Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Online Voting: A Threat to Voting Privacy?

-- By RossanaGonzalezMunoz - 17 Apr 2018


In a world where you date, shop, do research, find a job, read the newspaper, communicate with others, and, in sum, perform many basic activities through the Internet, online voting has surfaced as a modern alternative to paper ballots. Notwithstanding, important democratic considerations should be weighed when determining whether, once again, new technologies should substitute their paper precedents. In this post, I purport to briefly address what I believe is one of the most serious problems that revolve around the idea of voting through the Internet: the threat that it poses to voting secrecy and integrity, a fundamental value of any democratic system. To do so, I will briefly discuss the historical importance of the secret ballot --focusing on the United States--, explain some proposals and implementation examples of online voting, and address the privacy problems implied in Internet voting.

The Historical Importance of the Secret Ballot in the United States

As the history of voting in the United States shows, the secret ballot's origin is intertwined with the idea of addressing the expansion of the electorate and, moreover, preventing some types of corruption and manipulation of the electorate. Originally, voting was executed by a voice vote or by a show of hands, and public voting was seen as an important manifestation of the individual's political positions. (See Samuel Issacharoff et. al., The Law of Democracy: Legal Structures of the Political Process 262-263 (5th Ed. 2016).) However, as the Supreme Court explains in _Burson v. Freeman_, 504 U.S. 191, 200 (1992), once the size of the electorate started increasing, the paper ballot was introduced to the American system.

Given the fact that no official paper ballot was provided, political parties took advantage of the then new voting model by making their own ballots --which generally "looked like train tickets"-- and started approaching the voters to give them such ballots, hence obtaining their votes. This practice, together with other coercitive threats to the exercise of the right to vote, gave rise to what has been called "the hard-won right to vote one's conscience without fear of retaliation:" the secret ballot. Some states started adopting the Australian ballot system --which was based in "the idea that governments should provide [official] ballots" as an attempt to "secure secrecy" and, thus, put an end to "intimidation by employers, party bosses, police officers, [and] saloonkeepers."

Currently, all the states and the District of Columbia have adopted either constitutional or statutory provisions that guarantee the secrecy of the American vote.

Online Voting

Going to polling stations to "put a cross on a piece of paper" in a digital era might seem archaic to some. Online voting --defined as "a form of electronic voting and involves casting a ballot through the Internet"-- has been proposed as an alternative to paper ballots.

To be sure, voting through the Internet could bring multiple benefits to the electoral system, some of them similar to those brought by other digital substitutes of paper. First, online voting means that you could cast your vote from the comfort of your home or, even better, from the palm of your hand. In a country where many refrain from voting because of, for instance, "inconvenience, transportation issues or bad weather," it is undeniable that online voting could increase the electorate's participation. Moreover, going "paperless" in the electoral context could provide significant long term cost reductions, as less human and physical resources would be needed to administer an election.

Examples of Its Implementation

Online voting is not an abstract, futuristic idea anymore. It has already been introduced in some countries. Estonia became in 2005 the first country to adopt online voting for nation-wide elections. Its Government's official page distinguishes its online voting system from the "costly and problematic" electronic voting systems that other countries have and assure that "the Estonian solution is simple, elegant and secure." To ensure anonymity, Estonia has a "pre-voting" period, during which the individuals log in using ID-Cards and cast their votes. However, the Government alleges that, once the vote is transmitted to the Electoral Commission, the individuals' information is "removed from the ballot thereby ensuring anonymity." Similarly, in 2012, France allowed its citizens that reside abroad to cast their votes online. Moreover, a study shows that in the United States, 32 states and D.C. have made online voting available to some voters (generally, military and overseas voters). Most of those state require voters to sign a waiver of their right to a secret ballot.

Problems of Online Voting

Albeit the previously discussed benefits that could be brought by the implementation of online voting, such system could threaten the privacy of voters and the integrity of the electoral system. Moreover, online voting systems provoke the collision of two fundamental values of any democratic election: voting secrecy vis a vis voting integrity and transparency. Ensuring the privacy of the voters' information could impede voters from verifying that the vote that they casted is, in fact, the one that is eventually transmitted and counted. On the contrary, a system that traces the voters' information with a particular vote, could compromise voting privacy. What is more, studies have found that "not one of the existing Internet voting systems provides adequate security for public elections or guarantees voter privacy."


In sum, the digital era provides new undeniably convenient technologies that facilitate simple life activities. Voting is no exception to it. Online voting has been proposed, and even implemented, in some parts of the world as an easier and cost effective alternative to paper ballots, which can seem increasingly outdated. However, this polling mechanism presents a conflict between, on one side, the increasingly popular interests in convenience and cost-effective measures and, on another side, the secrecy of one's vote, a cornerstone value of democracy. Similarly, a clash between voting secrecy and electoral integrity would likely be inevitable. These challenges, combined with the growing use of technologies to affect the electoral behavior, leads me to conclude that paper ballots are, for now, the most democratic mechanism to exercise the right to vote.

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The draft holds together well, and is informative. I think it would be stronger if it bore the courage of its convictions more fully. It is not difficult to show that ensuring both ballot privacy and electoral integrity without voter-verifiable paper ballots is very difficult. Unless some compromises are made in one direction or the other, it's impossible. Paper ballots filled in by voters voting in person or by mail, on the other hand, achieve both goals admirably. Your argument can therefore be both simpler and more forceful than it is in the present draft. Working out the first part is not difficult given the state of the literature on the subject.

You might also be interested in the view of the relation between digital voting technology and voting rights that Pam Karlan and I took, in the late Stone Age in the Soul of the New Political Machine piece in 2000.

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r3 - 10 May 2018 - 19:07:18 - EbenMoglen
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