Electronic voting: Time to send in the clouds

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?



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, Oracle, Networking, IBM, Government US, Google, Data Management, Data Centers, Apple, Security


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience 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.

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  • You seem to have forgotten...

    Any data in the "cloud" is subject to seizure by the government...

    And that would include your votes.

    So until the security AND control of data in the cloud is set by Congress, and confirmed by the courts...

    Don't. Your vote would no longer be private.
    • That's not the case with paper votes?

      Huh? I think the government does that right now with paper votes? And talking about privacy - they OBVIOUSLY know if someone is Republican, Democrat, or Independent. How else do they limit access to primaries? So.... exactly what part of your vote do you suppose is private?
  • Just open the country to the highest bidder

    Until cloud security is made real, this is a ridiculous idea. The concept of electronic voting has been proven to be insecure for the last 20 years. Even much of the current infastructure since 9/11 has been shown to make it easier to fix an election.
    • Yup

      Came to the comments to say pretty much what you said. Electronic voting would be a security nightmare. Have we forgotten the type of complex, sophisticated malware a dedicated team of programmers is able to create?
  • Absentee ballots. Electronic voting should be reserved for disasters.

    Absentee ballots are available for all eligible voters. One avoids long lines to cast their vote (although, many voters do enjoy the process of voting at polling centers), one has plenty of time to review the candidates and various amendments prior to voting and one can either mail-in or drop-off the completed ballot. Most importantly, there is a piece of paper that the voter had in his or her own hands that is available for recounts.

    For disasters that interrupt elections, as hurricane Sandy did, electronic voting is preferable to voters not participating in an election. All Secretaries of State for the various States should work together to create a legal process for electronic voting in the case of natural (and otherwise) disasters. However, no disaster, no electronic voting.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
  • This will not work

    Electronic voting seems like a great idea.. but the problem is you have to be able to recount and verify votes if an election is contested. The only way to do this is a paper trail, an actual paper ballot that can is filled out by the voter, and which is stored for safekeeping in the event of a recount. Not to mention every crooked politician would be scheming how to hijack the vote. Computers will never be 100% secure, so you would have a difficult time certifying the vote totals.
    In my state of Tennessee, we fill out a mark-sense paper ballot, which is then read into an optical reading device, tallying the votes, and securing the ballots in a locked box. I think it is hard to improve on this method, even touchscreen voting kiosks are suspect - most don't print out a paper "receipt" for later recounting. In that case, if the machine/process is tampered with, there is no way to recount or verify the votes.
    • No paper in NJ?

      That sounds similar to what we did yesterday in Florida. However, this was new to me. Previously in NJ, we entered an electronic voting booth, pushed levers to indicate our preferences, then a master lever which registered the votes and opened the curtain. Do these machine's preserve a paper trail? I don't know.
      • If "lever", probably mechanical, not electronic...

        If you are referring to the older "lever" style voting machines, as also used in New York State until a couple years ago, they were mechanical tabulators, and were essentially "banned" by current voting regulations. We are now primarily using the scanned paper ballot here, which has an audit trail if needed. However, the system is hugely expensive, and not very efficient.
    • paper trail is easy to add

      Just include having a copy of your votes sent to your email and a copy sent to a printer, say in a record keepers office in your state capital. I understand thats a rough idea, just a first draft theory, but it's a point to work from, and having it in your email gives you a record just the same as Rabid Howler Monkey's bit about absentee ballots, which is how I voted this time around. Had I had the option of voting over my smartphone, with a copy being sent to my email registered when I registered with the app/site so it knew I was an eligible voter, I would have waited and been a bit more informed, still would have voted the same, but something could have come out that might have changed my mind.
      • But that's not a paper trail...

        First, there's no way to assure that your email confirmation contains the same info that was set to the State's printer.

        And, in the event of a recount, what good is your email??

        In the current NY system, the actual ballot I filled out, containing no personal identifying info (for reasons I won't go into here), is scanned for the inital count, and securely retained for a recount. One physical piece of paper = paper trail
    • Paper Trail

      In Nevada, the voting machines are touch-based rather than using mark sensing. However, the machines do print a paper tape showing all one's selections. The tape is kept inside the machine, but presented through a glass window so that the voter can confirm the tape reflects one's BEFORE one's finalizes his/her vote.
  • Bad idea

    There is already a lot of conspiracy theories surrounding Diebold voting machines and the integrity of your vote. Hackers in China and Russia to say nothing of unfriendly governments would work very hard to stuff our ballot boxes.
  • They can't even count on electronic voting booths

    The quality of voting is pathetic in this country. But many states cannot even keep electronic voting booths operating correctly let alone a cloud service. If we were only talking about a national election we could consider a web based voting system. But all states have different rules and procedures. It would be a major task to get everyone on board with cloud elections.
    Not to mention all the potential for hacking and voter fraud of people not having to deal with proper identification. I can get online and pretend to be my wife anytime and she can pretend to be me. If you have enough information you can be whoever you want. This is the problem with electronic voting. The ability to verify is much harder.
  • Non democratic proces

    If you use remote voting processes the process is no longer a democratic proces.
    People that vote outside a polling location might be forced to vote a certain way.
    For instance a husband forcing his wife and (18 year old) children to vote in a certain way or even vote for them.

    Also since we have already seen android phones hacked easily people malware could be installed that changes their vote so that people will votes differently than the people think they have voted. Such malware could even change/fake a confirmation message to make sure that the voter would never find out.

    Even voting computers that have been used in some places have serious issues. They are very vunerable for tampering with the results.
    • By that token

      The existing system is already a far more non-democratic process.
      • Really? Based On What?

        What prompts you to say so? What part(s) of the voting process do you consider "non-democratic"?
    • .....

      And you forgot the ultra easy hacking done to apple devices and the lack of intelligence those who use apple products have to even try to make their apple products secure. Toss in the cloud which is a joke for security or stability.
  • In An Unrelated Story

    Pizza Hut hacked, customer info lost,

  • shouldn't happen

    Any computer system is subject to hacking and I am not sure if it really will ever be any different especially if you have to access it via an electronic device . Although the 2000 presidential election showed the current system is fallable it wasn't as a result of a foreign entity hacking the voting process.
  • No way

    that I will trust any voting system in the cloud. Absolutely not. Nope. Never.