July 31, 2010
The So-Called Online Internet Primary in Oregon
Right now there’s a lot of hype, hoopla and hyperventilating about the nominating process of one of Oregon’s minor parties, the “Independent Party.” Party leaders called it a “primary” and the media has followed suit.
Political commentators and executives from the private company that conducted the tally using proprietary software are all breathlessly predicting that this is the future of voting and pointing to scattered examples where online voting has been used elsewhere, not always with complete success (that’s the subject of another post, which I’ve partially addressed in a discussion about Hawaii’s low-turnout experiment in 2008).
What actually transpired was more like an online convention, but without the glad-handing by politicians and after-hours socializing — in other words, it was not a lot of fun for most people, which may help explain the extremely low participation rate of 4 per cent by the 57,000 or so voters registered as members of the Independent Party. Those who chose to participate in the online nominating process were required to complete the ballot in one session, all the while wrestling with an unfamiliar website – a tough challenge for all but the most computer-savvy and committed voters.
It is important to note that the online voting procedure used by the Independent Party to select it’s nominees is not in conformance with Oregon elections law regarding primary elections.
First of all, Oregon law is specific about the date of primary elections (third Tuesday in May in even-numbered years) – and the filing deadline for candidates (in mid-March two months before Primary). Furthermore, the voter registration deadline is 20 days before the primary. Except in the case of military and overseas voters, ballots are sent out 18-19 days before election day. Voters and candidates plan for this schedule and know when the deadlines are and what to expect.
The Independent Party created their own very different schedule, leaving many voters confused and candidates scrambling. This fact alone may help account for the less-than-stellar participation rate of four per cent.
The equipment and software used for counting votes in Oregon elections is required to be certified by the Secretary of State – it is publicly tested before each election to see that it performs correctly. On the other hand, the software used in the online process of the Independent Party is neither certified nor publicly tested. Everyone involved – Independent Party voters, the general public and candidates – is forced to rely only on the assurances of Every One Counts, the private company that was contracted to conduct the online election, about the accuracy of the vote count. There is no way to recount the electronic votes and no way an outside observer can tell whether the reported vote tally actually reflects the will of the voters.
Speaking of recounts, Oregon law is pretty specific about those, also. If the top two candidates are separated by 1/5 of one per cent or less (and this frequently happens in contested primaries in Oregon), then an automatic hand recount is required. In the case of this online “primary”, there’s no paper so there’s nothing to recount, naturally. How can you say that this online voting process is so wonderful if you cannot recount it?
I say enough!
Enough already with relying on the assurances of private companies that everything’s just hunky-dory! We’ve seen it again and again that private companies cannot be trusted to act in behalf of the public good – just remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Massey coal mine disaster, BP spill in the Gulf, toxic toys imported from China, shoddy electrical work by Halliburton killing troops in Iraq – the list is long and growing longer every day.
Why should we trust the most sacred transaction of our democracy, the vote, to private companies who are only motivated by profits and whose only loyalty is to their shareholders, not the public good?
We should approach the assurances of private corporations that they are doing a great job with the same attitude that characterized our relations with the Soviet Union during disarmament negotiations: Trust, but verify.
If we cannot verify and recount the election results, then we cannot trust them. Online voting does not meet this basic standard for elections in a democracy.
And don’t treat it like a real primary election, at least in Oregon.
For further details about the Independent Party results please see: