The ICANN Election

The most ambitious international Internet-based election was held from October 1 – 10, 2000 by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Since the organization deals with Internet governance, ICANN felt that some Board members should be elected via an Internet-based election. (One of the authors, Barbara Simons, was the runner-up for the North American seat, which was won by Karl Auerbach.)

Anyone age 16 or older with an email address was eligible to vote. The world was divided into five regions, and a nominating committee selected candidates from each region. There was also a member nomination process. The voter registration stage was managed by ICANN; administration of the election was contracted out to election.com.

Problems with accessing the official website occurred in every phase of the election, starting with voter registration. The Carter Center reported: [1]

The serious problems encountered occurred in the final days of the registration period. A strong surge of registrants, particularly from the Asia Pacific region, overwhelmed the ICANN server and caused a denial of service to people attempting to register. . . . [T]he legitimacy of any election can be questioned if the voter registration process grossly fails to enfranchise the great majority of persons wishing to vote.

In spite of problems, about 158,000 people completed the first stage of voter registration, though registration was unevenly distributed. As the Carter Center observed, there may have been an attempt to augment the voter list:

[I]n the European region the number of registering voters from Germany was much higher relatively than from other EU member countries . . . . In the Asia Pacific region media coverage, apparently state-sponsored in large part or corporate-sponsored in one instance, generated a higher level of voter registrant interest in Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan . . . . Further information . . . indicated that a Japanese corporation and certain Japanese government agencies apparently did actually solicit registrations and votes on behalf of a Japanese candidate.

Because ICANN significantly underestimated the number of people wishing to participate in the election, there were insufficient computing resources. The problem was exacerbated because people tended to wait until the last minute to attempt to access the ICANN website. Each person who successfully registered was sent a unique Personal Identification Number (PIN) via the postal service. After receiving their PINs, voters were required to activate their membership, a process intended to reduce the risk of fraud. However, the activation requirement was confusing to many voters. Furthermore, some voters lost their PINs or never received them, especially in countries with unreliable mail systems.

Of the roughly 158,000 people who registered, about 76,000 activated their membership, and about 34,000 voted. These numbers suggest large-scale disenfranchisement of voters at every stage, with roughly 22% of the initially registered voters actually voting.

Some people claim to have cast multiple votes, a possibility confirmed by the Carter Center:

Individuals intent on registering more than once using more than one email address would not find it too difficult to defeat the controls and beat the system. The possibility of doing the same on a large scale organized basis therefore also exists, introducing the risk of fraud capable of changing the electoral outcomes. Batch registration in the Asia region apparently occurred and raises questions about people registering for other people and voting on their behalf as well.

Many aspects of the ICANN election were far from transparent. Attempts to get ICANN to disclose how they decided if someone attempting to register was a legitimate voter were unsuccessful.[2] A request by Ted Byfield (who has written extensively about ICANN) for details about the hardware and software used for the signup process was also fruitless:[3]

[I] pressed ICANN to release information about the systems supporting the ...signup process ... whose failures were widely noted . . . . In light of those failures, . . . I requested: (1) “the hardware configuration of the server(s) . . .”; (2) info on “who or what company wrote the software . . .”; (3) “documents associated with the specification of the hardware/software configuration . . .”; and (4) a statement as to whether “the implementation . . . [was] subject to an open and/or competitive bid.” In its inimitable style, ICANN hasn’t refused these requests: instead, after much hand-waving, it has refused to refuse them. [Italics in original].

The Carter Center report stated that “the technical weakness in the registration system made it virtually impossible to assess the integrity of the voters’ list, the security of PINs, and secrecy of vote.” It also noted that technical problems during the first day of voting created a “credibility problem.”

[1] The Carter Center. Report on the Global, On-Line, Direct Elections for Five Seats Representing At-Large Members on the Board of Directors of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), November 2001. http://www.cartercenter.org/documents/1056.pdf.

[2] Michael Froomkin. Email to Barbara Simons, July 2007.

[3] T. Byfield. ICANN: transparency through obscurity, October 2000. http://www.tbtf.com/roving_reporter/icann2.html#10.