by Marilyn Davis Ph.D.
Author of The Clerk/eVote ®
The world is pondering the logistics of voting online, with its difficult issues of accountability, privacy, and tremendous scale. But, because the technical problems associated with the petition process are much easier to solve, as a first step, we suggest computerizing the petition or voter-initiative process.
The petition process, although it does share some aspects of online voting, i.e., registration and accountability; it does not require privacy. The gathering of petition signatures is a completely public process taking place on doorsteps and in malls. Indeed, the more public the process, the more effective is this, the direct-democracy element of the United States government.
Opening the petition process to online involvement will have extra benefits in increased participation, increased democracy, more awareness of the issues, and a real empowerment for citizens.
Because the petition process is public, the only remaining issues are registration and accountability. Privacy, the predominant motivation for encryption schemes in voting software, is not a goal. And because the petition process is public, the technical difficulties of providing the remaining two issues, registration and accountability, are considerably lessened.
The simple and completely effective solution is email. If we allow voters to register an email address as part of their voting address, currently available email techniques ensure complete accountability.
The email medium is the only internet medium which facilitates a two-way communication where either party can initiate the conversation. On the WWW, a conversation can be initiated by the user only. There is no way for the voting authority to contact the voter except by email, or worse, by phone or paper-mail.
Because of this unique positioning, email must be an ingredient in any voting scheme where revotes, and therefore true recounts, are possible. The voting authority must be able to contact the voter to verify the records. Note that the "voting authority" need not be human, but can be a computer/software system. Privacy can be respected AND we can have the confidence of completely accurate polls.
For a public voting scheme, i.e., a petition, we can use email to assure ourselves, by repeated communication between our system and the voter, that each of our voters' opinions are accurately represented in the data. The accountability of the email medium for a public vote is as secure as a face-to-face show-of-hands. We can count and recount, vote and revote, until everyone is satisfied.
A proposed voter-initiative or petition will be presented on a web page, and possibly mirrored to many web pages. Besides explaining the petition's purpose, the web page will contain a form for signing the petition. The user types an email address, and is asked to type it a second time, for accuracy.
Optionally, the voter can add a comment on the form, which can be posted on the web page. Making public comment is a satisfying democratic action, both empowering the participant and enhancing the deliberative nature of our government.
The program that handles the web page sends the completed form, by email, to a vote-server. Optionally, the voter can by-pass the web form and send his/her signature directly by email to the vote-server.
The vote-server sends a confirmation message to the email address, asking if this signature is really intended. The confirmation message contains a randomly generated key and instructs the voter to simply "reply-to" the message.
When the voter replies to the confirmation message, the confirmation key, which is stored in the subject line, is mailed back to the vote-server. Once the vote-server receives the confirmation that the voter did, indeed, intend the signature, and also that it is, therefore, a valid email address, the signature is stored.
This process of mail confirmation, already common practice for email list subscriptions, sales, and online petitions, is absolutely secure against forged email. Although it is trivial to forge email and send in a signature apparently from any other email address, the returning confirmation request goes to the right place. And only the real user of that email address has the power to send back the confirmation key.
Once the signature confirmation is received by the vote-server, the voter is sent a receipt and a voter-registration form. The voter must print the form, which contains the email address, fill in a home address, sign it, and send it, by regular mail, to voter registration. The voter registration authority attaches that email address to the voter's registration record and alerts the vote-server, by email, that this email address has been registered.
When the vote-server receives verification from the registration authority that the email address has been associated with a registered voter, another receipt is sent to the voter, verifying that the email address has made it all the way through the system and that, from then on, the voter can participate in online petitions with the registered email address without sending in another registration.
Signatures on the petitions can be verified, not by haphazard spot-checking, as has been the traditional method, but completely. Any email signatures that have not been registered are rejected, eliminating the possibility of a registered voter signing a petition twice.
The online petition process provides the signer of a petition opportunity to change his mind, within a time limit. If the citizen learns new information that leads him to believe that the petition, after all, is not in his interests, he can send a request to the vote-server to have his signature deleted. Once again, such a request requires confirmation, but no interaction with the voter-registration authority. Once again, the online process is a broadening of the deliberative nature of our democracy and an empowerment of the voter.
This online petition facility, except for the interaction with the voter-registration authority, already exists as part of a Deliberate.Com's generalized online voting facility, eVote®.
eVote's petition facility has been in use since 1997, serving neighborhood groups and indigenous causes. Most interestingly, this facility hosted "La Consulta", the poll taken in Mexico by indigenous democracy rebels in Chiapas. This particular vote, because of its controversial nature, drew well-funded and concentrated attacks, proving that the email medium is capable of protecting online democracy. See http://www.deliberate.com/consulta for an analysis of that experiment.
The only step left in bringing this efficient, convenient, and absolutely secure, expansion of direct democracy to American citizens, is the cooperation and collaboration of governmental voter registration authorities in allowing email registration.
Deliberate.Com invites this collaboration.
We see three potential problems, all solvable:
The number of successful petitions for voter initiatives could grow uncontrollably and overwhelm the voter at the polls.
This objection is solved by imposing a limit. The 15 petitions receiving the most signatures will become voter initiatives on the ballot.
The solution of imposing a limit improves our governmental decisions because the competition for a successful petition will improve the quality of the voter initiatives that reach the ballot.
The online process could become so popular and successful that voters who do not participate online have no practical opportunity to participate in the initiative process.
Petitions that do not gather their signatures via the internet can be exempt from the limit suggested in #1.
In order to initiate a petition, a citizen needs the vote-server software, hardware, and connection. This logistics-imposed restriction is unfair to those who have a good proposal for a petition, but not the resources to implement the computer system.
We note that currently, large amounts of money are often spent to raise a petition to a voter initiative on the ballot. Typically, people are hired to collect the signatures. So already, the petition process, intended to be an effective voice for every citizen, has been usurped by financial interests. Any expansion of the petition process to the internet will improve this current unfairness.
The eVote® system described above invites anyone with an email address to initialize a new petition by sending in a command by email. The administrator of the system is not involved in setting up petitions. The state voter-initiative authority can provide the vote-server for all email-registered voters to use, both to sign petitions, and to initiate petitions. The person/people raising the petition provide the optional web page, and that is all.
At this exciting time, when the events of political history demand a careful look at computerizing our democratic process, we find that our new medium can provide more than private and accountable vote keeping, it also provides new pathways for improving citizen participation. In particular, the Deliberate.Com system for opening the voter initiative process to online participation, eVote®, is ready and trustworthy and only needs governmental cooperation and support.