Editor Note:

This is the first of a multi-part series on the topic of iVoting -- its many challenges to becoming a reality.  This blog post introduces author Sergio Valente, a student at American University and an Electoral Infrastructure Policy Researcher & Analyst at the OSET Institute.

Innovating the Electoral Process

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The legitimacy and integrity of public elections are of utmost importance to the stability and prosperity of democracies. The recent disturbances and threats to public elections seen in the 2016 U.S. election, among others, have raised questions about whether our current elections are "secure." Experts acknowledge that foreign state sanctioned actors poked and prodded in at least 24 voter registration systems, even penetrating two of them. But, despite this prevalent danger to the most fundamental part of our democracy, municipal governments lack the budget to pay for expensive new innovative election equipment and so private companies have little incentive to offer true innovations that can progress integrity, usability, and security. We end up stuck with securing spare parts for existing outdated equipment, or accepting incremental updates to systems based on an inherently vulnerable PC-based architecture.

This is where the OSET Institute seeks to help.  As many learned at the GET Summit two weeks ago, our organization is a purpose-based, tax-exempt research and development institution committed to creating publicly available electoral technology innovations that will increase integrity, lower cost, and improve usability of election equipment.  We've been receiving input from 200 elections officials across the country for the past 7 years on our innovation research to ensure that what we make available will fit with their requirements for finished systems that will be delivered by commercial vendors.  Since all of our work is made possible by philanthropic support, all resulting software technology is available under open source licensing that can be immediately adopted under current election regulations. This means that local election officials can enjoy higher integrity equipment while saving money. We also believe that by making voting an easier and more convenient experience we can expand voter participation and allow more citizens to exercise their civic duty and enjoy their civil right. Thus, our work is focused on election technology innovations that can be ready now, while looking just over the horizon at what innovations can be ready next.

The iVoting Solution: Promise or Problem?

Speaking of innovations "just over the horizon:" It should come as no surprise that one of the most seemingly obvious ways to achieve these advances would be through the public Internet, performing what we call remote access voting or iVoting. With 50-million Millennials in the United States and a growing post-Millennial generation, these citizens expect and even demand that the process of voting will have the same ease and convenience as ordering clothes, buying airline and train tickets, ordering a cab or car service, booking hotels, paying taxes, or the countless other tasks we can do online. And many argue that iVoting has the potential to address long-standing issues in elections, such as decreasing voter participation, dwindling trust, and questionable legitimacy.  This topic of discussion is global, and nearly daily.

But many others, including elections integrity experts, point out that notwithstanding a host of technical, policy, and political issues, there is no data showing any correlation between iVoting and election participation -- at least in the U.S. (and that may be simply because it hasn't been legally deployed anywhere of sufficient population to measure it yet).  Even data for the experiments run overseas are not convincing yet.  But, if iVoting were the miraculous solution that some suggest, wouldn’t that mean more people voting as a result of it?

We observe that in other elections outside of government, iVoting technology has shown apparent promise, and as populations become more Internet-adept and Millennials come to command our statehouses, the demand for iVoting will inevitably grow, perhaps even exponentially. The logic reasons that a force that has substantially altered the way we live our daily lives certainly should also alter the way we participate in public elections, and our propensity to do so.  And it may be that this is one reason why now nearly 2-dozen venture capital backed startups with visions of Internet voting grandeur have materialized in the past 16-months.  There are probably some other reasons (equally suspect we argue.) However, we're confident of a few things:

  1. These new firms will all struggle with the market structure explained earlier that catalyzed the founding of the OSET Institute to reinvigorate.
  2. The election technology industry is a niche segment of the government I.T. sector; a fractional segment at that, and candidly, a backwater of "GovTech;" not the ingredients of a hot growth market that would traditionally attract venture capital (let alone institutional VC money), thus, the start-ups currently funded are not likely to fully deliver the level of innovation required to achieve a scale-able iVoting solution for pubic elections given the required capital commitment to get there.
  3. And the preceding observation is driven by the fact that iVoting raises some of the toughest problems known to computer science. None of the solutions being pursued by these upstarts today have fully addressed all of the issues.
  4. Any new voting technology will need to meet or exceed the VAST Mandate, which states that elections officials have a fiduciary duty to deliver elections that are Verifiable, Accurate, Secure, and Transparent in process.
  5. Even if all the technology challenges are solved to a peer-reviewed and election officials' level of verification and satisfaction, there remain several process, policy, and even political issues to resolve.

Solving the challenges and achieving these standards will be difficult and will require considerable innovation -- technical and non-technical -- but if it is approached with eyes wide-open and with a determination to create something new and worthwhile for the good of democracy, it's not insurmountable.  Its just a worthy cause with the highest of challenges to make it sufficiently interesting to the mindset of the Silicon Valley and other digital innovations centers around the world.  But caution: its not a multi-billion dollar industry opportunity. It just isn't.

Starting a Blog Series on iVoting Challenges

Because there is growing interest in this subject, including some unfortunately hasty startup ventures with visions of exit strategy grandeur, as well as legislative stirrings to pursue and embrace the Internet for election administration, and other organizations seriously examining whether iVoting can "fix democracy" (that is dramatically improve its integrity and participation), its time we take some leadership in the conversation since our Institute has been quietly examining this challenge for some time.  Therefore, in the ensuing weeks, catalyzed by the energizing conversations at the Global Election Technology Summit earlier this month, I'll publish here a series of blog posts addressing the specific challenges facing innovators in pursuit of the holy grail of elections: smartphone voting (or what one of our co-founders refers to as Pajama Voting).  I look forward to sharing with our readers what those challenges are.

I look forward to your comments and an important conversation!
--Sergio

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