April 16, 2014

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Information Facilitating Participation in Elections Must Be Readily Available – Principle #10 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

For the final installment of my series of blog posts outlining ten principles that governments and local communities should consider when evaluating whether they are using digital technology effectively to facilitate civic engagement, I will discuss the issue that goes to the core of democracy in our country – the public having access to information about elections. The information that facilitates participation in elections comes from a variety of sources, including local governments ensuring that people are easily able to register to vote, politicians using technology for conversations with the public during campaigns, and members of the public using e-mail, blogs and social media to discuss the candidates’ promises.

Technology as a tool for civic engagement has become an increasingly critical aspect of politics, particularly in urban areas. That’s because one of the factors that has affected political discourse, especially in urban areas – race – is diminishing in salience with the public. In a recent NY Times Op-ed, Thomas Edsall asked the question, “What if Race No Longer Matters in City Politics?” He noted the absence of race as a divisive factor in recent elections in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. Instead, he argued that income and class shaped the mayoral contests in Boston and New York.

As cities move away from racial politics, the vacuum is being filled, at least in part, by both citizens and politicians focusing on lifestyle issues. Right now, arguably there is nothing that reflects people’s lifestyles more than the wireless devices they carry and the content they choose to consume and share through those devices. And some of that content relates to civic engagement. For example, according to a 2013 Pew study, 67% of all 18-24 year olds engaged in some social network-related political activity in the 12 months preceding the survey. Overall, 39% of adults use social media sites for political or civic activities.

Given that citizens are moving their political activities on-line, it is important that state governments make it easier for people to participate in the political process by making on-line voter registration available. Approximately 15 states currently allow on-line voter registration, while approximately 5 more have passed legislation permitting on-line registration. In addition to added convenience, according to the state of Arizona, paper registration costs 83 cents per registration while each on-line registration costs only 3 cents. To be beneficial for the public though, on-line registration must be secure. CITP Fellow J. Alex Halderman, in an interview with the National Conference of State Legislatures earlier in 2013 recommended, “ensuring that security experts are consulted during design [of an on-line registration system], adequate security testing is undertaken before the system goes live, and ongoing monitoring for threat detection efforts [takes place] while the system is being operated.”

In a recent article in Politico, Columbia University Law School professor Tim Wu suggests that voter participation in Congressional primary elections is so low because of the “convenience gap” between voting and many other modern tasks and proposes increasing participation by moving voting on-line. I disagree with Mr. Wu’s solution partially because I think technology can close the “convenience gap” that makes voting seem burdensome by keeping people connected regularly to the civic and political decision-making process. Since people have the ability through digital technology to be extremely selective about the information they choose to consume, governments and political candidates need to use more targeted methods to reach each constituent with information that’s uniquely important to that person. For example, a person who is registered for Capital Bikeshare – the bike sharing service in the Washington, DC metro area – could register to receive text message alerts about community meetings on bike lanes and transportation policy generally. If a particular series of issues is closely tied to a person’s lifestyle and interests, I think that will drive participation. There will be no need to move to on-line voting now, before the security concerns can be addressed.

People who are invested in their local communities need to continue to experiment with ways to boost civic engagement. In advance of a special election for the City Council in Washington, DC this Spring, three popular local bloggers partnered on the “Let’s Choose DC” website, which posed one question per week to all of the eligible candidates. Candidates provided longer than a sound bite answers to questions about topics such as education, crime, and affordable housing. Readers had the opportunity to vote on the responses. While turnout in the special election was disappointingly low – only 11.32% – participation still improved compared to a 2011 special election that came in at 10.30%. The more that journalists, local businesses, civic activists and government officials recognize the economic and social value of assisting citizens in using technology as a tool for building communities that reflect their members’ needs and aspirations, the stronger local communities will become.

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Internet Voting Snafu at USRowing

USRowing, the governing body for the sport of rowing in the U.S., recently announced the discovery of likely fraud in one of its leadership elections.

Further investigation into this region’s voting resulted in the determination that fraudulent ballots were cast in the Mid-Atlantic election that directly affected the outcome of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director of the Board of Directors election only. Those responsible for the fraudulent ballots have not yet been identified.

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Internet Voting Security: Wishful Thinking Doesn’t Make It True

[The following is a post written at my invitation by Professor Duncan Buell from the University of South Carolina. Curiously, the poll Professor Buell mentions below is no longer listed in the list of past & present polls on the Courier-Journal site, but is available if you kept the link.]

