Electronic voting: Time to send in the clouds

Summary:What if we all had the option of voting electronically using a mobile device or personal computer instead of at a poll station?

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Over the last two weeks, we have learned what the power of mobile technology really can do. Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, knocking millions of people off the grid, with no electrical power or broadband Internet capability.

Nevertheless, many of these people still had smartphones, tablets and mobile access points with 3G and 4G service and were able to check in with their families and friends over text messaging, email and also over social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

In other words, while the network was damaged in parts by the storm, it did not drop off the grid entirely.

So while they had no power in their homes, they still were able to stay connected, whether it was using mobile wireless signal or by leaving the affected areas and using their enabling technology in places that still had functioning broadband, such as local coffee shops and fast food businesses.

Although they had the ability to communicate using mobile technology, some people in the greater New York City and New Jersey metro area had difficulty physically getting to the polls to vote in yesterday's election.

Some people even needed to be bussed into polling areas due to disabled public transportation systems, or because nearby polling locations were damaged by the storm.

Others found themselves going out of state and being in a position of needing to vote in a presidential election remotely, using a makeshift Internet-based voting mechanism that was jury-rigged by the state of New Jersey in less than a week.

Still, now that there is precedent for Internet voting in presidential elections in the United States, it begs the question if this is something that we as a nation should try achieve on a much larger scale, to supplant and to eventually replace our old-fashioned polling locations and voting machines, along with ballot confusion and inevitable long lines that go with it. 

It is estimated that up to 50 percent of adult Americans own a smartphone, many of which do not own personal computers or have access to them in the workplace. A subset of those people also own personal computers and tablets and have access to the Internet from these at work or in their home.

By the year 2016, when our next presidential election is due to be held, that number of of adult Americans with mobile devices could climb to as much as 70 percent or even higher.

What if... and this is a big if... we all had the option of voting electronically via the Internet, using a mobile device or personal computer instead of at a poll station?

The current population of the United States is about 314 million people. Approximately half of the population of the United States is of eligible voting age. Adjusting for resident legal and illegal aliens, which is approximately 24 million people, that leaves roughly 125 million people that could potentially vote using electronic means.

The price of maintaining polling centers is  far more than what it would cost to design and maintain a distributed, Cloud-based voting infrastructure.

Of those 125 million people, a good amount, such as the elderly as well as the impoverished that might not have access, or otherwise feel uncomfortable using the technology may decide to continue to use traditional poll stations.

But a large portion of folks who if given the opportunity to vote electronically probably still would.

It is important to recognize that the math I'm going through is very much back of the envelope. When I discussed the issue of numbers with our ZDNet Government columnist, David Gewirtz, he said the math was complex, and that pinning an exact figure would require going through an awful lot of data, because government agencies calculate these numbers using completely different algorithms and assumptions.

Even so, these numbers still work from a "what if?" perspective. 

Still, there are a bunch of reasons why a standardized Internet-based voting system should be established. For starters, the price of maintaining polling centers is significant, far more than what it would cost to design and maintain a distributed, Cloud-based voting infrastructure.

Gewirtz told me the existing polling infrastructure costs so much money, that if we were able to eliminate significant portions of it, we could possibly buy smartphones/mobile devices and at least a limited amount of data service for every single person of voting age who doesn't currently own a device.

It sounds like a wild claim, but I'm inclined to believe him.

There's another reason why to do it and it has to do with voter apathy and overall improvement of voter participation. Traditionally, a lot of people don't go out to the polls because they believe the lines will be bad and may also feel that their vote won't make a difference.

This is particularly key for voters in the Western half of the United States, who may not go to the polls because projections may be made about the victor hours before the polls close in those areas.

Voters were, however, very much at the polls at this particular election. We've heard reports of many brave and patriotic Americans standing in line for four hours, late in the evening, just so their vote would be counted.

There are other potential benefits to using electronic, Internet-based voting systems. A centralized voter site for each state, and/or or an official app for the major mobile platforms could also be used prior to the election as an interactive, information delivery system. 

For example, presidential, congressional and gubernatorial candidates could have videos explaining their stance on specific issues as well as their general platform.

Local candidates for state legislature, mayors and county sherrifs, judges and other elected positions at the district level which voters may not be familiar with (and tend to rush through on their ballots) can be given equal capabilities to introduce themselves and the objectives of their campaigns.

I am ashamed to admit that since moving to Southern Florida over the summer, I haven't spent a lot of time learning about local candidates. Actually, because of my demanding travel schedule, I spent zero time learning about them.

Once I got past the Presidential, Senate and House parts of the ballot on Election Day, I had no idea who anyone else was. But if I could put a face or a personality to a person, and could better understand what they wanted to accomplish once taking office, I could have made better choices. 

The long lists of complex amendments and resolutions which also get tagged on to the ballots can also have videos and other content which explain in simpler terms what the core of each proposed law would do. 

Electronic systems have other benefits besides having the ability to pack more information onto a ballot, and allowing voters to review it at their leisure. It would also allow much earlier voting than before, perhaps even permit a candidate to be voted on once the party nominations were completed, months in advance of a general election. 

How would a electronic system for widespread use be implemented? I think the best way to go about this would be for the newly re-elected President Obama to form a Commission for Internet Voting.

In short: We lock our lawmakers and technology leaders in a room, and tell them they have four years to make it work and "git-er-done."

The objective of this committee would be to determine the basic functional and non-functional requirements for a distributed, US Government-run cloud that could handle the volumetric and security needs for the voting system of the future.

This would be be chaired by appointed leaders in the House and Senate that would work with an advisory board that was composed of designated representatives of the major US technology firms and cloud providers: IBM, HP, Dell, Oracle, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon, Salesforce.com and Facebook.

Half of which of which have platforms, content delivery systems and ecosystems that would be well-served to get in on the ground floor to access such a voting system. The others have a vested interest in having their products and services being used as part of the overall infrastructure. 

Once this process is completed, the US Government could put out to bid portions of the infrastructure design, software and hardware components to any of these and other companies.

Does President Obama need to throw Congress and our technology leaders in a room and "Git-er-done" when it comes to Internet voting in 2016? Talk Back and Let Me Know. 

Topics: Cloud, Amazon, Apple, Data Centers, Data Management, Google, Government : US, IBM, Networking, Oracle, Security

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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