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Why we still can't vote online, and why that may be a good thing

Residents vote at a polling place on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa on September 28, 2012 in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

There is a genre of tech stories that begin, "If we can put a man on the moon...". Today we complete that phrase with the words: "why can't we vote for president from our home computers?" Some people think that the convenience of clicking Romney or Obama the same way you buy a song on iTunes could radically increase voter participation.

So just what's stopping online voting? Tech news site The Verge took a close look at the reasons it's not yet a reality, with some interesting results. Thomas Houston is an editor who worked on the piece, he says one of the problems is simply a lack of enthusiasm when it comes to getting a working online voting system up and running. Where there's a political will, there's a political way. Do you hear people out clamoring in the streets for the ability to mark their ballot in the comfort of their home office? No. 

Then there's the bureaucracy. Any system for online voting would need government approval from jurisdictions across the country, says Jesse Hicks, a correspondent also at The Verge who worked on the story.

The real reason has a lot more to do with online security and just how easy it would be to hack such an online voting system -- or maybe rather how hard it would be to build one that was hack-proof. David Dill, a Stanford Professor who studies this, says it's a very real challenge. 

"It's very hard to secure personal computers," says Professor Dill, who also founded Verifiedvoting.org, an organization whose mission is safeguard elections in the digital age. "Most of the measures people come up with for making it secure wouldn't be succesful if you had a virus on your PC." 

So, that knocks out what -- about half the PC-owning population? There's another problem, too. Dill says that even if there was a company providing what was promised as a hack-safe electronic voting system, one might wonder at the motivations of that company's owning entity -- let alone less-than-ethical developers or programmers on the payroll. 

"Given the stakes of a presidential election," says Dill, "Owners of the company may have bought it for the purpose of effecting an eleciton. For example there have been hearings recently in Congress, expressing concern about Chinese manufacturers of computer equipment -- for national security reasons." 

It sounds like no matter how much you may engage in politics on your phone or your Facebook account, it'll be sometime before you're actually doing your civic duty. For some of us, that might come as a bit of a relief. 

So, no internet voting this election day, and in tomorrow night's debate don't expect questions for the presidential candidates via email, twitter, Youtube, etc. Online input is so 2008, apparently. The format for the second debate is town hall style with questions from undecided voters who are physically present in the audience. The news site TechPresident points out that Google has a special web page soliciting questions for the debate, but the moderator, CNN's Candy Crowley, isn't expected to consult those.

 

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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