Ballot Access & Digital Signatures

Ballot Access & Digital Signatures

by / January 31, 1996
As we lurch through this final year of the four-year presidential (re) election campaign, to choose the first president who will serve in the 21st century, it's well to ask whether the nation's ballot access systems are also approaching the next century. This doesn't concern gadgets for polling places; this concerns public access.

"Modern" access focuses, of course, on using the Internet to complement and supplement the evermore costly, delay- ridden, pre-landfill snailmail and phone calls processed by tax-strangled registrars of voters.

These proposals can be cost-justified in reduced printing and postage costs, and staff savings from fewer "disruptive" telephone requests and walk-in traffic -- savings that increase as more citizens discover these improved access alternatives.

Obviously, the text of ballot pamphlets should be available online, at the same time that it becomes publicly available in registrars' offices. Local jurisdictions and states that use electricity and automobiles should similarly utilize the much more efficient, much less expensive National Information Infrastructure.

Character formatting in ballot text, such as italics, boldface, underscore and strike-through, are complications but have numerous solutions -- including those used by Congress and modern state legislatures as they make legislative text available online.

Ballot text in multiple languages is viable online, but limited to those languages with alphabets and characters for which digital communications standards exist.

Several jurisdictions have begun adding photos to their ballot pamphlets. These would be unavailable for those online users who only have text access, but are easily included in web page versions of ballot pamphlets. Although only perhaps 10 percent of netvolks currently use web access, the percentage is increasing rapidly.

It's time for states to make voter registration forms available online -- to be printed by citizens who wish to register, or are willing to help voter registration efforts by printing and distributing reg forms around their communities.

At a minimum, it's myopically antiquated, arrogantly repressive and unnecessarily costly to insist that all voters use only one costly, pre-printed form for their scribbled applications.

Most states' chief elections officers already have the authority to permit alternative registration forms -- as they do in various implementations of the federal Motor Voter mandate, where departments of motor vehicles can print reg forms upon demand, complete with accurate name and correct address and ZIP-code already included.

Elections officers should similarly certify at least one "typewriter font" registration form and at least one printable web page form for citizens to print, fill in, sign and return just like the state's costly paper forms.

Some states insist on numbering their blank registration forms, including millions that are printed at taxpayer expense and physically inserted in cooperating newspapers prior to being discarded. Those states that simply must number all blank forms can still make numbered forms available via the chief elections officer's Internet file server, owned or on contract. By e-mail, FTP or other standard transfer mechanisms, online citizens could electronically request the quantity of forms they desire and specify the format they desire from among several popular choices (ASCII, Postscript, HTML, Adobe PDF, maybe even GIF, etc.). The elections officer's file server could then transmit the numbered copies by the specified online access method for the recipients to print and utilize -- entirely at their own cost.

There is an entirely different alternative to obtaining registration forms online -- conducting registration, in its entirety, online. We aren't there yet, but we're close. Modern elections officers are preparing for it.

Online voter registration that is as (in)secure as paper registration requires two things:

(1) Transmission techniques that guarantee information accepted by the registrar will be unchanged from the information that registrants transmit, and

(2) legally binding, hopefully unforgeable, signatory or authentication mechanisms -- misleadingly called "digital signatures" (which is completely unrelated to digitized signatures).

There are well-proven software techniques for detecting data corruption -- accidental or intentional -- and for authenticating authorship, but most have not yet obtained legal acceptance, and their public deployment is growing rapidly in spite of federal opposition (see below).

Online voter reg applications would be a perfect application for such modernization.

And (dare I even mention this where incumbents can see it?), the same techniques for distributing and accepting voter registrations online could be used for ballot petitions in those states that permit direct citizen ballot initiatives.

Some states are moving rapidly to accept digital signatures, at least on government documents. For instance, California -- under AB 1577 (Bowen), enacted late last year -- has mandated that, "In any written communication with a public entity ... in which a signature is required or used, any party to the communication may affix a signature by use of a digital signature that ... conforms to regulations adopted by the Secretary of State ... no later than January 1, 1997."

Similarly, the U.S. Postal Service, various financial institutions and several online services have announced comparable plans and services, now in various stages of development and deployment.

AB 1577 explicitly requires that, "The use of a digital signature shall have the same force and effect as the use of a manual signature if and only if it embodies all of the following attributes:

(1) It is unique to the person using it.

(2) It is capable of verification.

(3) It is under the sole control of the person using it.

(4) It is linked to data in such a manner that if the data are changed, the digital signature is invalidated."

Well-understood, well-proven software for accomplishing those much-needed personal and corporate goals -- authenticating authorship and fully protecting information against tampering and unauthorized access -- is available for free, worldwide, over the Internet, and for wee-fee by mail order. Its techniques, called "public key," were published in open technical literature about 15 years ago, patented only in the United States where tax funds paid for its development.

The only reason its deployment and pervasive use on the notoriously insecure public computer nets has been slow is because the Clinton administration and FBI zealously and blindly oppose fully secure citizen and business communications, even using world-published techniques and their globally available free implementations.

Jim Warren has served on the California Secretary of State's Electronic Filings Advisory Panel, received John Dvorak's Lifetime Achievement Award, the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists' James Madison Freedom of Information Award, the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in its first year. He founded the Computers, Freedom & Privacy conferences and InfoWorld magazine. He lives near Woodside, Calif. E-mail: