U.S. history is fraught with conflict regarding civil rights issues, policy, and regulations when it comes to minorities. Slavery was abolished in 1865. Women got the right to vote in 1920. African Americans gained that right in 1965. While the nation has made many strides forward in areas of civil rights, there is talk of moving the nation into an online-only voting process. But the question is, what are the consequences of such a change?
The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 to end discrimination against blacks, prohibits states from making changes in voting procedures without Federal approval to guarantee voting won’t discriminate against minorities. The Act applies to any changes that could decrease minority participation.
The U.S. Department of Commerce issued a report in February 2010, entitled Digital Nation: 21st Century America’s Progress Toward Universal Broadband Internet Access, which examined the use of computers, the Internet, and other information technology tools by the American people. The report concluded that demographic disparities among different ethnic groups’ access, adoption, and usage persist.
With the current state of the “digital divide” between technologically savvy and wired white and Asian voters and less digitally literate and technology-equipped blacks and Latinos, online-only elections could be seen as a violation of voting rights for the “technology have-nots” if there are no other options (i.e. the in-person and mail-in voting methods we use today).
ARE WE THERE YET?
Remember, it took the nation 144 years to give women the right to vote, so what’s the hurry to bring voting to the Internet? Convenience? But at what cost? E-voting must have system integrity that cannot be manipulated, exploited, or breached. Some argue that if technology currently supports online financial transactions, why not extend it to e-voting? The reason is simple: Financial institutions have insurance to repay customers if their accounts are hacked, but the cost of someone’s ballot being compromised or anonymity being breached is immeasurable.
The consequence of compromising democracy is greater than the cost of losing dollars. There are numerous technological challenges, but also socioeconomic, policy, legal, and administrative challenges that are inherently at odds with exclusive digital voting. Keeping this in mind, jurisdictions have been sticking with 20th-century voting techniques.
Online voting or e-voting is a long way off. With innovation, Internet-only voting may be inevitable, but Paul Stenbjorn, Information Services Director at the DC Board of Elections and Ethics (DC BOEE), says, “It is many, many years away, more than a decade, possibly more than a generation away.” Before it can happen, though, several problems related to ensuring voters’ privacy and minimizing the potential for security breaches must be resolved.
The DC BOEE leads the nation in attempting to overcome the security obstacles and offer e-voting. Two months before the 2010 general election, they sought the guidance of the tech community in the development of election systems for digital ballot delivery and return to provide military and overseas voters a convenient method of voting.
When the BOEE’s Digital Vote by Mail application was deployed, an invitation to the nation’s best tech minds was sent out to try to hack into the system to discover deficiencies and vulnerabilities. Within 36 hours of the system going live, a team of University of Michigan computer science graduate students, led by Professor J. Alex Halderman, cracked the security code, hacked their way into the system, and left an audio file as their calling card featuring the Wolverine football team fight song “Hail to the Victors” as evidence that the system had been compromised. Professor Halderman discusses his team’s findings in his blog, Hacking the D.C. Internet Voting Pilot.
The estimate that it could be an entire generation before the only way to vote is online might provide civil and human rights advocates with a sense of relief; however, the nation needs to remain vigilant in making sure that broadband is accessible for the entire electorate before moving to an exclusive e-voting system.
The NAACP, through its Civic Engagement Programs, points out the potential that exclusive e-voting has of trampling voters’ civil rights and continues to fight for social justice for all Americans. Other organizations that target underrepresented communities are also preparing for a future where e-voting may become a reality. One such organization is the Hip Hop Caucus (HHC), which describes itself as “a civil and human rights organization for the 21st Century,” and aims to promote political activism for young (ages 18 through 39) U.S. voters using hip-hop music and culture so that when e-voting becomes a reality, these voters will be ready.
ONLINE VOTER REGISTRATION – A KEY NEXT STEP TO ONLINE VOTING
More young people voted in 2008 than in any other election in U.S. History, and the Hip Hop Caucus can take a lot of the credit. The HHC, a member of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, was instrumental in getting young minority voters registered. Their Respect My Vote public awareness campaign is the only major non-partisan Hip Hop voter mobilization campaign this election cycle. It focuses on educating, registering, and mobilizing young people of color. Online voter registration is the next logical step before e-voting.
Before online-only voting becomes a reality, many more programs like this one should be established to help encourage, and in many cases educate, minority populations about the online voting process and voting’s overall importance.
As the eventuality of online-only voting looms ever nearer, it is increasingly important that we assess the impact of such a measure. Efforts like those of the DC BOEE, NAACP, and HHC are a start, but if the impact is not properly assessed, the consequences – both socioeconomic and societal – could be dire. If the nation moves to exclusive e-voting, then broadband universal access is critical to our democracy infrastructure so that no ballot is left behind.
Janis D. Hazel was appointed by the U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census to manage the Washington, DC Decennial 2010 Census operations as the Local Census Manager for Washington, DC. She’s responsible for obtaining data from the District of Columbia’s residents to ensure the community receives its fair share of government funding and help federal and state agencies, elected officials, and businesses provide the services residents and visitors rely on every day for the next decade.