Vote without ever leaving home

Someday people will log onto a Web site, establish their identity with a password and digital signature and cast their vote in a binding election for president or parliament.

Voting might take place over several days during which people can vote at any time of day or night, and they can take as much time they need to cast their ballot. The Web site will provide online help as people go through the voting procedure. Online voting will allow more people to participate in elections, particularly those who are homebound, travelers and expatriates. People will no longer be constrained from voting because they are stuck in a hospital bed or a snowstorm. Web-savvy but politically indifferent young people will be more likely show an interest. While online voting itself is not a cure for political apathy, it can help enfranchise people by letting them vote more easily.

The public may love the idea of voting online from home but most government and election officials remain skeptical. Voting convenience is important, but elections also need to be secure, free and fair to ensure the legitimacy of government. Currently there are too many serious, valid concerns about security and privacy. These need to be addressed and overcome before home voting from any web-enabled device is possible on a large scale in binding public elections. If anything, standards for e-voting need to be higher than those used currently for conventional paper ballots because a general election marred by a cyber-attack or hijacked by a hostile nation is too frightening of a prospect to contemplate. Internet voting could be open to generic hacking and denial-of-service attacks such as the kind that have brought down many sites, as well as Trojan horse attacks which could allow someone to see how people voted and perhaps even change their choice without detection.

Dot-coms and credit card companies tolerate a degree of fraud in their online transactions as the cost of doing business, which is anyway partially covered by insurance. Online voting is not an e-commerce transaction, however, and no amount of election fraud can be tolerated; the system must be absolutely fail-safe. While there are techniques to avoid these problems, they are not today readily available to the average computer user. Digital signatures can be used to authenticate a voter while at the same time protect his or her privacy but the cost of the technology needs to fall dramatically before governments can consider providing one to every voter. In the Arizona Democratic primary, there were problems with bottlenecks on the system due to a high volume of voters all trying to log on and cast their votes at the same time. Users of Macintosh computers and some older PCs also had difficulty linking to the web site.

Other concerns about Internet voting are less technical and more value judgments. There are fears that by allowing the casting of ballots outside an institutional setting, a person could be pressured and coerced by their boss, colleagues, union officials or family members to vote a certain way, or to even sell their vote. However the submitting absentee ballots in advance by mail is becoming increasingly popular and in some jurisdictions it is already the way in which the majority of the people vote.

Driven by the desire to provide more convenient voting options, some governments are conducting entire elections through the post. The acceptance of voting from home by mail makes the idea of voting from home by the Internet less controversial.

*Article extracted from ‘eGov: e-Business Strategies for Government’ by Douglas Holmes, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, ISBN: 1-85788-278-4. US $29.95. To order,