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Online voting would be easy to do, but hard to keep from mischief tech talk nick DeLorenzo


February 19. 2013 3:50PM
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Today, millions of Americans will be voting for the next president of the United States and their representation in both their state legislature and the U.S. Congress.


In Luzerne County, all voting machines are electronic, touchscreen-based devices.


They're simple to use and it's clear who you're voting for.


Despite the relative simplicity of the machines, voting still requires people to go out of their way – to visit a polling place, run a gauntlet of campaigners, stand in line, etc. While it's a relatively minor inconvenience, I've been asked why we can't vote online – wouldn't that be much easier?


Easier, yes. Simpler? No.


We have the technology to allow people to vote online and to collect and process those votes – some states already use forms of online voting for things like absentee ballots.


The major stumbling block is concern over voter fraud. How do you verify that a person online is who they claim to be?


That's a worry in physical voting, and it's much harder to verify a person's identity online.


Not only that – not even the Department of Defense has truly secure networks – and these are systems with relatively limited access to outside users. Online voting would require a system that's accessible to every U.S. citizen – and therefore also to hackers, foreign governments and others.


Experiments done to determine how vulnerable online election systems are have not been encouraging.


In one recent case, the District of Columbia set up a system that would allow absentee voters to cast ballots from a website instead of via mail.


They invited a research team to test the system for vulnerabilities. Within two days, the team had changed every vote in the system and revealed all of the secret ballots that were cast. The system administrators – despite being aware of the security tests – failed to notice that their system had been compromised. The intrusion was discovered only when the researchers deliberately left a prominent calling card to show that they'd accessed the system. They also discovered evidence that hackers with IP addresses in China and Iran had made attempts to breach the system.


There's a lot at stake in elections. Imagine if a foreign power could change votes. It wouldn't be good.


Even so, the concept is picking up momentum as time goes on.


The bottom line: It won't really be safe until we can develop foolproof methods of both voter verification and security – and both of those may be a long way off.


Nick DeLorenzo is director of interactive and new media for The Times Leader. E-mail him at ndelorenzo@timesleader.com.




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