Can the Swedes Swing the Net Vote?

An upcoming e-voting trial in Sweden may make voting safe for the Internet.

By Joe Berkofsky, TechTV News

How do you say "pregnant chad" in Swedish? If an upcoming online election in Sweden goes according to plan, we may never need to know.

Safevote, a San Rafael, California-based company, has signed with the Swedish government to provide technology for the first Net election in Swedish history -- a potential precursor to e-voting throughout Sweden and in other European countries.

"This is seen by the [Swedish] government as an experiment that can provide answers" about the viability of online voting, Safevote CEO Ed Gerck said.

The election, for the student union at Umea University in northern Sweden, will combine both electronic and paper balloting and will cost 500,000 kroners, or about US $50,000, Gerck said. The funds, provided by the Swedish justice ministry; the Foundation for Knowledge in Stockholm, which promotes research at Swedish universities; Umea County; and the university itself, will also pay for an extensive study of the election, he said.

Some 12,500 Umea residents will be eligible to vote in the student union e-election, which will take place between April 27 and May 11. Net votes will be allowed between April 27 and May 10, snail-mail ballots will be taken from April 27 through May 11, and voting in person will take place at six precincts at the university on May 10 and 11.

Unlike a typical election -- perhaps excluding the Florida presidential contest -- voters will be allowed to vote as many times as they'd like, in whatever form they choose, and in multiple locations. But Safevote's software will ensure that there's no ballot-counting confusion since a person's final vote will be the only one counted. "What really counts is your last vote," Gerck said.

In another measure to secure votes and avoid a fiasco of Floridian proportions, each of the three balloting options will be assigned a value, Gerck said. "The Internet trumps the mail vote, and the precinct trumps the Internet."

No matter how voters vote, they will be asked to establish their identity and eligibility via what Safevote is calling "digital vote certificates," or DVCs. These anonymous encrypted electronic signatures will allow Swedish voting officials to audit and verify each vote off-line, Gerck said. Using a six-character DVC, voters will be able to go to a special election website and verify that their vote has been validated and received for tabulation.

The point, he said, is that "no one should be able to prove, or disprove, how someone voted." If votes are made public, he said, voters could fall prey to blackmailing or to offers to sell a vote.

Gerck added that the DVCs will prevent so-called site-spoofing, by which a vote may get lost if a ballot is emailed to a fraudulent voting site. That's happened in previous Internet voting, he said.

But Rebecca Mercuri, a Bryn Mawr College computer science professor who testified on behalf of the Democratic Recount Committee in the Florida presidential recount battle and whose doctoral thesis concerned e-voting, says Gerck's system ignores some basic dangers inherent in Net elections. 

"The issues with Internet voting have less to do with technology than with social problems: vote-selling, as well as coercion, not to mention voter fraud," Mercuri said Wednesday.

Already vote-selling cropped up in the 2000 election, she said, when the site offered votes to the highest bidder. While New York barred the site, it moved to an offshore address and any Net election could encourage such bartering on a much wider scale, she said.

Net elections could also encourage wider voter coercion, she said, because groups might bring computers to poor areas and stand "over their shoulder" as voters e-voted online.

Safevote's system also fails to secure against denial-of-service attacks and power outtages, both of which could hamper Net voting, she said.

"Even if Ed or someone else came up with the perfect Internet voting system, it doesn't address these other issues at all," she said.

Mercuri, who is due to face off against Gerck April 11 on TechTV's "Tech Live," said that in part because of these issues, no electronic voting system has yet been certified on "even the lowest level of the US government."

But Gerck defends his system, saying it passed a trial run during the 2000 presidential election in Northern California's Contra Costa County. In the days before the November election, 307 people in the county voted early using Safevote's system.

A Safevote poll commissioned by the California secretary of state found that 94 percent of the county's residents said they would prefer to vote from home or work via the Net, while 5 percent would vote via the Net at a precinct voting place. Only 1 percent of respondents preferred traditional paper balloting.

Determining just what the voters want is among the most important measures of success of any election, Gerck said. In the case of Umea, "if many people go to the precinct and vote, then we have a clear answer [as to] what they want."

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