America hasn’t been very keen on internet voting.
A salesperson tried to sell me an internet-enabled TV for my office the other day.
I asked if he was bundling a security event and incident management appliance or a unified security management server along with his television so that his device didn’t compromise my network. The salesperson asked me what I meant… so I hung up on him. No thanks.
In my town, we’re still voting with felt-tip pens and paper ballots. Every time we’ve tried experimenting with networked voting machines, the resulting foul-ups and leaked security flaws have inspired media panics disproportionate to the actual impact. This has given the rest of the world a good laugh, and our national reputation as technology innovators a black eye. What people outside of the USA might not appreciate is why we’re so irrationally opposed to technology-assisted voting. Ironically, the main reason that we’re afraid of it is not based on the real and well-established threat that will likely bring down e-voting; it’s based on obsolete fears.
We have a longstanding problem with disenfranchisement in the US. Recently, many states have passed so-called “voter ID” laws. These are ostensibly meant to prevent voter fraud by ensuring that non-citizens don’t get to sway a close election. In most cases, they’ve been found to actually be racially motivated voter suppression tactics – a way to give one of our two nearly identical parties an unfair advantage over the other. The espoused rationale for requiring official government-issued identity cards at the polling place is that unscrupulous campaigners might round up a bunch of unregistered, non-citizen, or underage proxies and drive them from one polling place to another to cast as many ballots as possible for the chosen candidate(s). The fact that this isn’t actually happening anywhere in our elections is of little consequence to the people who advocate for stopping it. Or for the angry pensioners who rail about it on social media.
Our political parties and their backers have lost the plot: they don’t appreciate that the world has evolved. Most people’s understandings of election fraud threats are hopelessly outdated. Ballot stuffing is an obsolete and largely ineffective way to give your candidate a minor advantage. Likewise, preventing eligible voters from the other party from casting a ballot is largely ineffective in all but very small, local elections. The demagogues campaigning against internet voting are showing that they fear 18th century fraud in a 21st century context. Yes, some of that may occur, but it’ll likely be statistically insignificant and, given the nature of modern internet culture, largely irrelevant.
There is a legitimate and terrifyingly real danger on the horizon, and we already know what it is: mischievous sabotage. LULZ voting. A snarky rejection of the unacceptable status quo.
We know that this happens. Back in May of 1998, People magazine held a meaningless online poll to determine the world’s Most Beautiful People. They expected to see the normal, vapid idolisation of celebrities. Instead, some bored and capricious early hacktivists decided to skew the online poll in favour of write-in candidate Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf from Howard Stern’s radio show of the era.
At the end of the poll, Our Hank (yes, I voted for him too) crushed the competition: 230,169 votes to the number two candidate’s 17,145. As author Clay Shirky later assessed it: “Voting for Hank offered people a chance to violate people’s expectations while still playing by its rules.”
That’s what we have in store in future US elections once we embrace modern technology. We have a strong anti-establishment sentiment in the USA that’s often driven to frustrated hooliganism by our collective disgust with and distrust in our elected officials. Given that, and given the opportunity to engage in widespread (but entirely legal) election disruption that doesn’t require physically standing in line to vote, you can expect American Millennials to tear into the establishment candidates with a whimsical lust for chaos. I expect the results will be hilarious.