Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Interview With Dr. William Kelleher about Internet Voting

Jumping in Pools is proud to present number 84 in our ongoing interview series. Today we are interviewing Dr. William Kelleher, who is the CEO of the The Internet Voting Research and Education Fund, which is a non-profit organization aiming to promote alternative methods of voting, namely the secure internet balloting. Dr. Kelleher is a political scientist and can be reached at InternetVoting-at-gmail.com. Selections of his work are available free online for our readers here. Dr. Kelleher encourages comments and can be reached at his email address. We are grateful for this chance to interview him.

1. How would internet voting have changed the 2008 election?

Did you know that 31 parties, and 533 individuals, filed a Statement of Candidacy and a Campaign Finance Summary with the FEC for the 2008 presidential election? 

There were nearly 100 presidential hopefuls for the Democratic Party, and over 100 for the Republican Party.  Also, there were a dozen Green Party hopefuls, two dozen Libertarians, 20 Socialists, over 100 Independents, and 50 persons without a party label. 

This is only a partial list.  All the particulars are available through the FEC, or athttp://www.thegreenpapers.com/P08/candidates.phtml

Out of all these hopefuls, there were surely several talented and well-qualified candidates. However, the American people only heard from a very few.  At the beginning of the primary season, we witnessed “debates” between a half dozen Dems, and a few Repubs.  None of the other 500+ hopefuls got any significant press coverage.  So the American people were kept ignorant of what this field of candidates had to say.  Only Ralph Nader had some name recognition, but he was barred from all the carefully controlled Q&A that passes for debates.

If Americans seem to have a low level of political knowledge, here is the reason why.  The two-party system starves us at the very moment when interest is highest – the presidential election year.  All those voices were out there, eager to tell everyone about their policy proposals.  But the system silenced them all.  Thus, after a few cattle calls, and primary votes in just a few states, all the choices were made.  McCain became the Republican candidate in April, and Obama in May. 

Then for the six months leading to the November election, the American people heard from a measly two voices, repeating themselves over and over again.  For many of us, the General Election becomes a relief from the monotony of the campaign.

Internet voting, rightly organized, can change all that.  Imagine yourself watching a series of elimination debates online or on TV.  After each debate you go to your state’s voting web site.  You log on.  Your registration is checked, so there will be no multiple voting, and only registered voters will vote.  Once cleared, the ballot comes up and you vote.  You can vote from 0-9 for each of the debaters. 

Suppose each state conducts a series of elimination debates in this manner until each state produces its own “State Champion.”  Next, regional debates.  Then national debates.

In this way, the American voter could easily screen all 533 candidates (a dozen in each state, for example), and do it in a much shorter time than the current months and months of the same droning on. 

Obama spent over $740,000,000 to get elected, and McCain a little more than half of that.
McCain spent less because he took federal matching funds.  Obama had so much private money pouring in that he waived his right to those matching funds.

But both candidates were able to compete in the primaries because they had wealthy backers who contributed big money early in the game – like from the beginning of 2006.

Thus, early contributors of big money really control who will be able to compete for the presidency in our two-party system. 

With Internet voting, the only costs to the candidates would be the travel expenses to the studio where the debates would be held.  The costs of broadcasting the events could be very little.  Free time can be contributed by TV and radio, and showing the debates online is very cheap.

Thus, we could easily have a president in the US who had NO POLITICAL DEBTS to repay.  Do you know why Obama continued Bush’s dirty deal with the drug companies to forbid the federal government from negotiating drug prices for Medicare?  Do you know why he voted, as senator, to support TARP and bailout the big banks, and continued the policy as president?  Together they contributed tens of millions to his campaigns, and so he paid them back with billions.

In 2008 scores of stories flew around in the media and on the web about election irregularities.  Whether true or not, the integrity of the election was held low in public opinion. Electronic voting machines, DREs, have a reputation as untrustworthy.  There were long lines in the cold and rain at some poling places because the machines broke down, or there weren’t enough of them.  Absentee ballots that voters believed would be counted were often lost or ignored.  Many of the men and women in uniform who were stationed overseas could not vote because the snail mail process is too slow and time consuming to use.

Internet voting can be conducted as efficiently, accurately, securely, privately, and conveniently as buying a book on amazon.com, or paying your utility bill.   Americans have learned to use and to trust the Internet.  These elements can easily transfer over to voting online.   

2. What are some potential liabilities to an internet-voting system?
No voting system is perfect.  Paper based voting systems have a 200 year history of corruption, inefficiency, and errors.  These include such things as boxes of ballots found floating in a river, names of dead people still on voter rolls and still voting, human error while counting thousands of paper ballots by hand late at night, etc.

In the US, each state is responsible for conducting elections within its borders, including federal elections.  So, with at least 50 different Internet voting systems in use, something unexpected or unwanted is bound to happen.  The odds of this are higher in the beginning, because a lot of systems will be tried for the first time. 

But the biggest problem for Internet voting is the fear-mongering PR campaign of the anti-Internet voting, often pro-paper, forces.  As I show in two chapters of my book, truth and rationality are no obstacles for them.  They will conjure up all kinds of terrifying Sci-Fi horror stories calculated to cause doubt in the American public.  One of them warned that a teenage hacker in Iran could control the outcome of a US presidential election based on Internet voting – as if Ayatollah Khomeini would soon be occupying our White House!  (Read or download my chapter drafts for free at: http://ssrn.com/author=1053589)

3. How did you get involved with the internet voting movement?
My Ph.D. is in political science, and from the University of California, Santa Barbara (1984). I have been studying and teaching about American politics for over two decades.  I published my first book criticizing the two-party system and outlining a reform for presidential elections in 1987.  This was one of the first books to advocate a system of telephone voting.  Of course, it was rendered obsolete in a short time by the sudden rise of PC Revolution.

Gradually I came to see how the Internet could become the bases for a new system of voting. Other people have advocated for using the Internet in direct democracy methods, such as the referendum, initiative, and recall.  Electronic townhalls could empower the people in the legislative process.
4. What is the single largest advantage gained by switching voting formats?
Our Founding Generation sought Liberty through self-government.  This aspiration can be raised to new heights with Internet voting.  

Internet voting can help the American people to realize their full potential for democratic elections.  Indeed, Internet voting can Super-Democratize our election process.  Consider all the people who now feel disregarded or not cared about by their government, or who feel alienated and helpless in our political system.  They each can become so truly empowered by this change in the election process that they will feel a heretofore unknown sense of being a vital player in their political system. 

Ultimately, then, Internet voting is about feeling; that is, the personal experience of the American people in their political system.  The joy of real and decisive power, based on concrete institutions, for all the American people – this  is the promise I see in Internet voting, and the answer to your question. 

5. Anything else you'd like to add?
I hope that you and your readers will check out my chapter drafts and give me your feeback, positive or negative (don’t pull any punches!).

Thanks for your very thoughtful questions, and this opportunity to address them.

William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.


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