Green '75, Neff defend e-voting

by Matt Lewis | 11/2/01 6:00am

While speaking to a Dartmouth audience yesterday, Dick Green '75 recalled a politician's remark that was indicative of his company's struggle to bring electronic voting to the public.

"I think he was the first to admit that 'Politicians are very reluctant to change the system that elected them,'" Green said.

Despite the inherent fear of any severe shift from the status quo, Andrew Neff and Dick Green fervently believe their company, VoteHere.net, has solved the voting debacle that captured national attention during the 2000 presidential elections.

The large amount of attention, though, has ironically hurt the effort to introduce new voting systems, which VoteHere began developing in 1998.

"Prior to the 2000 election, many politicians were accepting to online voting," Green said. "Now, politicians feel quite exposed when making any decisions on it."

From county authorities to secretaries of state, officials in the public election infrastructure have also been wary of an online system that, if faulted, could "cause them to lose their jobs," Green said.

Another challenge to electronic voting has come from those who have limited access to technology.

"It's a major concern that many people of low income or education may not have access to electronic voting," Green said. "However, the Internet is proliferating at such a rapid rate that it will eventually become ubiquitous."

To many politicians' chagrin, online elections may also shift voting demographics by either broadening or limiting voting access,

Green proposed that online voting is more convenient for time-strapped voters, which could dramatically increase turnout.

He also countered the commonly held belief that online votes would be easily coerced by an observer to the voting process like a family member. The proposed system allows the voter to fill out essentially fake ballots that would appear valid to observers.

"You're never going to stop financial coercion, but if I pay you 100 dollars to vote for Bush, I'm not going to know if you voted for him or not," Neff said.

Current voting procedures rely on a trusted authority system wherein polling place employees monitor each other to ensure valid voting. The electronic system would eliminate this added source of error.

Despite political reluctance to online voting, Green still believes that the public sector is a viable market, beginning with military absentee voting.

"The first real use of Internet voting for political elections in this country will be military personnel voting," Green said.

Many states have also expressed interest in touch-screen formats. One audience member, though, opposed touch-screen voting that did not produce paper validation, comparing it to the error-prone ATM process. The electronic system, though, confirms the voter's choices after the ballot is completed with a separate screen that reiterates each selection.

Thick red tape hinders electronic voting from emerging on a national scale. County officials, who conduct the elections, rely upon state funds to buy new voting equipment, granting a great deal of influence over these funds to politicians.

The upshot -- "The smallest voice in the decision on buying voting equipment is the voter's," Green said.

Neff, Chief Scientist for VoteHere.net, mathematically assuaged many audience members' concerns that online voting would be prone to mechanical error and fraud.

Neff presented the complex theory behind the system, proving that it is ideally impossible to decrypt and would reduce all types of error in current election procedures. Each voter is assigned a private and public identification key, the latter being used for registration. A formula then takes the ballot and the public key as a "signed ballot," which is tallied without any reference to the voter's identity. A separate formula verifies all "signed ballots," making sure that no one voted twice or any ballots were fraudulently created.

Although neither state nor national voting systems are electronic, VoteHere.net has successfully used electronic voting in many private elections, including a recent survey of 80,000 Swedish conservatives.