Voters cast ballots the old-fashioned way in a hair salon in Los Angeles. AP

British voting expert Lord Mark Malloch-Brown comes to America this week for a hard sell on Internet-based balloting.

We know that the equipment and methods we use for voting in the U.S. are old. Our elections systems made some advances after the 2000 Bush-Gore debacle, thanks to an infusion of congressional funding spurred by that voting disaster. But the shelf-life of the equipment purchased with that money is reaching expiration. This could cause voting turmoil that would be felt most acutely at the local level, meaning when you are standing in line waiting (and waiting) to vote.

Enter Smartmatic, a U.K.-based company that has been instrumental in designing and selling a huge portion of the current innovative stock of voting machines around the world. The company boasts that it has provided modernized voting technology—namely touchscreen machines and optical scanners—and support services in 307 counties and 16 states in the U.S. alone, as just a fraction of their global catalogue. The machine that President Obama voted on in 2012? That was Smartmatic’s.

Smartmatic is also heavily invested in the future of voting, meaning they are ready to deploy systems that will allow elections to happen online—meaning that people could vote from the convenience of their homes. This has already been put to the test in a number of countries, notably Estonia, which has allowed some form of Internet-based voting since 2005.

Later this week, Smartmatic Board Chairman Lord Mark Malloch-Brown will present his case for voting online at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council on the future of elections technology. It will be a tough case to make for two reasons:

  1. States have been quicker to pass voter ID laws than they have been to modernize voting equipment. Basically, these states are more invested in burdening voters to prove they are not out to cheat the system by making them present photo ID—hardly a foolproof plan and actually not something we need— than they are in investing in technology that’s up to the task of verifying voter eligibility.
  2. Experts in the country’s election-administration field are dead-set against bringing voting online, and perhaps for good reason. The federal government hasn’t been able to protect its own workers from getting their personal information hacked, so how could it protect voters? Local election administrations—where the bulk of voting takes place—are even less capable and resourced for withstanding those kinds of attacks.
(National Conference of State Legislatures)

On that second point, the Brennan Center for Justice recently released a report on the nation’s aging voting infrastructure, and it reserved a whole special section for the dangers of Internet voting. Reads the report:

And yet, the vast majority of security experts express alarm at the idea. They argue that we have not yet developed the tools to ensure voting over the Internet can be done both privately and securely. David Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and chairman of Verified Voting told Computerworld that “from a security point of view, [Internet voting] is an insane thing to do.” The National Institute of Standards and Technology (the federal body charged with researching Internet voting) published at least two reports that detail the ways votes sent over the Internet can be manipulated without detection, and concluded secure Internet voting is not yet achievable. A senior Department of Homeland Security official recently warned election officials that online voting is premature.

Malloch-Brown tells CityLab that the Brennan report is correct about this, in context of the U.S. The necessary components that are in place in other countries where Internet voting is practiced—such as a national database of voters—just don’t exist here. Which is why Malloch-Brown recommends that “the U.S. go to the interim solutions of modernizing the polling booth rather than moving immediately to Internet voting.”

In other words, when it comes to voting—the so-called cornerstone of our democracy—we’re still crawling while the small former Soviet nation of Estonia is doing the Electric Slide. Almost a third of that nation’s voters cast ballots online in its most recent elections, which had one of its highest voter turnouts this year. However, Malloch-Brown cautions against using Estonia as an apples-to-apples comparison for the U.S.: The small country’s last election was largely a referendum on whether residents there would return to Soviet influence or remain independent, which was a unique voter-mobilizing factor.

(Smartmatic)

He also points to the distinctive “fragmented character” of election administration in the U.S. Most of the nations he works with have a single, centralized entity that handles voting infrastructure. Here, most decisions around the manner and means of elections (and how they’re paid for) are left to states and local jurisdictions with nothing remotely resembling uniformity among them.

There are still lessons the U.S. can learn from Estonia, though. For example, Internet voting there is optional. There is still a traditional, paper-ballot based system that residents can use if they feel uncomfortable voting online. Also, while conservatives here tend to freak out about people voting multiple times here in the U.S., in Estonia this is not an issue. You can vote as many times as you’d like. But only your final vote counts. (Which means that if you think you’ve made a mistake in casting your ballot, it’s not a problem to just go in and make changes.)

The internet voting technology itself involves a cocktail of encrypted digital signatures and SIM-card-like wares that establishes and secures each Estonian voter’s identity, which are filed in the national voter database and monitored closely by Estonia’s National Electoral Committee. The video below demonsrates:

Want to know how the #Estonia's #iVoting system works? Watch this great #video! :)

Posted by Smartmatic on Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Voters need a secure computer or mobile device to participate in this way. Some of Smartmatic’s other products for verifying identity involve thumbprint recognition (much like what the iPhone uses) and retina-scanning biometrics—all really expensive hardware.

That’s another way that these innovations could hit roadblocks in the U.S. We’re already having a hard enough time enforcing civil rights laws to ensure that all votes are counted equally. But with the existing digital divide, bringing such sophisticated voting styles online could exacerbate those gaps in very consequential ways, creating a class of voters from wealthier districts who vote conveniently from their iPads, while those in poorer districts do the long slog and wait at the county library for a polling booth to open. (These conditions already exist, to an extent.)

“I’m very conscious of these issues,” says Malloch-Brown, pointing to his Open Society Foundation board membership, which focuses heavily on enhancing voter participation and voting rights, and his work at the United Nations, where he served as Deputy Secretary-General and Chief of Staff of under former Secretary Kofi Annan. He said the Smartmatic team watches their machines “like a hawk” to make sure they don’t “squeeze down voter participation, especially for minorities.”   

As for the price problem, Malloch-Brown says the company is already working with poorer countries on lease-finance models that spread out the capital costs to make the technology more affordable, and is exploring ways to do the same in the U.S. As it stands, Malloch-Brown says he has found that the jurisdictions that implement these new voter innovations actually find that their overall election administration costs drop significantly, because they end up paying less for materials like paper and for overhead line-items like staff and training.

Voting is one of few industries that could probably stand to benefit from the automation of work, given that there are so few resources dedicated to it. But ultimately it’s up to “the political masters” to adopt new ways of election thinking.

“You can run an election now much cheaper than if you stick with the trashed-out equipment and older solutions,” says Malloch-Brown. “But it requires politicians to say this has to be adopted and done in a way that’s fair to everybody.”

Good argument. All he needs now is for America to buy it.

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