On Thursday, March 21, in the midst of Kentucky’s deliberation over allowing votes to be cast over the Internet, the daily poll of the Louisville Courier-Journal asked the readers, “Should overseas military personnel be allowed to vote via the Internet?” This happened the day before their editorial rightly argued against Internet voting at this time.

One of the multiple choice answers was “Yes, it can be made just as secure as any balloting system.” This brings up the old adage, “we are all entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts.” The simple fact is that Internet voting is possible – but it is definitely NOT as secure as some other balloting systems. This is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of fact. Votes cast over the Internet are easily subject to corruption in a number of different ways.

To illustrate this point, two colleagues, both former students, wrote simple software scripts that allowed us to vote multiple times in the paper’s opinion poll. We could have done this with repeated mouse clicks on the website, but the scripts allowed us to do it automatically, and by night’s end we had voted 60,000 times. The poll vendor’s website claims that it blocks repeated voting, but that claim is clearly not entirely true. We did not break in to change the totals. We did not breach the security of the Courier-Journal’s computers. We simply used programs instead of mouse clicks to vote on the poll website itself.
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White House Statement on Cell Phone Unlocking: A First Step Toward DMCA Reform?

Yesterday, the White House officially responded to the online petition to “Make Unlocking Cell Phones Legal,” which garnered more than 100,000 signatures in under 30 days. The Administration’s headline was emphatic: “It’s Time to Legalize Cell Phone Unlocking.” The tech press heralded this significant but symbolic first step in addressing some of the most egregious shortcomings of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). I hope the White House’s response signals a new chapter in the struggle to regain the freedom to innovate, research, create, and tinker. Last week, I discussed the petition and its context with Derek Khanna, who has been a champion of the cause. You can watch the video here:

As Derek pointed out, this battle is connected to a much larger policy problem: the DMCA bans many practices that are good for society–and without clear counterbalancing benefits. Reading the White House statement, it is hard to tell whether the Administration appreciates this fact.
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How much does a botnet cost, and the impact on internet voting

A brief article on how much botnets cost to rent (more detail here) shows differing prices depending on whether you want US machines, European machines, etc. Interestingly, the highest prices go to botnets composed of US machines, presumably because the owners of those machines have more purchasing power and hence stealing credentials from those machines is more valuable. Even so, the value of each machine is quite low – $1000 for 10,000 infected US machines vs. $200 for 10,000 random machines around the world. [Reminds me of my youth where stamp collectors could get packets of random canceled stamps at different prices for "world" vs. specific countries - and most of the stuff in the world packets was trash.]

So what does this have to do with voting? Well, at $1000 for 10,000 infected American machines, the cost is $0.10/machine, and less as the quantity goes up. If I can “buy” (i.e., steal) votes in an internet voting scheme for $0.10 each, that’s far cheaper than any form of advertising. In a hard-fought election I’ll get a dozen fliers for each candidate on the ballot, each of which probably costs close to $1 when considering printing, postage, etc. So stealing votes is arguably 100 times cheaper (assuming that a large fraction of the populace were to vote by internet), even when considering the cost of developing the software that runs in the botnet.

Granted, not every machine in a botnet would be used for voting, even under the assumption that everyone voted by internet. But even if only 10% of them are, the cost per vote is still very “reasonable” under this scenario.

And as John Sebes responded in an earlier draft of this posting:

“You compared digital vote stealing costs to the costs of mere persuasion. What about the costs of analog vote stealing? It’s all anecdotal of course but I do hear that the going rate is about $35 from an absentee vote fraudster to a voter willing to sell a pre-signed absentee ballot kit. Even if the bad guys have to spend 100 of those dimes to get a 1-in-a-hundred machine that’s used for i-voting, that $10 is pretty good because $10 is cheaper than $35 and it and saves the trouble of paying the gatherers who are at risk for a felony.”

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My NYT Op-Ed: “Beware the Smart Campaign”

I just published a new opinion piece in the New York Times, entitled “Beware the Smart Campaign”. I react to the Obama campaign’s successful use of highly quantitative voter targeting that is inspired by “big data” commercial marketing techniques and implemented through state-of-the-art social science knowledge and randomized field experiments.  In the op-ed, I wonder whether the “persuasion score” strategy championed by Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, is on balance good for democracy in the long run.

Mr. Messina is understandably proud of his team, which included an unprecedented number of data analysts and social scientists. As a social scientist and a former computer programmer, I enjoy the recognition my kind are getting. But I am nervous about what these powerful tools may mean for the health of our democracy, especially since we know so little about it all.

