[Air-l] Motion fails by two votes: "This house has confidence in voting via the Internet"

Christian Sandvig csandvig at uiuc.edu
Mon Jun 23 16:06:20 PDT 2003

Dear colleagues,

I've written a brief conference report (well... a debate report) from
today's event.

I hope this is of interest,


Motion fails by two votes: "This house has confidence in voting via the
23 Jun 2003, Oxford, UK.\
Christian Sandvig (csandvig at uiuc.edu)

This evening I attended a debate in the Oxford Union on the motion "This
house has confidence in voting via the Internet".  Jim Adler, CEO of
e-voting technology company VoteHere, put the case for the motion.  Jason
Kitcat put the case against: Kitcat was the founder of an e-voting startup
(in 1999) who has since renounced the idea and founded the Free e-Democracy
Project.  The debate was moderated by Prof. Stephen Coleman, best known for
his work with the Hansard Society.  The event was sponsored by the Oxford
Internet Institute at Oxford University.

The venue was the debating chamber of the Oxford Union: think of it as a
stained glass temple to oration.  The speakers addressed the motion, for and
against, an expert panel commented on the presentations, and then two rounds
of question and answer were held before a (non e-)vote on the motion.

After the voting, some of the people sitting in my section commented that
they voted for the motion despite the evidence presented by Mr. Adler, who
was allegedly in support of it.  His initial tactic to overcome the most
damning objections to e-voting seemed to be not to mention them, but this
did not serve him well after Mr. Kitcat and the audience began to speak.  By
the end of the evening he had admitted that voting online was problematic,
and he had often asked the audience for blind faith in technological
progress: sometimes directly and sometimes via truly tortured allusions to
the early automobile and particle physics, among other innovations.  He
deferred more than one objection to e-voting by asserting that the
technology presently exists to overcome the problem in question, but that
the solution was too difficult to explain.  I admit it was hard to assess
some of Mr. Adler's case because he did not speak clearly or slowly -- for
this he was heckled briefly.  If you couldn't understand him on the webcast,
this is not an artifact of the Web.

Despite Mr. Adler's efforts against his own cause, several questioners (in
person and via the Internet) eloquently came to his aid by highlighting the
promise of e-voting for increasing turnout, experimentation, and voting in
circumstances other than national elections.

Most interesting to me:  Mr. Adler was very clear in calling for
verifiability, expert review of source code, and (shock!) even open source
solutions if need be.  I was personally surprised to find these positions
from the CEO of VoteHere, and I wonder if he is representative of the
industry in this.

In contrast, Mr. Kitcat delivered a competent and thorough review of the
risks of e-voting, doing an exceptionally good job of noting some of the
problems with recent e-voting trial projects in the UK and elsewhere.  With
the aid of several questioners, over the course of the evening Kitcat
developed a convincing argument that the emphasis on e-voting (particularly
in the UK) is the result of governmental obsession with quantifiable
benchmarks and show over substance.  That is, noisy e-voting initiatives
imply progress and suggest a solution to low turnout without addressing the
fundamental problems that cause low turnout: perceptions among the
electorate that their vote doesn't matter, they aren't well informed about
the issues, and that politicians are interchangeable.  This is a notable
contrast to the US, where e-voting is often couched as a fix to an election
system that is already broken and untrustworthy.  Despite his strong
performance overall, he never seemed able to meet the repeated suggestion
(from Mr. Adler and the audience) that all voting systems have flaws.
Although his presentation suggested to me that the Internet has
fundamentally different and more significant flaws than other methods of
voting, Mr. Kitcat did not seem able to incisively articulate them after
questioning or in summation.

Prof. Coleman chaired the event with a gentle dexterity and the expert panel
provided some of the most significant comments of the evening.  The debate
was webcast (a first for the Oxford Union) and an archived webcast is due to
be posted online soon.  The archived Q&A is worth your time if you are
interested in this area.

After two hours, in a show of hands the motion failed by the narrow margin
of two votes, leading to a cry of "recount!"

URL:  http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/debate_230603.shtml


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