New Overseas Vote Foundation Project to Examine Remote Online Voting


[Image courtesy of QualityPoint]

Last week, the Overseas Vote Foundation announced the launch of a new project aimed at taking a research-based approach to the question of whether or not absentee ballots can be securely cast over the Internet. Thanks to generous funding from the Democracy Fund, the project will be an opportunity to answer key questions about the feasibility of meeting growing calls for remote online voting. OVF’s press release has more details:

The project is called End-to-End Verifiable Internet Voting: Specification and Feasibility Assessment Study (E2E VIV Project) and will examine a form of remote voting that enables a so-called “end-to-end verifiability” (E2E) property. A unique team of experts in computer science, usability, and auditing together with a selection of local election officials from key counties around the U.S. will assemble for this study.

Their efforts aim to produce a system specification and set of testing scenarios, which if they meet the requirements for security, auditability, and usability, will then be placed in the public domain. At the same time, they intend to demonstrate that confidence in a voting system is built on a willingness to verify its security through testing and transparency.

“The secure, tested, certified remote voting systems that election officials envision aren’t even for sale. Available online ballot return systems are not considered secure by the scientific community, nor are they certified. As a result, email has become the default stopgap method for moving ballots online. Email is especially weak on security, yet it is being used regularly by election officials because viable alternatives are not available,” says Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, President and CEO of Overseas Vote Foundation, who spearheaded this project.

Most significantly, the project enlists the aid of local election officials – as well as key experts in security, auditability and usability – to identify the best ways to proceed on a suitable remote voting solution:

While [Internet voting] systems … have been developed in the past, none have been broadly used or successfully commercialized, This study will be informed by these past efforts and build upon them as appropriate. Usability factors will also be considered from the outset of the study to address the significant challenges faced by remote and disabled voters when using such systems to participate. A viable outcome of this study with respect to security, auditability, and usability will enable development efforts to ensue.

Technological challenges aside, the project also aims to revive a cooperative dialogue between computer scientists and many election officials following recent fights about Internet voting:

“There is a historical misunderstanding in the U.S. election community that this project aims to correct. Our country’s best scientists are not against technology advancements, nor are they inherently at odds with the election officials who seek technology improvements to meet their administrative challenges. What the U.S. scientific community takes issue with are the unproven claims of security regarding existing systems that are not publicly tested or vetted. This study aims to recalibrate this situation. This group of scientific leaders has often pointed out security vulnerabilities in past systems, however they do agree on one thing: that if [Internet voting] does happen, it should be in a system that takes advantage of end-to-end verifiability and auditability,” said Ms. Dzieduszycka-Suinat.

This is a very promising effort – and the investment by the Democracy Fund provides not only financial support but a signal of the importance of this project to the future of elections. Congratulations to OVF and the entire project team!

1 Comment on "New Overseas Vote Foundation Project to Examine Remote Online Voting"

  1. Testing and certifying for security, auditability, usability and end-to-end verifiability are necessary for “free and fair” I-voting, but not sufficient.
    Neither Doug (in this current post) nor OVF’s press release mentions internet voting’s failure to face head-on its inability to date to guarantee the other sine qua non of election integrity: the Secret Ballot.

    The essence of the secret or “Australian” ballot provides that any of us can say whatever we want about how we vote, but assures that none of us can prove how we or anyone else votes.
    It’s worked so well for so long, we have to continuously remind ourselves what it accomplishes, and that we ought never take its success for granted.

    Only the universal enforcement of the secret ballot has thwarted the once dogged electoral corruption of systematic vote-buying and prolific voter coercion–not to mention contemporary threats from NSA-type snoops, commercial data miners and privacy brokers.

    In I-voting, just as in poll voting, voter authentication and voter anonymity are equally essential. Unfortunately no one has yet solved the stubborn unhappy technical fact that I-voter authentication and I-voter anonymity remain mutually exclusive.
    Not even the extreme hackers of Anonymous have been able to guarantee their internet anonymity.
    Good luck to the online voter!
    No I-voting scheme should even approach beta without cracking this nut.

    Cautionary tail exposed
    I fear other states will strip the I-vote secret ballot problem from their punch list by adopting the same simple dual-pronged posture of “chin up, head down” fashioned by innovative officials here in WA state, arguably the world’s most I-vote-easy jurisdiction:
    1. Drape the I-vote in Emperor’s New Clothes and flaunt your stuff
    2. Bury your Head in-the Sand

    “Chin up”
    Previous Secretary of State Sam Reed’s 2011 request bill quietly dropped the longstanding requirement for internet voters to sign waivers of their right to a secret ballot.
    Meanwhile the hot-button issue was Reed’s controversial proposal mandating compulsory statewide remote voting (mail and internet). The state constitution’s provision for “absolute secrecy” of the ballot got lost in the bigger partisan debate over shutting down poll-site voting in hold-out Pierce County (Tacoma metro), which had repeatedly voted to keep its polls open.

