Estonia gets to vote online. Why can’t America?

November 6, 2012

If anecdotal reports are anything to go by, millions of Americans on Tuesday are standing in the cold for hours to vote at their local polling places. But why should they have to? Many Americans can already pay their utilities online and bank online. Why can't we vote over the Internet as well?


Just think, it could be this easy. (Deb Lindsey/Washington Post)

That's the question raised by Thad Hall, a political scientist and author of Electronic Elections. In theory, he says, allowing Americans to vote online could have all sorts of benefits. We wouldn't have to endure hours outside in the chilly November air waiting to vote. We could do research online while voting for ballot initiatives. Americans overseas could cast ballots more easily. But, he notes, there are big potential downsides too, including the very real risk that the system could get hacked.

Online voting isn't a far-fetched idea. Estonians have been doing it since 2005. While only 2 percent of Estonians took advantage of the system when it first came out, that number rose to 25 percent by 2011. "Surveys have found that Estonians view their system as being very effective," Hall says. "They have high confidence in it. They like it."

What's Estonia's secret? For one, all Estonians are issued a government ID with a scannable chip and a PIN number that gives them a unique online identity — they can use this identity to file their taxes or pay library fines or buy bus passes. That makes Internet voting workable. (The votes are encrypted to preserve anonymity.) What's more, Estonia has a proportional representation voting system, rather than a winner-take-all system like the United States. According to Hall, research has found that electoral fraud seems to pop up more frequently in winner-take-all systems — since there's more at stake for the candidates.

Indeed, far and away the biggest concern about Internet voting is that such a system would be highly susceptible to fraud or hacking. Over at MIT Technology Review, David Talbot recaps concerns by computer scientists at a recent conference on the topic:

The unsolved problems include the ability of malicious actors to intercept Internet communications, log in as someone else, and hack into servers to rewrite or corrupt code. While these are also big problems in e-commerce, if a hacker steals money, the theft can soon be discovered. A bank or store can decide whether any losses are an acceptable cost of doing business.

Voting is a different and harder problem. Lost votes aren’t acceptable. And a voting system is supposed to protect the anonymity of a person’s vote—quite unlike a banking or e-commerce transaction—while at the same time validating that it was cast accurately, in a manner that maintains records that a losing candidate will accept as valid and verified.

Hall agrees that those security concerns are legitimate. Still, the fact that online voting would make it much easier for many people to cast a ballot makes it an enticing prospect. Washington D.C., for one, tried to develop an Internet Voting pilot project back in 2010, though computer scientists found that the program was riddled with flaws and easily hacked. After that, it was back to the drawing board.

The other big question, meanwhile, is whether Internet voting would actually expand participation at all. In a paper (pdf) in 2005, MIT's Adam Berensky found that most electoral reform measures mainly benefit voters who were already highly motivated to vote. If that's true, then online voting might simply make it easier and more convenient for dedicated voters and partisans to cast a ballot. It wouldn't necessarily lure in those who aren't voting currently.

Hall agrees that online voting likely might not make a huge difference in overall participation   — though there's one huge exception here. His research has found (pdf) that online voting could be a huge boon to Americans with disabilities or those who find it hard to get to their local polling places on Election Day. According to the Census, some 2.3 million Americans didn't vote in 2008 because of an illness or disability. Simply making it easier for those voters would be a big deal.

"You can find a lot of computer experts who will tell you all about the potential problems," Hall says. "But there are a lot of potential benefits too."

Further reading:

--A closer look at why more than 50 million Americans won't vote in this election. 

--For more on those potential problems, check out this story from 2010 of how a computer scientist quickly hacked into Washington D.C.'s proposed online voting system. 

--Thanks to wolfemi1 in comments, here's a great Slashdot article on the pros and cons of online voting. Privacy is another concern: "Now if you have to go to a voting booth to vote your overbearing [significant other] can't coerce you to vote one way or another. You have plausible deniability. That's kind of hard to do when they're standing behind you watching you vote from the family PC."

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