Monday, August 6, 2012

Common Cause Caught using Junk Science to Fuel Moral Panic over Internet Voting

Common Cause, the darling of Democratic Party liberals, and one of the top fund-raisers among the professional progressive 501c “non-profits,” has fallen below its saintly claim to Moral Purity. Along with volunteers from the Verified Voting Foundation and the Rutgers School of Law, Common Cause has joined the nearly 10 year old movement to create a Moral Panic in the US over the supposed insecurity and untrustworthiness of Internet voting. Their most recent effort is a pseudo-scientific propaganda tract entitled “COUNTING VOTES 2012: A State by State Look at Voting Technology Preparedness.”* 

The study was largely conducted by contacting the office of the Secretaries of State, or other local election officials, and asking them about their election equipment and procedures. While this approach seems sufficiently empirical to merit the esteemed rubric “science,” the authors then go a step further and cook up their own “rating system,” which is very far from “scientific.” Indeed, under the guise of science, their tract is really a polemic against Internet voting.

What is Internet Voting?
In furtherance of their mission to alarm the American people about the specter of Internet voting stalking the nation’s election processes, the authors conflate the email return of voted ballots with voting on a state’s website. In their words, “Both e-mailing voted ballots and transmitting them through a Web portal are forms of ‘Internet voting’ (page 78).”

However, this is decidedly NOT the common usage of the term “Internet voting.” Normally, that term means logging on to a state’s website, passing the security and registration check, being presented with a blank ballot, marking it, and clicking the “vote” button.

Ordinary emails are far less secure than voting on an official website. On website voting, for example, a military quality encryption can be used, which scrambles the information so that only the website server can decipher it.  Such encryption is not used in emails. Hence, emails can be viewed during transmission in ways that web based information cannot. Voting officials understand the difference. That is why they have confidence that voting on a website with a secure server can be done without a loss of privacy for the voter. But the regular practice for voters using email and fax transmission is to require a privacy waiver from the voter before the vote will be accepted. 

Governments require these waivers both to inform the voters of the risks they are taking, and to protect themselves from lawsuits in case a voter’s vote suddenly appears in the media.

In their rush to fuel the current Moral Panic over Internet voting, the authors deceptively lump Internet voting together with emails, and even with “Internet fax services” (page 78).  Using this fudged meaning of “Internet voting,” the authors then create the “fact” that up to 31 states use “Internet voting” (wink, wink).

The authors, like Greek gods from atop Mt. Olympus, declare “ratings” for the various state practices. As advocates for paper-based polling place voting, they rank states that follow this “best practice” exclusively as Excellent. Their key measure is the use of paper.  Twenty states require their overseas voters to snail mail their voted ballots.  Never mind all the well known problems of a ballot going through the mail from a foreign land to the US, these states are honored with a “scientific” rating of Excellent.

States, like New Jersey, that allow fax or email return of voted ballots, but also require that the voter send in his or her marked paper ballot may be deemed as “generally good,” or “needs improvement,” depending on how tightly restricted is the use of electronic ballot return. For example, Iowa requires paper ballots from most of its overseas voters, but allows its small number of overseas voters in dangerous areas to just fax or email their voted ballots. For this deviation from a strict paper-based regime, Iowa and six other naughty states are scolded with a “needs improvement” rating (page 459).

With all the majesty of Common Cause, the authors express their imperious contempt by using the epitaph “inadequate” for those 24 states that accept fax, email, or web based ballot return.^  The only way for these wayward states to get back into the good graces of Common Cause, is to demand that their overseas voters use snail mail – no matter what the hardships or inconvenience that may entail, whether the state’s voters are patrolling some vast desert, out at sea, stuck on a mountain top, or under fire in a combat zone. The main message to the 50 states of this report is: Use all paper, or be bad! It’s that simple.

The Opps! Department
While paper-based polling place voting is the Gold Standard for these authors, they conveniently fail to mention anything at all about the long history of this voting method’s short-comings. With Internet voting, there could be no boxes of uncounted ballots from overseas found floating in a river, or misplaced under some clerk’s desk, or miscounted by rushed and tired government employees working overtime to count each ballot by hand. Opps! While they were talking about how Iowa needs improvement for allowing a small amount of fax or email return of ballots by soldiers under fire, they forgot all about the fiasco earlier this year. Hand counting paper ballots in Iowa resulted in Romney being declared the winner of the state’s caucus votes. But a couple of weeks later, after Romney got all the credit and moved on, they discovered some uncounted and miscounted ballots. Then Santorum was the winner! But wait, not all the precincts had yet reported their counts. Precinct captains promised that they would turn in their voted ballots – as soon as they could find them!

The authors tell us that, “in fact” Internet voting is vulnerable to a variety of “security threats including cyber-attacks such as modification in transit, denial of service, spoofing, automated vote buying, and viral attacks on voter PCs (page 78).” Opps! They forgot to present their scientific studies showing how these have happened in real Internet voting, and how probable each event is in the real world. Well ... maybe they didn’t “forget.” They didn’t present any such science because NONE EXISTS! None of these things has ever happened. Internet voting has been done in Estonia, Norway, Switzerland, France, Mexico City, several places in Canada, and a few US states; but none of those scary stories the authors tell has ever come true.

The authors also make the unsubstantiated claim that Internet voted ballots cannot be audited. But that is not at all true. Module logs can be used to audit and to cross check one another. (See my post here on
 The Audit Problem)

William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
Political Scientist, author, speaker,
CEO for The Internet Voting Research and Education Fund
Twitter: wjkno1

Author of Internet Voting Now! 
On Kindle and in Paper 

*As the authors state, at page 6, this 2012 paper updates the data provided in another paper on election practices in the US, which they issued in 2008. Their current project is different only in that it focuses on an area not discussed in the prior study; that is, the use of fax, email, and Internet voting for overseas voters (page 6). My comments pertain to this new area of focus in their paper.

^ Feeling generous, the authors treat Washington DC as the 51st state, so all their state totals are 51. They also offer the 2010 comedy in DC as “proof” that Internet voting systems can be hacked. But that was merely a first run trial of a poorly built system, which was never used for any real voting – see DC Fiasco  and DC Hack a Conspiracy?