February 09, 2018 | Matthew Rice in Scotland Blog

E-voting's Unsolvable Problem

E-voting is sold to the public as a solution to the problem of democratic participation, especially ‘the youth’ turnout. Recent experience suggest that isn’t the case. In fact, e-voting creates problems, not solutions, and these problems are unsolvable. 

With Scotland and Wales proposing trials for electronic voting it is vital these governments understand the risks they are introducing into their electoral systems.

E-voting’s conditional problem

Elections have to satisfy three conditions, they must be:

  • Secure - Your vote has to be secure, steps must be taken to make sure it can’t be tampered with; but also
  • Anonymous - Your vote can’t be traced back to you, protecting you against coercion; but also
  • Verifiable - It has to be shown that one person cast this one vote, and didn’t cast another to be counted, but also continue to be secure and anonymous.

Nightmare? You don’t even know the half of it.

In the past electronic voting systems have failed to achieve these three key conditions, ultimately because they are difficult to satisfy. These principles actively compete to undermine each other in this race to secure democracy. And we can see from other countries that these conditional problems have sunk electronic voting in the past.

The Netherlands dropped their e-voting solutions in 2007 when it became obvious that votes weren’t secure.

Norway recently stopped their electronic voting because too little was known about the providers security system, and it became obvious that it wasn’t delivering turnout as they had hoped, according to Norway’s Institute of Social Research.

Australia’s Electoral Commission released a damning report in January 2018 that the government had misled the public about the security of its voting systems in the 2016 federal elections.

These countries have learned the hard way that solving the problems of electronic voting does not come easy.

Solving the conditional problems

But perhaps we just haven’t embraced blockchain? Which could guarantee verifiability of the vote because it is a persistent, transparent, public, append only, ledger of votes. But then the vote is no longer anonymous as it can be traced back to you.

Well, then use mix-nets a method of taking votes and then shuffling who recorded what before sending them out again, thus making them untraceable but still verifiable.

Great! Just explain to everyone exactly how that works…. Without using the words cryptographic proof and homo-morphic encryption. If you can’t do this, then you’ve introduced the human problem of a lack of technical understanding that can be exploited to call interference in the elections.

E-voting's unsolvable problem

The key to democracy is not in the winning and taking power, it is in the counting, the losing, and the acceptance of that result. At the moment the way electronic voting is attempting to solve these problems means it is becoming less and less understandable for the general population, making the outcome of an election more and more disputable.

Some systems claim to solve those problems by introducing advanced security software, and including those that increase the verifiability of the vote using blockchain technology. However, by solving these conditional problems this way, e-voting opens to a much more dangerous problem: claims of electoral interference.

Remember: all of these principles of security, anonymity and verifiability have to be achieved in an understandable way. If they can’t be then you get the opportunity for losers to claim fraud, and their supporters to believe them.

In the fractured political environment we find ourselves in, it doesn’t even require e-voting to be part of a system for claims of election interference. There were claims in Scotland’s Independence referendum, despite the Electoral Commission concluding it was well run. While the referendum didn’t involve electronic voting, if it were available you can bet it would be used to stir up tensions.

In fact, we’ve also seen these disputes in countries actually using these e-voting technologies - and the premise of the dispute is the e-voting itself, disgruntled losers and bullish winners exploit the lack of technical understanding to claim interference.

The only solution for securing electronic voting appears to be through using advanced security and cryptographic tools. But the problem with that is that it uses advanced security and cryptographic tools so most people can’t understand it and thus distrust the solution.

And there it is: the unsolvable problem with electronic voting.

Democratic processes need to be understood by more than a handful of advanced cryptographic experts. It needs to be trusted by all of us, and most important of all it needs to be indisputable for the worst of us. If a solution can’t do that, it leaves us in a very precarious position

So, until we all get our computer science degrees and start running blockchains as easily as we can count a stack of papers, electronic voting is going to risk handing the trust in our elections over to whoever can get in front of the media the fastest and with the best soundbite. Open Rights Group are not prepared for that risk and oppose the adoption of electronic voting.

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