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Security and privacy during elections

Datamonitor : 16 October, 2008  (New Product)
Electronic and internet voting systems seen as private and secure balloting alternative to existing methods used in the US according to report from Datamonitor
With the US Presidential Election fast approaching, there's a lot of talk about candidates, policy platforms and running mates. But a subtext to all the hype is that come election day, how will everyone's vote be counted? A report just published by independent market analyst Datamonitor says voting machine vendors must work to maintain public confidence in their products, and help combat negative perceptions of electronic voting. The report "Elections in the 21st Century: The Rise of Electronic Voting", predicts optical scan voting machines will continue to be widely adopted, and Internet voting, although its widespread implementation is a long way off, will act as a complement- rather than a replacement- to voting at the polling place.

"Elections in the 21st century have become very technology-dependent processes and without a doubt, electronic voting brings a number of benefits to the election process", says Ben Madgett, Public Sector Technology Analyst at Datamonitor, and the report's author. "However, there has been a lot of negative press around the reliability and security of these systems. Going forward, vendors will need to take steps to build confidence in their systems, and counter the criticism coming from anti-voting machine advocates."

Electronic voting machines have seen a rapid uptake in countries around the world. Western European countries such as the UK and Netherlands have used electronic voting systems in binding elections, Brazil and India have instituted electronic voting with relatively little controversy, and Estonia recently became the first country to allow its citizens to vote over the Internet.

Perhaps the most high profile uptake of electronic voting has been in the United States. After the 2000 US Presidential Election was fraught with controversy over poorly designed paper ballots which put voter intent into question, Congress passed legislation calling on states to upgrade their voting equipment. This gave rise, virtually overnight, to a market for electronic voting systems in the US.

Voting machines have provided a number of benefits to the election process. For example, direct recording electronic (DRE) machines can be equipped with audio or tactile devices which allow disabled citizens to cast ballots independently. In addition, they also help conduct elections in a more efficient and cost-effective manner, such as reducing the costs associated with printing ballots and hiring extra polling staff. "At the end of a long election day, a voting machine can spit out election tallies much quicker and more accurately than overworked and tired polling place staff, especially when they are counting complex ballots with multiple races by hand", notes Madgett.

Beyond the polling place, some countries have implemented binding Internet voting on a limited basis.

"Insofar as the Internet is concerned, it has been implemented in a number of jurisdictions, such as Estonia and Switzerland, and in the 2008 US election, a county in Florida is running a pilot for its military voters living abroad", says Madgett. "It will however be some time before the Internet becomes a commonplace voting channel, and even then, it is likely to serve as an additional option- rather than a replacement- to voting at a local polling place."

In recent years, there has been somewhat of a backlash towards paperless touch screen systems, due to concerns about the lack of a verifiable record of the voter's intention and there is still a lot of resistance among the public to the use of technology to count votes. "After some of the recent tests which demonstrated potential security vulnerabilities with touch screen systems, most election officials are proceeding cautiously," notes Madgett.

Electronic voting machines are only as secure as the processes which govern their use. The report notes the key to a successful election is ensuring well-trained poll workers and election staff following well-established procedures, leading up to, on and after the election; a jurisdiction could use the most secure voting machines in the world, but without proper security procedures governing their use, they would be vulnerable to malicious behaviour.

"As partners in ensuring the conduct of democratic elections, and with the industry at a pivotal stage, there is a very real need for vendors to work closely with election officials and computer scientists to ensure that the technology they are supplying is used in a secure manner", says Madgett. "It's in vendors' best interests if they want to keep their voting machines out of the headlines for the wrong reasons. Democracy depends on transparency; the more transparent electronic voting becomes, the more likely it is to be adopted and embraced by the voting public."
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