For all the bragging on the winning side — and an explicit coveting of these methods on the losing side — there are many unanswered questions. What data, exactly, do campaigns have on voters? How exactly do they use it? What rights, if any, do voters have over this data, which may detail their online browsing habits, consumer purchases and social media footprints?

You can read the full article here.

The argument in an op-ed is necessarily concise and leaves out much of the nuance but I think this is an important question facing democracies.  The key to my argument is that big data analytics + better social science isn’t just the same old, same old but poses novel threats to healthy public discourse.  I welcome feedback and comments as we are just starting to grapple with these new developments!

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The Silver Effect: What We Can Learn from Poll Aggregators

For those who now think Nate Silver is god, here’s a question: Can Nate Silver make a prediction so accurate that Nate Silver himself doesn’t believe it?

Yes, he can–and he did. Silver famously predicted the results of Election 2012 correctly in every state. Yet while his per-state predictions added up to the 332 electoral votes that Obama won, Silver himself predicted that Obama’s expected electoral vote total was only 313. Why? Because Silver predicted that Silver would get some states wrong. Unpacking this (pseudo-)paradox can help us understand what we can and can’t learn from the performance of poll aggregators like Nate Silver and Princeton’s Sam Wang in this election.
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Tim Lee Reporting on NJ Email-Assisted Voting

Earlier this week, Professor Andrew Appel posted that “NJ Lt. Governor invites voters to submit invalid ballots“. Andrew has been offering updates at the bottom of his post since then. Professor Ed Felten also summarized the state of “New Jersey Voting in the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy,” concluding that, “I would strongly oppose any long-term move toward online voting, but I can see the point of allowing limited email+hardcopy voting for displaced voters under these very unusual circumstances.”

This morning, Tim Lee (an alumnus of of CITP) wrote on Ars Technica that:

…anecdotal evidence is starting to trickle in that the system isn’t working as well as organizers had hoped. One address used to request ballots was not even accepting e-mail late Tuesday morning. And in another county, an election official responded to problems with the county e-mail system by inviting voters to send ballot requests to his personal Hotmail address.

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Get Out the Vote, Cee-Lo Style?

This semester, Ed Felten and I are teaching a Freshman Seminar called “Facebook: The Social Impact of Social Networks.” This week, the class is discussing a recent article published in the journal Nature, entitled “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization“. The study reveals that if Facebook shows you a list of your closest friends who have voted, you are more likely to do so yourself. It is a fascinating read both because it is probably the first very-large-scale controlled test of social influence via online social networks, and because it appears that without much work the company was able to spur about 340,000 extra people to vote in the 2010 midterm elections.

I confess that last night I watched some of the wildly popular reality TV competition The Voice. What can I say? The pyrotechnics were more calming than the amped-up CNN spin-zoners. It was the first day that the at-home audience began voting for their favorites. Carson Daly mentioned that the show would take the requisite break on Election Night, but return in force on Wednesday. (Incidentally, I can’t decide whether or not this video urging us to “vote Team Cee-Lo” is too clever by half).
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Romance & “Reality” in the 2012 Presidential Campaign

Romance and “reality” are in conflict as the 2012 Presidential campaign approaches its election day apex. While the 2012 Presidential campaign lacks the historical resonance of the 2008 campaign, the 2012 campaign is notable, in part, for the attention many are giving to the quantitative analysis of polling data, most famously prepared by Nate Silver. Having correctly predicted 49 out of 50 states in 2008, Mr. Silver’s 2012 forecast has quite a bit of credibility, particularly with hopeful supporters of President Obama, who, on November 1st, Mr. Silver gave an 80.1% chance of retaining the Presidency.

Mr. Silver’s predictions have not impressed a group of people who also saw their stars rise as a result of interest in the historic 2008 election – political pundits. I describe a political pundit as anyone who might sit around the table on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Therefore, it is very appropriate that Joe Scarborough came to be at the heart of the most high profile dispute between Mr. Silver and a political pundit. Early on November 1st, via Twitter, Mr. Silver offered to bet Mr. Scarborough (with the winnings going to charity) on the outcome of the election. By the end of the day, the New York Times Public Editor had chastised Mr. Silver for offering the bet and Mr. Scarborough, also via Twitter, complimented Mr. Silver’s blog and made a $5,000 donation in Mr. Silver’s name to aid survivors of Sandy. In the end, this dispute between the romance and “reality” of politics led to a positive outcome for people in need.
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