Online voting continues to be (not) a great idea

By December 17, 2013July 4th, 2015Uncategorized
[Updated 12/18/13] Internet voting can’t work alongside secrecy of the ballot. But online voting for legislators — because their ballot should never be secret from the public — would at least be transparent.

In the US, a resolution was introduced in June 2013 (H.Res.287) for a measure that would let members vote remotely on noncontroversial bills. According to reporter Bryan Steele of the San Jose Mercury News, no opponents have yet surfaced.1

Unlike general public elections, it could be done transparently because legislators do not have a right to the secret ballot. It would save money, shuttling congressmen across the country to vote on minor matters, like honoring a boy scout or naming an airport after their colleague. If legislators spent less time in the capitol and more time with their constituents, they might be more responsive to those who elected them. With less time in a central location, they are less accessible to lobbyists and it is marginally less convenient to hand deliver an envelope full of cash.

But as Marie Day pointed out to me, “They need to be present. Period. To offer something else just sends us down the lane for unintended consequences.”

She had more clarity than I, that’s for sure. As I thought through the “unintended consequences” Marie Day referenced, I realized that she’s absolutely right. Although from an accounting standpoint, legislative remote voting would be transparent, from a political point of view it would make elected officials even less accountable than they already are. If legislators were to vote remotely they’d probably be doing it from a lobbyist-funded party boat, or ducking out of a fundraising event. Allowing remote voting would just worsen current dysfunctionality.

I have updated the headline and the story here to correct my own muddled thinking on the matter. Politically, remote voting by public officials is a dumb idea.

From an election integrity standpoint, speaking specifically to accounting aspects, it could be done without loss of public oversight. Understanding the difference between Internet voting with a secret ballot vs. disallowing a secret ballot is important, because it is the secret ballot that removes accountability for online voting.


Online voting = Good” applies only when the voter must be publicly connected to his vote, as is the case with elected representatives like senators, city councilmen, and county supervisors. For the rest of us, if we want to retain the secret ballot, “Online voting = Quite Bad.”


This is a transparency issue rather than a security issue: When you don’t want ballot secrecy there is no loss of election accountability when vote counting is performed out of public view, as it is with every online voting system. Any member of the public can see every representative’s choice at once, each connected firmly with its owner. Because legislators are scrutinized by the public and by the corporations that support them, always seeking political favor for their choices, wrongfully reported votes have consequences.

Now, be cautious when interpreting what I just said because there is a little magic trick making the rounds. The immutable, crucial, unbendable principle in the paragraph above is that every representative’s choice can be seen by the public, at the same time, with every choice firmly connected to its owner the whole time. The magic trick claims that online voting for public elections will achieve transparency if one vote can be connected to its owner, and all the votes (but disconnected from their owners) can be seen at once. That’s nothing more than a guy pulling quarters out of his ear. If every vote doesn’t connect, in public, at the same time to its owner, accountability got gutted while someone waved a scarf around for distraction.

When we need a secret ballot, as we do in general elections, “Online voting = Quite Bad” regardless of the mumbo-jumbo you hear that it is “secure.” (And by the way, it’s not.2)

What no one wants to talk about when they advocate voting from your laptop, mobile device, iPad, smartphone, or Kindle Fire, is transparency. Even if online voting could be made secure, if you preserve the international human rights principle of the secret ballot, it cannot be transparent. With online voting, ballot secrecy is indivisibly connected to election transparency.

Ultimately, your vote cannot be quarantined from yourself because you have to authenticate yourself in order to vote. Because you will never be able to see what happens within the network transmission and in the servers on the other end, your secret ballot becomes nothing more than blind trust that those controlling networks and servers will honorably not try to see how you voted. But they could, if they wanted to.

Claims that votes can be reliably and permanently segregated from the voters who cast them are based on two arguments: (1) That an encryption process prevents tracing vote to voter; and (2) That the data on who you are is stored separately from the data on how you voted. These are half-truths. (1) Encryption always has a key, and someone always has that key; and (2) Data stored in two separate tables can be merged back into a new, single table with a few key strokes.


Only for public officials. To learn more about just how much goes wrong when ballot privacy is not enforced, see the Black Box Voting report on Ballot Privacy:

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Election transparency: Election transparency is the public ability to see and verify each essential step in elections, the essential steps being: (1) who can vote (voter list), (2) who did vote (poll list, or participating voter list), (3) counting of the vote, and (4) chain of custody. Reasons for transparency with sources:
All Black Box Voting stories related to election transparency:



  1. Bryan Steele: Congress: Remote voting sought to ease coast-to-coast commute, San Jose Mercury News, 12/15/2013,
  2. See resource: Internet Voting.



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