In light of decreased voter turnout in recent years, isn’t it time to seriously consider allowing voters to cast a ballot from the comfort of their own homes or on the screens of their mobile phones? A piece by Maya Hadar
All democratic countries share a vital common practice: voting. Interestingly, and despite contemporary technological achievements that enable us to perform most daily tasks online, voting practices have largely remained unchanged for centuries. Citizens cast their votes by showing up at a polling location and ticking off boxes for their candidates of choice.
The decline in voter turnout has been described as one of the major problems of contemporary democracy. As such, improving accessibility to the voting process is important for voters with disabilities and linguistic minorities, as well as for the average voter who may prefer not to take time off work or wait in line to vote.
Two main types of electronic voting exist: E-voting refers to vote casting in a machine placed in voting stations, physically supervised by independent electoral authorities or governmental representatives, whereas Internet voting (I-voting or online voting) is remote electronic voting from a personal computer or a mobile phone via the Internet. The I-voting system guarantees the anonymity of the voter and encrypts the vote. The voter then provides a digital signature to confirm his choice and his personal data is added to the encrypted vote. In the evening of the Election Day, the encrypted votes and the digital signatures are separated. Then, the anonymous I-votes are opened and counted.
Critics, many of whom are cyber-security experts, argue that people’s computers are getting less, rather than more secure as viruses and malware threats are becoming exceedingly frequent. Consequently, unsolved problems with internet-security make the electronic transmission of ballots vulnerable to attack and too unreliable to be deployed for elections. It has been further argued that,
beyond the threat of hacking or error, internet-voting cannot provide an adequate means of independently verifying vote totals, which will inevitably erode public confidence in the announced results of close or disputed elections. Other critics points to a dangerous link between voting patterns, age and internet accessibility:
„The left said the internet was just for rich people; rich people have access to the technology and are voting on the right, therefore it could be our death knell. The right said that the Internet was a new thing for young people, and the young people are more on the left, so it’s not good for us.“ (Alexander Trechsel quoted from Rosie Scammell)
I-Voting Around The World
Though in the US only astronauts are allowed by law to use I-voting, a total of 14 countries have now used remote Internet voting for binding political elections or referenda. Within those countries, four have been using Internet voting over the course of several elections/referenda: Canada, Estonia, France and Switzerland. While Estonia is the only country to offer Internet voting to the entire electorate, the remaining ten countries have either just adopted it, are currently piloting Internet voting, have piloted it and not pursued its further use, or have discontinued its use.
As one of the highest profile countries in using online voting systems, Estonia has been developing its e-voting system since 2002, and used it for the first time for local government council elections in 2005 in which 2% of the voters used I-voting. In 2009, this rose to 15%. In the parliamentary elections in 2011, nearly one in four votes was cast online. I-voting was further used in local elections in 2013, in EU parliament elections in 2014 and in parliamentary elections in 2015. Although Estonian voters use a combination of smartcards with built-in chips and smartphone verification to confirm their votes (In Estonia, all citizens have a smart ID card, enabling voter authentication in a way which can not be easily duplicated for an online voting system elsewhere), independent researchers who replicated the system in laboratory environment warned of its vulnerability and argued that e-voting might be an area which could never be guaranteed safe from hacking.
Supporters of I-voting acknowledge the difficulties but argue that they shouldn’t be enough to stop progress on Internet voting, which is believed to increase participation, particularly among younger voters. While trust in the electoral process is essential for successful democracy, it can be argued that I-voting lacks such trust. In order to compensate for the inherent complexity of I-voting, extra measures need to be taken to ensure that voters have a sound basis on which to place their trust in such systems.
Finding ways to increase voters’ turnout is an essential goal since elections are of the utmost importance in a democratic society. Thought security threats exist when attempting to use the Internet for casting votes, those are not specifically related to I-voting but inherent to any Internet-use. In addition and despite similar security risks online banking is still successfully employed whilst offline voting is susceptible to manipulation as well. Technical issues aside, implementation of internet-voting poses some difficult political questions regarding the facilitation and inclusion of different groups of citizens in the political process (for example, expatriates). Further work ensuring the overall integrity of the system is needed instead of declaring the Internet as too dangerous and untrustworthy.