January 29, 2018 | Matthew Rice

Electronic Voting: An idea whose time has come to go away

The Scottish and Welsh  Governments want to run trials of electronic voting. They are asking the public’s opinion on this in online consultations. These pieces of electronic democratic participation are great.

E-voting isn’t. In an effort to generate greater democratic participation, the Welsh and Scottish Government risk undermining democracy itself.

There are a whole bunch of initiatives the two devolved Governments can undertake to improve democratic participation, online voting should be dropped so that they can focus on those other initiatives.

Open Rights Group have been monitoring electronic voting initiatives over a number of years. We’ve participated in monitoring pilots in 2007 and in London in 2008 and most recently formed part of a team monitoring Estonia’s online voting in the country’s 2014 general election. In each of these monitoring expeditions we’ve seen practices and systems that undermine the three core tenets of a trustworthy election: free, safe, secure.

Scotland and Wales should not go ahead with trialling online voting. It won’t improve turnout and it may do more damage to public confidence in elections.

Unsafe, insecure, not free

Estonia conducts online voting via its I-Voting system. This is a country that has committed to digital government more so than any other. There are tax returns online that are already mostly filled in thanks to links between the tax office and local banks, and you can look at who has been accessing your medical records, auditing it via blockchain and reporting if anything suspicious is going on. And yet, even with this sophisticated digital infrastructure, a group of technical experts were able to demonstrate the insecurity of Estonia’s voting system.

Vulnerabilities were discovered on the user side, hacking an individual’s machine which would then allow changing their vote, attacks were so sophisticated this could be done even if the user were looking for such attacks. Additionally, the team discovered vulnerabilities on the counting side, where a server loaded up with votes for one candidate could be switched with another in the counting process, undetectably.

ORG’s technical observers were left with little option but to recommend ceasing use of the I-Voting system. 

Everyone needs to agree on the outcome of an election. The way that is done now is by having hordes of individuals monitoring the counting of paper ballots, all aspects of the vote count are transparent, there is no blindspot. At the end of the count, when the result is declared, everyone agrees that candidate A got more than candidate B. If there is a dispute, there is another count. E-voting is a departure from that. It does not carry the same transparency for the masses as watching a piece of paper with an X on it pass onto a pile.

The argument goes that electronic voting will increase democratic participation. However, these vulnerabilities fundamentally undermine the safety and security of elections. If these can’t be guaranteed then how do the candidates and the public trust the outcome of elections? If people can’t trust the process, they will lose trust in the outcome and most fundamentally the benefit in participating in democracy itself. The paradox of e-voting may be that it destroys rather than increase democratic participation.

Estonia is an outlier. A country determined above all else to go fully digital, but also possibly in denial about the insecurities of their online voting system. Scotland and Wales need to recognise it takes a lot more than a day’s event at a University with e-voting providers and a meeting with pressure group to provide the basis to take your democracy online and to guarantee the prerequisites of safety, security, and freedom.

Scotland and Wales need to look at the experiences of Germany, Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands, among others  - who considered e-voting but eventually turned against it for various reasons, but with one constant:

The systems could not be trusted.

Won’t increase turnout

Scotland’s consultation asks two questions:

If internet or mobile phone voting was available, would you choose to use that rather than vote at a polling place or by post?

If internet or mobile phone voting was available, would you be more likely to vote?

That second question is key to much of the discussion of e-voting - it will increase turnout by making the process of voting much easier - a person could do it when they got home on polling day, or some time in the lead up to the vote with postal voting, rather than waiting outside a school or town hall rain drenched and surrounded by dogs.

E-voting is discussed as having the “potential” to increase turnout, specifically in younger individuals. But the statistics don’t add up. Consistently the results of polling for why people don’t vote is not, “it isn’t convenient enough”, but due to disengagement; the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee said it, interestingly David Cameron said it while he was Prime Minister and was asked about the benefits of online voting, and studies from London School of Economics said it was partly a failure of political parties to engage and partly lack of civic education.

Choose a different path

Open Rights Group will be campaigning for as many people as possible to take the time to respond to the online consultations. Scotland and Wales want to hear your opinion on these initiatives. This is an important moment to make your feelings and concerns known - if enough of us respond, they won’t be able to ignore us.

Democracy is more than just the activities of a population one day every few years. It is about the day to day, how we participate in our communities, how our representatives talk to us and listen to our concerns, all of these could be improved by the use of technology.

To turn to voting as the aspect of a democratic society that needs some technology injected into it above all others is misleading, and most worryingly, dangerous. The Scottish and Welsh Governments should pursue many initiatives for improving democratic participation through the use of technology. But, in doing this, they should leave e-voting on the shelf. 


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