Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Online Voting: Easier to Participate in an Election or Easier to Steal One

-- By JulianBaez - 21 Feb 2010

Voting is Inconvenient So Some People Don’t Vote

Many factors cause low turnout elections, especially in the US. Among them is the difficulty people have in making time to vote on Election Day. Many voters find voting anywhere from inconvenient to impossible because of: 1-the length and inflexibility of their workday; 2-the length of their commute to work and to the polls; 3-reliance on public transportation to reach the polls; 4-responsibility to take care of children and elderly family members.

Effect on the Lower Class

These factors all disproportionately affect the lower class, (except for the length of commute to work, since many middle- and upper-class voters live in the suburbs but work in distant urban centers). Impoverished voters are more likely to work jobs with inflexible hours, rely on public transportation to travel to/from work and to/from the polls, and have sole responsibility for enfeebled or young family members without the aid of nurses, baby sitters, and nannies. The lower class is less likely to vote.

The Current Ability and Existence of Online Voting

Although no system can ensure 100% voter turnout, a system allowing voters to file absent ballots online could drastically increase voter turnout. This system could mirror absentee balloting or traditional voting on Election Day. This system already exists to a small extent. Now, US military personnel abroad have the ability to vote online in some states. Eight states allow online voting under certain circumstances as of 2006, and the system looks to expand. However, online voting has not been adopted by most states on even a limited basis. If online voting did become more widely adopted, voter turnout could increase for impoverished Americans by substantial numbers.

Who Really Benefits and By How Much?

But this assumed increase in voting is easily questionable. For one, online voting allows access to a stable internet connection. Whether that access be from one’s cell phone, local library, home or workplace, wealthier voters are more likely to have the dependable internet connections necessary to vote. Fortunately, the ability to vote is not a zero-sum game (Note: I do not deny that elections are zero-sum games for voters and candidates). Making it much easier for wealthy people to vote with online balloting still makes it somewhat easier for everyone else to vote. As a constitutional democracy, we now advocate for universal suffrage around the world (_See_ Iraq and Afghanistan; _but see_ Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates). We can become greater advocates for universal suffrage at home by making it easier for everyone to vote here with online balloting.

The Real Risk: Voting Fraud and Internet Security

Online balloting not a silver bullet leading to 100% voter turnout (setting aside whether that’s desirable); it is also not without risk. "No bank would ask their customers to send Social Security numbers over unencrypted e-mail," said David Wagner, the co-author of the military’s self assessment of their online voting program. If we want a system of online voting to increase voter turnout, we must also ensure people’s personal information remains private. Also, the system must ensure online voters’ ballots remain intact and election results are correct. It was not that long ago where election fraud placed a presidential election in doubt or provided dramatic proof of foul play (penultimate paragraph). With questions raised about e-mail security already in question, it may be best to keep our elections safer and offline. How safe would you feel if your Google Ad asked you to donate money to a Bloomberg 3rd-party candidacy after voting for Nader 4 years earlier? In the past, the FBI and other government entities have kept track and used Americans’ political leanings to promote their own agenda; digitizing this information in an already questionable system is anywhere from risky to downright self-destructive. These instincts to investigate the political beliefs of Americans remain today. Furthermore, these aren’t the only concerns with online balloting.


Our Constitution guarantees us the right to take part in a representative democracy. It affords the people the opportunity to elect officials, if they choose. Many Americans choose not to for a variety or reasons, including the inconvenience of voting in our modern and crowded society. Online voting would make voting far less inconvenient. But at what costs? Risking our democracy and out freedom is as American as apple pie. But we need to know what tradeoffs we’re making before it’s too late.

You got a good discussion here, so let me just say that a reasonable estimate of the change in turnout that would result from online voting is an increase of 2%. That's about the participation increase that accompanies every change— including Motor Voter, which the Democratic Party hoped before 1993 would be a major participation-changer for working-class Americans. Same-day registration, on the other hand, has had much more substantial effects in the jurisdictions that have implemented it. The parties both show little enthusiasm for it, however, from the moment that it elected Jesse Ventura Governor of Minnesota. It isn't just that the party of the upper class always wants to keep working-class turnout down, or that the party in control sees no need to enfranchise the other side's voters. It's also that too easy voting makes organized political parties nervous, because it decreases the returns to organization overall. That only becomes more true under 21st century conditions, where the competitor to a political party on election day can be a flashmob. Their view of political stability, which is the stability of the party system, compels them to maintain friction in the electoral system, just as it continues to keep operating control of US elections in the hands of partisan elected officials and their appointees, which no sensible advanced democracy would do.

How votes are transmitted to the government that are not cast at a polling place is a comparatively small matter against that background. Hybrids of online and traditional snail mail behavior make the most sense. A state, for example, can easily establish an online method for requesting and printing an absentee ballot, with an encrypted 2-D barcode that securely identifies the voter and incorporates information that can be used to prevent fraud. The voter then fills out and mails the absentee ballot as usual. Oregon is using mail-in voting only statewide at present, as you probably know, in all elections. The Republican Party there has not found much traction there for its constant beefing about supposed fraud, which it is always doing everywhere. If mail-in can work statewide, it will be adopted elsewhere, with online components used to drive costs down further. Automated authentication of cryptographically printed absentee ballots will turn out to be one of those solutions. The Post Office already has the necessary technology, which it uses to authenticate postage purchased online.

