Month: November 2011

Should America vote online?

Should America vote online?

Today is election day in much of the US.  It isn’t a Presidential Election so many people won’t vote. Most municipalities will have a few referendums, some school board officials, and maybe a judge or city councilman on the ballot.  Since it is not a big election with a lot of TV time, the turnout was relatively low and so conversations start to theorize about voting online.

The argument goes that I can buy many things if not everything that I need online, why can’t I vote? This is much the argument that CNN made today. Unfortunately one cannot make this comparison and even if that comparison was valid, we still shouldn’t do it.

  1. Ecommerce is not as safe as you think it is.
  2. It is inherently unfair to the poor.

Ecommerce is not as safe as you think it is

In the case of ecommerce there is a level of risk that is taken by the seller, bank, and user.  That risk is managed but is far from perfect.  It also requires a fairly high level of personal data to be shared and yet is still not foolproof.  The estimated fraud rate is at 0.9% which is far higher than is allowed in voter counting error!  In addition, stores reject over 2% of all transactions.

In most municipalities, a recount can be justified if the race is within one percent.  If we would implement a system based on our existing ecommerce technologies that would force a recount if the vote was within 4 or 5% (1% for too close, 0.9% for fraud, 2.5% for obvious fraud).  Would you accept it if the voting system said it doesn’t believe that this you are a valid voter so it is rejecting it and you will now need to go to your voting booth even though it is 5:45PM.  You would almost certainly sign the petition of your candidate saying that you were denied the right to vote even though you were legitimate and therefore the votes should be recounted or invalidated.

Couple this with the safety and honesty of voting today. In the US, a voter can be harassed and beaten up before and after they enter the polls but once they walk into the building they are very safe.  Unless they specifically ask for assistance, they have no one looking over their shoulder. Even when they ask for assistance the process is usually two people of opposite parties help the individual to insure no undue influence is happening.  Contrast that to the activist preacher that has coffee and cookies at his house and invites all of his members to come over and use his computer to vote and is right there to help you with all of the intricacies including making sure you push the right radio buttons.

With ecommerce fraud, there is the transfer of goods, services, or money to the criminal.  This means that there are clues as to that criminal’s identity and potentially over time the police can catch that criminal.  With internet voting, it happens once or maybe twice per year and the transfer of wealth is extremely hard to connect.

The ecommerce systems also requires a huge amount of personal data that consumers are willing to share with their bank and their store but NOT their government.  Can you imagine the outcries if you were required to have a credit card or a bank account and a phone number to vote!  In the process of checking your credit card, the processing company can check to see if you are paying your bills – no way the government is going to get that right.

Until we allow a national identification system with biometrics, there really can be no online voting and you shouldn’t trust it if it was there.

It is inherently unfair to the poor

The bigger issue is that it is heavily biased to the rich and likely even the white voters. We already have complaints that internet access is difficult for poor and colored people (Jesse Jackson likes to talk about this in his speeches).

Without being too racist or too broadly generalized, rich white people that can afford to have lots of computers in their homes (1 plus for every adult for sure) could easily vote without having to brave the storms, ice, and cold.  It would almost certainly give them nearly 100% participation and they normally vote Republican or at least are more likely to vote Republican.

But what about the working stiff that is barely making minimum wage and therefore cannot afford to own a couple computers with high speed internet.  Let him brave the snow and ice. He is poor and generally speaking is a Democrat so make him go to the voting booth in the back of some school or church, wait in line, and fill out the manual forms that are reserved for the poor people.  The really travesty is that since there will be less rich people at the polls then we don’t need so many of those expensive polling machines and booths and we can have fewer polling locations. Those poor people can take the bus farther to vote.

So even when it is technically possible to vote online, until we can make the access to that voting infrastructure equal we shouldn’t do it. Thurgood Marshall taught us that “separate but equal” is never possible. We cannot make it easier to vote for the wealthy than it is for the poor. It probably already is slanted this way with access to transportation and more flexible work hours but at least all people, rich or poor, need to trudge to the same voting location to make their voice heard.