Using technology instead of paper ballots reduces costs and could boost voter turnout – but questions remain over security and possible electoral fraud.
Suppose, for a second, that the concept of elections was new, and it was your job to pitch them to the nation. You start off singing the praises of democracy, and how it transfers power to the people like never before.
People are looking excited, so you then bring up the concept of a legislature: all the elected representatives doing the important task of scrutinising the government, as well as enacting new laws and debating important national issues.
You’ve pretty much won them over, so now you turn to elections: those momentous days when the whole nation marks their choices with a pencil cross on small pieces of paper, which are gathered up, counted by hand in their thousands, and used to determine who runs the country.
A deathly silence falls. Someone in the back mutters: “Paper?” You decide that now is perhaps not the time to introduce the concept of postal voting.
Face it: British elections are ever so slightly anachronistic.[divider]Pencil and paper[/divider]
The problems with our current, resolutely 19th-century method of running elections should be obvious. Votes can be miscounted, misread, or even simply misplaced. Counts consist of thousands of people across the country, paid overtime to stay up all night manually sorting and counting those votes.
When they go wrong – as happened in Tower Hamlets during the 2014 local elections – there’s no easy way to trace the problems back to their source, and no easy way to fix them other than simply restarting the count.
At this point, one might be forgiven for feeling trapped in the “before” section of an infomercial.
But yes: there is a better way.
Electronic voting machines are used in some of the world’s biggest democracies, including Brazil, India, and the Philippines, to get around some of these hurdles. The machines come in all shapes and sizes, from small touchscreen devices to larger units with physical buttons and a printed ballot paper on the front.
But those nations that have widespread adoption of electronic voting are also developing nations with relatively short democratic histories and their own unique challenges, from inaccessible rural populations to low levels of literacy.
Addressing those concerns was a driver for the introduction of electronic voting, but has also led to a perception that the technology wasn’t necessary in developed nations, according to Antonio Mugica, the chief executive of electronic voting firm Smartmatic.
“One is cost reduction: so I’m sure Britain could spend less per election if it was using technology, and the security and integrity would be 10 to a hundredfold better. So you have something that’s a hundredfold better, and it’s going to cost less.”
The concept of electronic voting has garnered widespread political support, seen as both a cost-saving measure and a possible way of boosting turnout in an era of declining voter representation. A Labour spokeswoman said: “Labour is committed to looking at radical ways of encouraging more people to vote, by making the process easier and more in tune with the way people live their lives. Labour will pilot secure systems for electronic voting, including online voting.”
Not everyone agrees that electronic voting is dramatically better, or even better at all. The switch does remove some problems inherent to paper ballots – not least the cost of simply printing and distributing the millions of ballots required to make an election happen. But it also introduces its own.
The chief fear of many is that a switch to electronic voting would make electoral fraud easier, not harder. In the worst-case scenario, rather than forging ballots individually, a wannabe dictator could simply flip a switch and win the election with no trail in sight.
Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, says that voting has to be secret, secure and accountable.
“This is a very hard problem to solve and so far nobody has managed it. Accountability in most software systems means a clear audit trail of who did what, which of course would violate the basic question of secrecy.”
And even without ascribing malicious intent, a bug in an electoral machine’s operating system could alter the vote result systematically. That’s why many observers, such as ORG, prefer that the machines only run on open source code, so that independent observers can check the programming is bug-free.
Smartmatic doesn’t go that far, citing the need to protect trade secrets, but typically encourages nations to perform a fully independent code review in the runup to an election, inviting all political parties and representatives of civil society to check for bugs. The code is compiled then and there, with a digital signature that individual voters can use to check that their machine is running the correct software.
As for the audit trail, it’s something that the company takes very seriously. “We bring, along with the technology solution, a recommendation to perform 17 different audits, before, during and after the election,” says Mugica.[divider]Keyboard and mouse[/divider]
But if those problems are tricky to solve, they’re nothing compared to the other major form of electronic voting, online voting. Casting votes over the internet seems like the natural progression of democracy to the 21st century, but it requires a fairly fundamental rethink of how the electoral process should work.
In order to let people cast votes from home over the internet, we have to decide to give up some of the most important principles of our electoral system, like guaranteeing that a vote cannot be given away, stolen or forced, and ensuring secrecy of the ballot.
Those problems are so fundamental that, to date, only one country has really cracked the problem: Estonia, where almost a quarter of all votes cast in the 2011 parliamentary elections were made online. In March, the country heads to the ballots again, for its sixth election where online voting is allowed. And the proportion of votes cast online is expected to rise even further.
How have they solved the problems? With a mixture of hard work and smart solutions.
On the one hand, Estonian civil society is the most connected in the world: every citizen has an online ID card, which has biometric information about them and digital signing capabilities. The card can be used with a chip-and-pin machine to prove to government agencies online that its user is a citizen of Estonia.
That solves half the problem, letting voters sign and encrypt their votes as they transmit them to the polling office, in order to prevent them being intercepted or fraudulently cast.
But what Estonia can’t do is control the conditions in the home of the voter. So instead, they get around it another way, explains Smartmatic’s Michael Summers, who works with the Estonian government to provide the voting solution. After voting, “a copy of the vote is also sent to a verification server”. The voter can then check that their vote has been correctly registered at any time, to ensure that it wasn’t changed by malware on their computer, for instance.
“If you think about an internet application, the environment which is hardest to control is the voters’ computer. Anyone who has a laptop runs the risk of downloading malware, so the purpose of verification is that we give the voter an opportunity to check that their vote has been correctly recorded by the server.”
Importantly, voters can also change their votes throughout the polling period, and if they vote in person as well, that “overwrites” their online vote.
“Given the vast numbers of machines that are infected by criminally controlled malware and the temptation for someone to interfere in an election, internet voting is a bad idea.”
But the tide seems to be turning in the concept’s favour. In January, the Speaker of the House of Commons published a report on digital democracy, which concluded that “online voting has the potential greatly to increase the convenience and accessibility of voting”.
“In the 2020 general election, secure online voting should be an option for all voters,” said the report. In response, the Electoral Commission’s chair, Jenny Watson, said: “We will consider carefully the balance between maintaining the security of the system, whilst making it as accessible as possible for voters as part of this.”