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E-voting in U.S elections gets the thumbs down from on-line security critics

It’s been just a few hours since the U.S. election results have come in and along with them waves of relief for a lot of people (cool, non-discriminatory people wanting a better life for all…), all this while Hurricane Sandy has displaced thousands and threatened to exclude many disconnected voters from making their mark. Internet and fax voting was used as a last resort to give citizens the opportunity to be counted, but not everyone was satisfied with this option, considering the huge security implications of mass absentee e-voting.

Super storm Sandy unleashed her wrath along America’s east coast to devastating effect. A natural disaster as powerful as this would have been inconvenient at the least, regardless of the timing but many U.S. citizens found themselves displaced and potentially vote-less during a nail-bitingly close election call. Allowances made for citizens unable to get to the polls included voting from any station in the state but even this fell short of a fully comprehensive plan, with much of the public transport network disrupted in New Jersey and streets left difficult to navigate. Voting by email and fax was allowed for residents throughout New Jersey, New York city, neighbouring Nassau, Rockland and Westchester counties. Although voting laws permit overseas citizens and members of the military to vote this way, internet voting has never been used en mass and the option was only seen as ‘justifiable’ due to the extreme circumstances surrounding it.

What went wrong

E-voting has been described by on-line security watchers as ‘inherently insecure’, with Bruce Scheier, a security officer for the elections, admitting, “I’m not filled with confidence, but this seems like the best of a bunch of bad alternatives.” Of course there were concerns around multiple voting, spamming and the lack of anonymity which would basically be waived if voting was done from a personal email address.  Safeguards were put in place to avoid rigging, including the required submission of a signed hardcopy following the e-vote but these still left critics lukewarm about the idea beacause of the ease with which a gifted hacker could potentially intercept the electric ballot. There are so many ways that e-voting is less secure than in-person voting – it can’t be authenticated in the same way, therefore it’s not as reliable and opens so many doors for tampering.  As if the potential for problems wasn’t enough, mail boxes set up to receive the email votes filled quickly, leaving frustrated voters unable to use the service with ballots bouncing back rejected.

Voting machines - AustralianIT

Voting machines – AustralianIT

It seems that electronics let the election process down on all fronts as polling station voting machines suffered from various malfunctions including altering the cast vote, as pictured above (gasp). The nature of this kind of content is just too sensitive for electronic mediums that haven’t been thoroughly tested so I suspect New Yorkers will be queuing to make that little X next time around.

Voting machines - US elections

Voting machines – US elections. Source: AP

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