Online Voting is a Bad Idea

This article originally appeared on my personal blog, posted on 16/10/2014.

Trust issues are key to the rationale for avoiding online voting today. Trust builds slowly over time, but can be squandered in an instant. Democracy is dependent on the citizens' trust in the voting process. The fact that the current voting system (e.g. postal vote) has flaws (e.g. stand-over tactics) doesn't mean that we should introduce an equally or more flawed system online.

The goal of IT savvy citizens like us should be to address the shortcomings of the current system in any new solution rather than pile those same shortcomings onto a new voting mechanism. Online voting is normally promoted as a solution to the problem of voter participation - people (typically lacking any deep IT knowledge, from what I can tell) who think that convenience is the root cause of non-participation. I would argue that the cause of poor participation is still largely indeterminate and might just as easily be lack of faith in the voting system, or in the democratic process over all...

The other key issues are related to the underlying technologies on which an online voting system would necessarily depend. Online technologies are brittle. Complex "stacks" of software are like a complex layer cake. A vulnerability in any one lay can easily compromise the *whole* system. The vulnerabilities can result in exploitation/interference in the vote that are

  • potentially untracable (the evidence can be erased by the same means that the voting data is influenced)
  • at scale (i.e. all votes in the system can be affected)
  • international

The key complexity in online voting is the conflicting requirements for

  • full auditatability/verifiability of a vote for a voter
  • anonymity

Other fundamental problems (and, for the time being, insurmountable) problems:

  • the fact that so few people will have sufficient knowledge to vet or observe the system and verify its trustworthiness.
  • furthermore, much of the process is invisible, happening within computer systems which provide no physical representation of what is happening.

These together break the fundamental social contract in our democratic society that anyone can scrutinse their local voting process.

  • the government cannot be deemed trustworthy - data is persistent and even if the current government is benign, the data could be used by future unfriendly governments.

The only sensible question is

"Given that computing technology is currently not capable of providing a robust solution, we can simply identify what qualities a viable online voting system would need to have and work towards making those technically feasible."

Recommendation from this technologist: we embrace and rejoice in the fact that our democratic process is fundamentally about people and our local community participating. Yes, votin' it old school. We need to make voting something that people do in celebration of our society. Those who are disenfranchised will only be drawn back through direct inclusion, not through virtual access.