    What replaced the waiver?
    RCW 29A.40.110: “Any overseas voter or service voter may return the signed declaration and voted ballot by fax or e-mail by 8:00 p.m. on the day of the primary or election, and the county auditor must use established procedures to maintain the secrecy of the ballot.”

    “Established procedures”?!
    Readers here are educated to see through the illusion, as WA Legislators did not: no such procedures exist.
    Secret ballot I-voting parades in proud Emperor’s New Clothes of sexy but invisible ostrich feathers.

    “Head down”
    New Secretary of State Kim Wyman guarantees secure and secret I-voting by echoing her mentor predecessor Sam Reed’s declaration that voter intimidation and vote buying, like electoral fraud in general, is just not part of Washington’s “civic culture.”
    “We are not Chicago.”
    With that, she summarily plumps her head into the sand, assuring no unseamly fray or seamless observation will expose the Emperor’s transparent embarrassment.
    This isn’t Kansas, either. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

    Waivy Gravy
    Astute election experts question the validity of any waiver solution. They point out that the secret ballot is not merely one of our ordinary individual rights subject to voluntary waiver (e.g., to remain silent, or for trial by jury). It’s a fundamental and absolute structural election requirement that no individual voter can waive any more he can enforceably sign himself into slavery. They bluntly argue that my right to a free and fair election requires that you vote a secret ballot–whether you want to or not.
    Otherwise it’s bring-it-on vote buying and intimidation of vulnerable voters.
    And who knows what from the commercial and espionage interests.

    Election observers will do well to note WA’s loose 2011 legislation is but one wave in the tsunami of problematic I-voting innovations overwhelming the secret ballot and propelling the state into uncharted electoral waters. How troubled they may become is all too imaginable.
    The state constitution’s “absolute secrecy” of the ballot has been scrubbed from the election lexicon as Washington’s I-voting-adept officials dispense soft-soap dilutions imposed by the election tech deficiencies of the internet.

    I-vote talk glosses over its problem with the secret ballot by rebranding it as “confidentiality of the vote” (compliments Nixon Handy, Reed’s State Director of Elections)–as if it’s all right for government officials to know how you vote so long as they promise not to tell.
    Equally disturbing, I-voting enthusiasts recast the secret ballot as mere “voter privacy”–as if it’s all right for a voter to “voluntarily” sign or cc (or bcc) her ballot to an intimidator, vote-buyer, employer, data-miner, or a tuition-paying relative.
    National I-voting partisans are promoting the same dumbing-down terminology as routine alternatives to “secret ballot” in I-vote conversation.

    No holds barred
    Washington state now authorizes and encourages email voting by hundreds of thousands of vacationing and overseas voters and all voters in military families–whether on active duty or in the Reserves or Guard un-deployed and living at home.
    Most WA counties’ snail-mail ballots are now serial numbered.
    Some officials now maintain they have a special right to know how you vote. Otherwise, “why would it be illegal for us to reveal it?”
    We voters may now add unique or identifying marks to our ballots, and even sign them.
    We may now show our voted ballots to anyone, and display them on our Facebook and post them on Pinterest.
    We may now give our signed ballot envelopes to anybody to deliver to the dropbox or mailbox. The ballot inside need not be marked.
    Officials assert voted ballots are exempt from disclosure, and may never be viewed by the public before, during or after counting.

    Frag the vote
    If these scenarios are disturbing, try imagining the potentially ghastly consequences of unit cohesion undermined to implosion when your commanding officer and fellow warriors might act on knowing who you voted for. Or against.

    I-voting free for all
    The momentum to innovate is irresistible.
    Enthusiastic local officials such as Cowlitz County Auditor Kristina Swanson have thrown email convenience voting wide open:
    “We’ve had the email program with our what we call UOCAVA military and overseas for years. What we are seeing, though, is an increase in email ballot requests, so it can be opened up to the people that are the snowbirds that go to Arizona. We have seen triple the amount, so far, to date, of those email requests.”
    (Inside Olympia, TVW, Nov 1, 2012, beginning at minute 48:07

    What additional unidentified perils of premature I-voting lurk over our shoulder?

    Tim White

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