Electronic Voting

Haldane students examine e-voting issues

By Alison Rooney

Most of Haldane’s seniors are at the threshold of voting age, beginning to turn 18 in the coming months. As they turn their thoughts to this privilege and responsibility, members of Ms. Melissa Seideman’s AP Government class were asked to think about how they might, in the future, cast votes. Mark Pivon, who works for Scytl, a leading company in secure electronic voting (EV) and election management, spoke on the topic “Is electronic voting inevitable?” as guest speaker.

Pivon was not physically in the classroom, but was instead streamed into it, from his home in Canada, via a screen-sharing experience through Google Hangouts. Repeated during each of the two AP Government classes that day, the topic was obviously interesting to students — in addition to students enrolled in those classes, students in the other 12th-grade government classes were invited to watch in the standing-room-only classroom during both periods.

Haldane AP Government teacher Melissa Seideman explained to students what would transpire with e-voting.

Haldane AP Government teacher Melissa Seideman explained to students what would transpire with e-voting. Photo by A. Rooney

Questions raised in Pivon’s presentation are pertinent to all voters in this and future election seasons. Scytl began as a university research project 18 years ago, then had a period solely as a research and development entity. The “hanging chad” voting situation in the 2000 U.S. presidential election provoked interest leading to a big injection of venture capital investment, with the recognition that this might be the future of voting.

Currently, according to Pivon there are about 196 democracies in the world right now, of which 18 are fully legislated for e-voting; we [Scytl] support 16 of these.”

Pivon said there were two types of EV: in person, supervised which could entail computer terminals replacing computation, or unsupervised, in which processes which go along with conventional voting essentially disappear. “How do we make it work?” he posited, answering, “Through privacy, security and integrity.” Noting that courts intervene to quash elections when there are inaccuracies, problems with distribution, and eligibility breeches, Pivon described what matters in elections as: democracy: one person, one vote; accuracy: the final vote count reflects intent; secrecy: no vote easily traceable to an individual; accessibility and transparency: how to make transparency available to courts if a vote is challenged.

Pivon then discussed some of the specifics now in place to ensure that these essentials are achieved, key components being encryption, receipt and immutable logs, which he described as “indelible recordings of who you are, like DNA: unchangeable.” Without encryption, on both client and server sides, he said, “It’s kind of like locking the doors on a convertible.”

Also critical are multiple password and verification entries, and other steps necessary to “defend an election against all the people who lose.” This involves individual verifiability, that each vote has been cast as intended. How can voters verify their votes were counted as cast? There must be follow-up capability. You have to create rules around e-voting, including creation of an electoral board – the only people able to see votes on the server.

Student Noah Campbell asked: “Do you worry about there maybe being a target from hackers because it’s [a particular vote] so important?” Pivon said yes and called it “one of the biggest arguments against EV. How do you mitigate against coercion or vote buying? Democracy is a precious and delicate thing and we need to protect it.”

Calling the biggest benefit of EV increased voter participation, Pivon mentioned the current difficulties people have with accessibility to polling stations during traditional hours. He cited current EV use in unions, associations and within political parties for internal party leaders as evidence that EV was taking off and working well in many situations. Student Cali Schweikhart asked, “How have other countries who have implemented EV fared?”

Pivon said that there had been lots of problems in countries which were “trying to run their elections off the side of their desk. You need dedicated teams involved … I believe it is necessary to be managed by a third party to be successful.”

Following the presentation, Seideman had arranged for students to go onto TED.com, conversations, a global forum where they were to log their opinions and comments on the topic and read about/respond to what others around the world thought on the topic.

Schweikhart called the overall injection of technology into the classroom “an interesting resource for our teachers and students. It makes our class move into a broader range of things we can do; we can video chat instead of reading from a text and that makes the classroom more exciting and involving, and hands-on.” Student Lana Ness, who said she had never thought about the subject matter said she enjoyed the presentation because “it’s a different method. It was good to talk to him one-on-one and it gave us an insight into someone who actually does this work.”

Seideman, speaking of her bent for technology in the classroom, explained: “As a teacher of the 21st century, I feel it is my responsibility to teach my students how to harness the power of technology in a safe and appropriate way. Teaching history with technology is not as much about the tool but a way to teach our students to express themselves and connect our classroom learning experiences with the world.”

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