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New York City Council Members Consider Internet Voting and Free Airport WiFi

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, December 19 2013

Even as the Presidential Commission on Election Administration is still considering improvements to the U.S. election system, politicians on the local level are also looking at ways to address voting problems that came up in recent elections.

The New York City Council Technology and Government Operations Committees on Wednesday held a hearing to consider the "Promise and Perils of Internet Voting" in municipal elections. Committee Chair Bronx City Council member Fernando Cabrera said he was drawn to the potential of Internet voting to address long lines, low voter turnout and save costs, citing successful precedents in other countries such as Estonia. Voter turnout in New York City's recent mayoral general election hit a record low of 24 percent. Election officials and advocates cited security and cultural barriers to the widespread adoption of Internet voting, but pointed to other technological improvements that could help improve the voting process.

New York City Board of Elections Executive Director Michael Ryan said he and other commissioners had not had enough time to come to a consensus on the issue. But he said he felt the cultural challenges would be one significant obstacle. "It would be a wholesale change really in the way business is done, right down to the way campaigns are run," he said, noting the practice of poll watchers at polling places. "From a cultural perspective we've gotten very used to voting in a particular way ... Voting is a private thing but yet a very public thing," he said, noting the traditional gathering at polling places. "The resistance may be in the breaking down of the actual rituals more so than the technology itself."

Ryan said one change the Board was very interested in is the introduction of electronic poll books rather than the current paper ones, which could require the appropriation of funds by the City Council. "That does a lot on the front end and on the backend ... because a lot of the delay at the table is the individual ability to navigate and then hand the book to the voter to sign the appropriate spot." Saving 15 seconds per voter at busy polling sites could lead to "saving an hour at the end of the day." While also noting the challenge of wireless access at some non city-owned polling places, he said the electronic poll books would also make the process of accessing voter history faster and more accurate.

Ryan said the Board had had a five hour meeting with the voting machines vendor after the most recent city elections to discuss future election technology. He suggested that sometimes "the public private partnership is not exploited for the greater good," and that rather than getting technology companies "to fit a government idea," it made more sense to "jump on what they are already doing."

Ryan also pointed out that the Board was focusing on making the reporting of results at the end of Election Day more efficient by changing the lengthy process by which the data from voting machine memory sticks has to be uploaded by police officers so it can be more direct. Ryan said he had written to the State Board of Elections about the issue and that if the vendor receives the appropriate certification, the changes could be in place for elections in 2014 or 2015. He praised the City Council members for spurring the discussion. "If we don't start the conversation, nothing is ever going to happen."

In his questioning, Cabrera noted that online voting seemed logical given the prevalence of online financial transactions, online tax filing, online shopping and online student loans.

But officials testifying emphasized that voting is fundamentally different from those transactions. Because voting has to be secret, "you are unable to determine how a voter actually voted while still counting, the transaction is essentially unauditable, unverifiable and subject to hacking," said Doug Kellner, co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections. He also noted that banks suffer losses frequently "but that the bottom line is that eventually someone discovers the money is missing -- when you steal a vote, you can't the prove that the vote is missing because the vote is secret." He pointed out that state election law expressly forbids voting machines in New York from including any device connected to the Internet. Regarding the possibility of improving the reporting of results, he said that an option of conducting the upload from the memory stick directly on the scanner should only be possible if "you could prove to us that the output would only go in one direction."

While some states have made it possible for military or abroad voters to return absentee ballots by e-mail or by fax, Kellner said New York had rejected that idea out of concerns over voter privacy and the risk of vote interception, and was instead focusing on making it easier for absentee voters to receive ballots.

He praised Governor Andrew Cuomo's move to implement online voter registration via the Department of Motor Vehicles, saying the program had helped hundreds of thousands of people and that there were no reports of any significant problems or fraud. Kellner said he thought increased use of an electronic signature on file to improve voter registration through other agencies or for absentee ballot requests was already legally possible, but would require more funding. "Voter registration transactions are public and not secret," he said. "The State Board of Elections has a small budget that could not absorb that kind of charge without some appropriate funding," he said.

He also contrasted the differing responses to the voting challenges after Superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie had directed counties to allow voters to submit their ballots by fax or by e-mail, similar to the system for absentee voters. Kellner said the reported chaos from that policy ended up "disenfranchising tens of thousands of people" who thought they would be able to vote that way, even as the county boards did not have the resources or the servers to deal with the volume. "New Jersey law still required a verification and therefore anyone who did not also print out their ballot and mail it in wasn't counted." He praised Cuomo's decision to allow people displaced by Sandy to vote at any polling place, a policy that Kellner said "enfranchised" between 300,000 and 400,000 voters. (Cuomo announced Wednesday that he was hiring New York City's Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot to be the state's deputy secretary for technology, a few months after he hired the city Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications' Andrew Nicklin.)

