Too many fault lines in digital voting process


The shambles of the Iowa caucuses reconfirms that electronic voting is still a long way off

By Constantine Passaris
Professor of Economics
University of New Brunswick

The recent Iowa caucuses debacle reminded me of two things. First, my about-face as a member of the New Brunswick Commission on Electoral Reform with respect to electronic voting. Second, further confirmation that the electronic infrastructure continues to be an impediment in advancing digital democracy.

The 21st century has empowered humanity with electronic connectivity and digital dexterity. The information technology revolution has been a catalyst for the kind of transformation that happens at most once every century.

Internetization, in the form of global outreach and electronic connectivity, has proven to be a game-changer for society. It has precipitated transformation on practically every aspect of human endeavour. The way we bank, travel, communicate, educate and entertain ourselves, to name but a few, have been profoundly and positively impacted by internetization.

All except one. The empowerment of democracy through electronic voting has been a dismal failure. Clearly, digital democracy isn’t keeping pace with all the other success stories of digital empowerment.

The recent democratic meltdown at the Iowa caucuses, during the U.S. presidential primary process, offers clear evidence that we’re not there yet. Technology failed and chaos ensued. There were unacceptably long delays in reporting the results and the electoral system collapsed. In the end, the system resorted to reliable paper ballots.

That fiasco was attributed to widespread technology issues and a near-total breakdown of the system. Software issues and a malfunctioning app triggered a cascading series of problems.

The moral of this story is that for voting, the contemporary electronic system should never stand alone. It needs to be backed up to protect the integrity of an election.

As a member of the New Brunswick Commission on Electoral Reform, I witnessed first-hand the disconnect between digital empowerment and electronic voting. All five commissioners were smug in our resolve that the stars were perfectly aligned and the technology had matured to the point where we could make a recommendation in good conscience to adopt electronic voting in New Brunswick.

It took cyber-security experts and software developers to unanimously warn us by saying, “Not so fast, folks.” They rained on our parade with the observation that the electronic ecosystem hadn’t reached a level of maturity where electronic voting could be implemented without reservation.

The naysayers were not Luddites, they were computer scientists who after careful consideration concluded that it was prudent to err on the side of caution, instead of recommending the approval of electronic voting and risk the consequences of throwing an election.

In effect, throwing an election because of a computer glitch, electronic incapacity, and software malfunction remains a clear and present danger.

The principal reasons in favour of online voting include speed, convenience, and accessibility. Internet voting could remove physical and geographical barriers for groups such as those with mobility challenges or visual impairments. Electronic voting has considerable appeal to younger voters and would remove the physical distance from the ballot box. The commissioners also felt electronic voting would enhance voter participation.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument was that most of us spend a large portion of our day communicating with through emails and social media, we do our banking online and transfer important documents in digital format.

The common belief is that if it’s safe to do your banking online, it should be safe to vote online. But cyber-security experts told the commission the process of electronic banking doesn’t respect privacy or require an anonymous identification in order to make the transactions secure. And citizens have a right to cast votes in favour of their preferred candidates without being publicly identified.

The commission abandoned electronic voting, based on the advice of cyber-security experts who emphasized that security, privacy, and confidentiality couldn’t be guaranteed under the current electronic infrastructure. The sacrosanct anonymity of a person’s vote would be shattered by moving to electronic voting at this time.

The shambles of the Iowa caucuses reconfirmed the digital fault lines in regard to electronic voting.

Dr. Constantine Passaris is a professor of Economics and an affiliate member of the Canadian Institute of Cybersecurity at the University of New Brunswick. He served as a member of the New Brunswick Commission on Electoral Reform.

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