Many hurdles preventing emergence of online voting
The search for solutions to increase voter numbers on Election Day continues as states rack up underwhelming turnouts in both presidential and non-presidential election years.
But Eugene Spafford, a computer science professor at Purdue University, says online voting is not one of those solutions.
The most important aspects of an election are privacy and accuracy for citizens and, from the standpoint of candidates, the vote total accountability.
However, current online technology available to the average citizen dictates that you can't have it all, says Spafford, the executive director of Purdue's Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security.
"Voting by Internet sounds attractive, but either we have to give up the anonymity of the ballot, which is not a good practice, or we have to give up the ability to confirm that the count is correct," he said.
The Indiana primary election is May 3. Only 22 percent of Indiana voters turned out in the last presidential primary election in 2012. Less than 60 percent of voters made it to the polls for the 2012 general election.
Nationwide, primary turnout in 2012 was estimated at a little more than 15 percent of voters while almost 62 percent voted in November that year.
The question of online voting comes up because many day-to-day activities are handled online. But comparing voting via the Internet to activities such as banking online falls short because, with banking, an account is used to track of transactions.
"A record kept of the account - that's not anonymous," Spafford said. "That removes the privacy of the voting booth from voters."
For the areas of accuracy and accountability, the potential for election problems go back to two well-known headaches: computer viruses and bugs. A virus or hidden code designed to disrupt vote counts cast online wouldn't be difficult to write, Spafford said, adding such software is expensive and difficult to prevent.
"Elections matter," he said. "If one virus or error is detected, it could invalidate the vote, and that's not something we want to do. It would cast enough doubt that the election would be thrown into disarray."
Voters need to trust that what they see on their computer screen ballot is what is actually tabulated in the election. A computer virus or hidden, malicious code could be written to change an online ballot after it is cast.
Spafford said the level of security in personal computers is safe for a lot of things, but that security still fails regularly – too often to trust with an election. Beyond local computer security is the issue of users falling prey to phishing or fake election websites.
The reality is online voting could occur but with a hefty price tag. It is possible that a highly classified, strongly controlled computer system similar to those used by intelligence agencies could be used for online voting.
"But it would possibly cut away some of the privacy for voters and it would require people to spend a few hundred thousand dollars on their home computers," he said. "It is much more cost-efficient to spend those resources on verifiable voting systems at monitored election centers, and to encourage voters to use them."