, can advance projects like online voting because all the stakeholders can be brought together to move such a project forward. This coordination efficiency allows implementation of projects which are not very difficult technologically, but may be difficult politically. (The reason this came up at CUNY IT is because Atkinson was remarking that CUNY, even though it has 23 fairly autonomous institutions, has a similar advantage in IT planning by virtue of all the stakeholders being in one city. He actually said “within one easy subway ride”, apparently not knowing how to get to Queens College or to the College of Staten Island.)
This got me thinking about online voting in the United States. We have basically had the technology to implement remote voting for, literally, decades. I seem to recall Robert Paul Wolff tossing off the idea of home-based voting via television set-top boxes in the 70s. (Which, BTW, check out his blog post on Newt Gingrich’s doctoral dissertation, and more generally on academic arrogance, and of the non-arrogance of some of the truly brilliant.) The barriers to online voting are purely political. Objections seem largely to come from the liberal side of the political spectrum, and are driven by two concerns: subversion of the process (i.e., someone “stealing” the election electronically), and the digital divide.
Regarding the security of the elections, I don’t think we could do any worse than we did in 2000. After what happened in Florida, I think I would have more faith in choosing a president by a televised coin flip than an actual vote. At least the coin flip doesn’t have a 3% margin of error. But more seriously, online election security could be safeguarded by using open source software, so that there is no threat of back door code. Although I usually refer to free and open source software (FOSS) on this blog, here the important part is that the code be subject to public scrutiny (open source) even if it is not free software (i.e., even if the product is proprietary).
Regarding the digital divide, the fear is that limited internet access among the socioeconomically disadvantaged will lead to skewed elections. There are several reasons why I think this objection is off target. First, the concern is being mooted as computers and internet adoption continue to grow throughout the socioeconomic spectrum. (In fact, the Wikipedia article for digital divide is tagged “outdated”.) Second, even if some digital divide remains, since voting rates already correlate with socioeconomic status, opponents would need to make the much stronger argument that the skew in voting rates will be worse than it already is. I don’t think this is a reasonable belief because, third, a much larger barrier than internet access is the time that it takes to go to the polls. While time spent at the polls might not be a problem for the unemployed, this barrier to access is much more significant for people who have jobs that they can’t take time away from, which makes it particularly harsh for low-wage workers with few job protections. Workers with such time constraints could more easily access a computer than a polling station, and even if they needed to go to the polls, the trip would be quicker if many other people had voted online.
And the issue of time spent exercising our democratic right to vote brings me again to comment on Occupy Wall Street. One of the central themes of the Occupy protests is the call for participatory democracy. There is some discussion among the New York City General Assembly of implementing online direct democracy. This echoes Wolff’s idea of TV voting, as well as early cyberpunk writers’ ideas about the political implications of the internet. So, while at a minimum we should be moving toward online voting as a tool for increasing participation in our representative democracy, we should also be looking beyond it to an online participatory democracy. Disintermediation is not just for commerce anymore. And, turning the concern about the digital divide on its head, I want to stress that the new democracy must be online. The importance of occupying place(s) in protest has been widely remarked upon (see Geographies of Protest and Occupation). But the have-tent-and-the-time-to-live-in-a-public-park-for-weeks-on-end divide is orders of magnitude greater than the digital divide. If this is what democracy looks like, it will take up too many evenings.
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