State Assembly member Brian Kavanagh from the East Side of Manhattan echoed Keller when he emphasized that the "fundamental difference between a voting system [and the financial system] is that in the latter the individual is in a position to verify an outcome, [while with election systems] ... the sum of all these transactions determines who runs the city and state and no individual is in a position to say that a vote wasn't counted," adding that this fact showed the importance of ballot machines' auditable paper ballots. He also pointed out that the requirements of online voting including passwords and software could create more obstacles than currently exist, the need to have both systems running parallel to each other initially if implemented, and the still widespread skepticism regarding the existing scanner machines.

Kavanagh said more effective ways to address the problems at the state level would be legislation in support of early voting, an expanded ability to vote by mail with no-excuses absentee voting, expanding online voter registration beyond the DMV to include social services agencies, as envisioned by the National Voter Registration act, and pre-registration for 16 to 17-year-olds. He also said that implementing an electronic poll book and registry system could play a significant role in getting the public "used to these mechanisms and would be a major step towards rethinking this longterm."

City Council Member Gale Brewer, participating in her last meeting of the Technology Committee, which she previously chaired, before taking on her new role as Manhattan Borough President, said she was skeptical of Internet voting, noting that the potential requirement of I.D. cards was problematic given the Voter I.D. debates, but emphasized her support for improving reporting of election results and encouraging voter registration through other agencies.

Susan Greenhalgh, elections specialist for the Verified Voting initiative, testified that computer security experts who serve on the group's board of directors had determined that it would be "almost impossible to truly safeguard any kind of voting system...without a radical change in computer or Internet infrastructure or a safety breakthrough." She noted that computer scientist Peter Neumann is leading a research effort financed by DARPA to develop a more secure Internet system and that there are other more long-term efforts to develop end-to-end verifiable encrypted systems. Unlike for banks, there is no option to take on insurance in anticipation of voter fraud, she said, and with the cases in Estonia or the states that have implemented limited online voting, there is no real way to confirm that a ballot was not compromised.

Kate Doran, Board of Elections Director for the New York City League of Women Voters, urged the Board of Elections to consider printing ballots on demand, which could make it easier to incorporate late changes to the ballot, and to implement instant run-off voting. She also noted that the New York Health Exchange is encouraging voter registrations.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, pointed to a CNN story reporting that Chinese hackers attacked the Federal Elections Commission website during the government shutdown to echo the security concerns. She encouraged the Mayor's Office and the City Council to help determine which agencies are already collecting personal data that could be relevant for voter registration. She recalled that during voter registration drives, one of the most effective messages to get people's attention was "Are you registered at your current address?," illustrating the importance of making voter address changes more convenient.

She added that the group's efforts to crowdsource Election Day problem reports online had run into problems when a smaller percentage of voters were comfortable using smartphones than expected. She suggested that better government communication was necessary to encourage more election turnout. "It's very enticing to look at technology as a solution, but our problem with voter engagement is more basic than just a technological fix." She also suggested more pro-bono engagement by members of the NY Tech Meetup to help address voter technology issues. Common Cause recently released a report highlighting the benefits of early voting and ballots-on-demand. Doran added that if "we had a more technologically advanced poll site, we may be able to encourage younger people to want to be poll workers."

The Technology Committee also unanimously approved a resolution, spearheaded by Brewer, calling on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to change its contract with Boingo Wireless to provide free WiFi access at three New York City area airports, rather than the current paid option. The committee's report cites research from the Global Gateway Alliance, a business, labor and government coalition in support of airport modernization, indicating that 15 of the 20 busiest U.S. airports provide free WiFi. The report also notes that Boingo offers free WiFi services at Boston's Logan Airport, Denver International Airport, Nashville International Airport and Raleigh-Durham International Airport, as well as internationally at London, Rome, Sydney and Calgary airports.

In his testimony, Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the GGA, said that there is free WiFi "in 20 parks, five subway stations, public libraries, pay phones, coffee shops, soon a wide swath of Harlem and in this building" and highlighted a graphic showing "free WiFi everywhere in our region except our airports." The resolution also had the support of the Association for a Better New York and a Teamsters union representing airport and airline employees.

A City Council committee report also noted that many international visitors arrive at the airports with limited data connectivity and "are currently forced to sign up for one of Boingo's plans if they want to find directions to their final destination or to check in with friends and relatives at home. The lack of a free WiFi option does these travelers a disservice by essentially requiring them to pay for a foreign WiFi Internet product immediately upon arriving in the U.S."

Cabrera said it "frustrates me what we are saying to the world" without free WiFi at the airports. "I didn't realize we didn't have free WiFi at the airports," said Bronx City Council member Oliver Koppell. "I can hardly believe this is the case ... they've gotta do it. It's absurd. I'm surprised we haven't done this before. It's just an outrage."

The full City Council is expected to consider the resolution on Thursday in its last meeting before the new term and administration begins in January.