NDPLR and Internet Voting

I watched the NDP leadership race with a moderate amount of interest. Although I am a happy supporter of both New Westminster MPs, and I am increasingly of the opinion that Harper donated his heart to Cheney, I am not am member of the NDP, and honestly had not educated myself too much on the leadership contenders.

Up to this weekend, I was most impressed by Brian Topp, although Cullen made a strong case for leadership by naming Beastie Boys’ “Check your Head” as his favourite CD (a bold choice: more challenging than the obvious choice of their magnum opus “Paul’s Boutique”, or even “Hello Nasty”, although that might, admittedly, have been seen as a dig against Mulcair).

To see the Tyee calling Mulcair a “right-wing Liberal” and lamenting his “rigid fiscal conservatism” the same day that James Moore calls him a “Hard-Left Socialist” tells me the NDP have probably done a good job hitting the middle of the road, only time will tell how his leadership skills will hold up.

The more interesting aspect of the race for me was the on-line voting aspect. Remarkably, I agree almost 100% with this City Caucus article on how the on-line experience that the NDP had should serve as a warning to those who think we should all be voting on-line in local, Provincial, or Federal elections in Canada.

When I was finishing up my undergrad, I had a roommate who was doing his Ph.D in computing science. He was a scary-bright guy, but the model of the born-in-1975 computer geek. He is probably a millionaire now, but would have no idea what to do with it if he was. I had a memorable conversation with him one time, talking about school and learning and the Philosophy of Science (Never, and I repeat Never, read Robert Pirsig during the last semester of your Science degree…).

He felt the real problem with a Computing Science education is that they spend a lot of time teaching you to use a computer to solve a problem, without ever asking whether the computer is the right tool to solve the problem you have. This was a profound insight that always came back to me while dealing with transportation engineers who wanted to solve congestion by building more roads, or Politicians trying to solve crime by building more jails.

The question for me, when people talk about on-line voting, is “What problem are you trying to solve?” followed shortly by “Is the Internet the right tool to fix that problem?”

The main problem people seem to identify is “lack of engagement” in the process. Essentially, people have stopped showing up to vote. There is no doubt the proportion of the population that shows up for elections has been on a steady downward slide in the last few decades. Just over 60% of eligible Canadians voted in the last federal election, one where the result was far from foregone on election night. The turnout for the 2009 Provincial election was closer to 50%. To suggest that internet voting will solve this problem presumes that people are not voting because they are too busy in their day to take the two-block journey to their local polling place to make a ballot on election day, or that they are too lazy to get off the sofa and vote.

I suspect people are staying home for other reasons: lack of anyone they deem worth voting for, general disinterest or genuine disgust with the process, the feeling that it won’t make any difference. None of these will be solved by Internet Voting.

For major elections, everyone is guaranteed 4 work free-hours while the polls are open to exercise their franchise. There are also advance polls and absentee ballots. There are myriad options to cast your ballot. if you can’t figure out some way to get your vote counted, chances are you chose not to exercise your franchise. Internet voting will not solve this.

Yes, I am aware that there is a small proportion of the population with mobility issues who do find it difficult to get to a polling place, but this is surely not a significant proportion of the up to 50% of the voting age population that fails to vote. Still, there are numerous ways we can (and do) make it easier for people in this small group to vote – absentee ballots, rides to the polls, etc. Internet Voting is not the best way to mange this.

So what’s the problem with Internet Voting? As the NDP learned, we cannot even imagine. DNS and other hacking attacks are the obvious concern, and would likely result in people who want to vote actually losing their franchise (as apparently happened to some NDP Leadership Race voters. Then there is the “black box” concern about how the votes are counted, and how auditable the process will be. Balancing security of the secret ballot with the need for transparency of the final count (and re-counts) would be difficult challenge for any systems designer. The loss of either of those will reduce the confidence in the system, and likely worsen one cause of general disenchantment with the process.

I don’t think these programming problems are unsolvable, I just question why we want to go through the hassle of solving them with such a kludge solution as the Internet. Paper ballots work. If there is a problem in Canada’s electoral system, it isn’t the paper the ballot is written on.

Oh, and Cullen? he’s so wrong. Paul’s Botique is totally where it’s at

Beastie Boys – Shake Your Rump by EMI_Music

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