Why You Can't Vote Online

The question arises every two years, especially after an election in which voters had to stand in line for hours and faced a variety of problems with electronic voting machines: If we can bank online and buy just about anything online, why can’t we vote online? The answer is really simple. Leaving aside the significant issues of equal access, possible Internet failures, and hacker attacks, the fundamental issue is the requirement that votes be cast anonymously. If it weren’t for that, it would be simple to provide online voting that is at least as secure as online banking.

The big problem in securing transactions online is making sure that both parties are who they claim to be. This involves digital certificates for the servers and user names, passwords, challenge questions, tokens that generate one-time passwords, and other devices for the users.

In voting, you have to ensure that the voter is legally entitled to vote and hasn’t already voted without being able to link the ballot cast to an individual. That is a challenge orders of magnitude harder than securing a financial transaction. We know how to manage secure, anonymous voting at polling places and, slightly less well, with absentee ballots. There are technologies that allow it to be done for online voting, but they are complex to understand and hard to implement.

The bottom line: Internet voting will eventually come. But a couple more Presidential elections may go by before it happens.

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