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Executive Summary

The Voting Integrity Project supports any election technology that increases voter participation while safeguarding election integrity. Whether a system of Internet voting that guarantees ballot secrecy, ballot sanctity and universal availability can be devised remains in doubt.

The issue of Internet voting is already under debate and study by state officials and legislatures across the country. The Federal government is considering the use of Internet voting by military personnel living abroad in the 2000 elections. Its ease of use and decreasing equipment costs give the Internet the potential not only to increase awareness of issues and candidates, but to make voting more convenient and pleasant.

As part of the Voting Integrity Project's mission to educate and equip Americans to protect election integrity in their communities, this paper represents the beginning of an on-going study by VIP of the issues surrounding "Internet voting."

Although there are a multitude of on-line voting opportunities on the Internet, most do not even attempt to offer the high level of security that would be necessary for public elections. Recent Internet attacks on the White House, U.S. Senate, FBI, NATO and the Pentagon illustrate the vulnerability of potential Internet voting sites. However, mechanisms are in use that would likely form the structure of security for an Internet voting system:

Personal Identification Number (PIN) or password. This basic security mechanism could be used to ensure that a voter's ballot could only be used by that person. However, password systems are frequently compromised. Precautions must be taken to protect password systems from a variety of attacks. In addition there are no guarantees that voters will not share their passwords with other people.

Encryption. This technology can be used to protect digital ballots and passwords as they travel across the Internet. Cryptographic protocols can also be used to help preserve ballot secrecy and prevent some types of voting fraud. However, such systems may still be vulnerable to attack and should be carefully scrutinized before use in a public election.

Digital Signature. Digital signature systems can be used to authenticate documents and verify that a document was digitally signed using a particular "key." Election authorities can sign digital ballot forms so that voters know they have received an authentic ballot. A voter can sign a digital "ballot envelope" so that the election authorities know that the ballot was cast by a registered voter. However, it is important that the digital keys be properly protected in order to prevent fraud.

Smart Cards. Smart cards are credit card-sized cards that contain small computer chips. Such cards could be mailed to voters with pre-programmed ballots as well as encryption keys. Besides potential security problems with the cards themselves, postal mail theft could pose additional problems.

Biometric Identifiers. Voice recognition, fingerprint recognition, and similar biometric techniques could be used to make sure that ballots are cast only by registered voters. Voters would not be able to give their passwords to other people and those techniques would bring added security to an online voting system. However, use of these techniques may raise privacy concerns.

Opportunities for mischief or worse on the Internet abound and raise concerns over whether the Internet is even close to ready to offer the level of security necessary to ensure free and fair elections.

Of course, none of these technologies would address existing problems with voter registration. California Secretary of State Bill Jones estimated in 1997 that 10 to 25 percent of his State's voter rolls were deadwood or fraudulent registrations. Existing problems such as fraudulent registrations should be corrected before the election environment is changed again.

In addition, the "citizen poll-watcher" - a role that VIP has long championed and that was already an endangered species due to expanded use of early voting and mail ballots -- would virtually disappear into cyberspace.

Web site and network outages pose another potential problem. Many commercial web sites have experienced service outages when their systems were unable to handle high volumes of traffic. In addition, outages can be caused by power failures and by "denial of service attacks" in which hackers bombard a computer system with so much traffic that legitimate traffic is unable to get through.

VIP experience suggests that the primary reason voters do not vote is a basic cynicism about whether their vote really matters. Putting elections on line, though convenient, may not achieve the goal of increasing turnout if voters do not trust it.

Claims that voter turnout would increase have been made for other well-intentioned election policies, such as no-fault absentee voting and early voting, but turnout has continued to decline dramatically. There is even evidence to suggest that such decreasing turnout be may a result of very policies which were enacted to address it.

In addition, the Internet is already being viewed by some as the perfect mechanism to promote new election policies such as proxy voting and proportional representation, which would have profound impacts on our current form of government.

Internet voting will introduce a whole new crop of election vendors, many of whom have no prior experience in public elections. This presents an opportunity for states to review their contracting requirements for election vendors. The Voting Integrity Project advocates much more stringent oversight of voting system manufacturers and suppliers than currently exists.

Federal law apparently offers no impediment to Internet elections, provided they do not violate federal election day timing. However, states would have to rewrite their laws to accommodate specific Internet voting systems.

Statistics on Internet use also raise concerns that Internet voting will only increase access for a limited population group. Although Internet use is rapidly expanding, the typical user is still an under-35 affluent male college graduate, and there is growing concern about the disparity of access for certain population groups.

The Voting Integrity Project is committed to monitoring and assisting the debate on Internet voting systems to guard against premature implementation and ensure unquestioned integrity, so that such a significant change in elections represents a gain, not a loss, of public confidence and participation. Only when the critical issues of security, access and public confidence have been fully addressed should any U.S. jurisdiction open the Pandora's box that Internet voting could represent.

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