# * Set ALLOWTOPICVIEW = TWikiAdminGroup, JulianBaez

Comment: Julian, for some reason your post does not have a comment box so I thought I would leave a note down here. I think you make an excellent point in your essay about the convenience of voting. One thing you could add to your list of obstacles at the top is the length of time it takes to vote itself since many people have to stand in line at polling locations for quite some time (or at least I did last time around!). I wonder too whether there are other considerations that might help expand voting. For example, if voting were available online, we might imagine a simultaneous rule requiring businesses to provide each employee time during the day and access to the internet so that they can cast their votes if the choose to do. This might help even out the effects of the availability of online voting across the class structure. I think your point about it being a zero sum game is interesting, but might be misleading. In theory, if we make it much easier for one section of the population to vote than another (whereas they may have been at least somewhat equally inconvenienced before) won't that skew election results?

-- StephanieTrain - 13 Mar 2010


I added a comment box in response to Stephanie's note that you don't have one. I didn't comment on your essay previously because I wasn't sure if you wanted feedback - if you want it, keep the comment box but if you do not, delete the comment box. To remove the comment box, go into "Edit" and delete the line that says COMMENT (with parentheses around it) at the bottom of the page. I would also suggest you add a note at the top of the page (like Nikolaos has done on his paper) indicating whether it is ready for review or not and whether you would like feedback from others in the class.

Edit: Since you are ready for feedback, I'll edit this prior comment to include some. A few substantive comments, then a few technical.

As to the substance, I agree with your essay's main point, which I read to be that online voting could both increase voter turnout and also create new security and privacy concerns. I also agree that, generally speaking, wealthier individuals are going to have better access to online ballots; even if some folks' jobs provided computers, many other employers probably don't have many computers in the building to let employees use to vote (maybe I'm wrong, maybe McDonald's do have a McDell in the back somewhere). So I share Stephanie's concern that we would end up with even more of a skewed result as the wealthy suddenly can vote on their iPhone ("There's an app for that.") and everyone else still faces the burdens you described at the start of the essay.

As to the technical, you might think about revising the code in the fourth paragraph where you are hyperlinking to information about voting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. Right now, the italicized command (the _content_ dashes) are appearing because they are inside a set of hyperlink brackets. If you just changed the hyperlink text from the see and but see portions to the "Irag and Afghanistan" and "Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates" portions, it would look like this:

As a constitutional democracy, we now advocate for universal suffrage around the world (See Iraq and Afghanistan; but see Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates).

Finally, I think the source of confusion on your zero sum discussion is the sentence that says "Making it much easier for wealthy people to vote with online balloting still makes it somewhat easier for everyone else to vote." Perhaps you could revise it instead to: "Even if online balloting disproportionately aided the wealthy, it would still help everyone vote more easily."

A good topic. I wonder if you could expand a bit in the final paragraph about what you would do given all these issues, about what you think is the best solution.

-- BrianS - 13 Mar 2010

BrianS- I would like feedback. I must have deleted the comment box by accident when I was writing the paper. I look forward to your feedback.

Stephanie- I think I should do a better job of clarifying my zero sum game point. Making it easier for wealthier people to vote, doesn't make it harder for poor people to vote. In this way, the "ability to vote" is not a zero sum game. As you saw, and as I tried to point out unsuccessfully, elections are zero sum games (in this country). So making it easier for wealthy people to vote could skew election results.

However, your idea about requiring employers to provide internet access and time to vote for their employees could fix that problem. Although, this presents a new problem. Similar to how unions would stuff ballot boxes by watching members vote, simple computer software would make it very easy for employers to spy on their employees voting habits. Even if employers didn't, fear of being watched could create subtle pressure.

Finally, I just realized that perhaps making it easy not to vote without being noticed is also probably a right. But I guess that really starts reaching the outlying issues of a very short paper anyway.

-- JulianBaez - 15 Mar 2010

Julian: Really enjoyed your paper. I agree that egalitarianism isn't a convincing argument against online voting. The rate at which internet access is increasing with respect to the total population, as well as the fact that physical polling stations would remain open, lead me to think that the net benefits of online voting to egalitarianism would far outweigh any losses.

I do wonder if internet security isn't just a technical problem which will inevitably be solved through advances in, e.g., encryption technology. The bigger privacy problem I have with online voting is the absence of election judges and voting booths. I fear the risk of private coercion, for example by heads of households, employers, religious leaders, union leaders, etc. Do you think this is an issue, and if so, can it be solved with technology?

-- UsmanArain - 06 May 2010


Something went wrong with the coding in the last few days and suddenly a comment box appeared in your essay and you were getting comments inside of other people's comments. I deleted the box and moved the comment (Usman's) to the location it should have appeared in. Just wanted to post so you knew!

-- BrianS - 06 May 2010



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r13 - 17 Jan 2012 - 17:48:22 - IanSullivan
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