Why can’t we vote online?

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Posted on the 4th September 2015

The following is a guest blog from Jason Kitcat, who is on the Advisory Council for digital campaigners, the Open Rights Group.

At first blush it’s understandable why many would think that Internet voting is a good idea… shouldn’t it be faster, better and cheaper than our current paper-based voting system? Wouldn’t such a modern, convenient system encourage more people to vote? If we can shop and bank online, why not vote online?

As someone with one foot in the digital world and another in politics I too used to think that. But years of work with online voting systems including building one, studying others and observing numerous electronic elections changed my mind. Why?

Essentially voting in political elections is a uniquely difficult process to deliver with incredibly high stakes, a hard deadline and limited budgets. In my experience there is no technology available that can meet the unique risks and challenges of delivering political elections safely.

Political elections need to have three properties to succeed: secrecy, accuracy and verifiability.

Secrecy: Your vote must be secret unless you choose to share it yourself. Voters must be anonymous to protect them from coercion, bribery and recriminations. This is a fundamental principle defined in the UN and European declarations of human rights. (I know UK paper ballots aren’t technically secret due to a numbering system, but this is unique to the UK and should be urgently phased out)

Accuracy: Voters, candidates and their parties must have confidence that votes are accurately recorded, can’t be changed after the fact and are then correctly counted to deliver a clear result.

Verifiability: Voters, candidates, observers and the media should all be able to verify that the system is observably working and that there are sufficient checks to ensure that the result doesn’t just depend on a ‘trust us’ approach from the administrators.

With over 150 years of learning most major democracies have developed fairly reliable ways of delivering secure elections that are secret, accurate and verifiable by using paper ballots. Paper is a particularly good medium for this purpose – it’s hard to steal a million paper ballots without someone noticing, especially as the geographical distribution of polling stations and constituencies also distributes the risk. A million digital ballots are no different to a single one in the eyes of most of us: just invisible bits in the ether. Securely printed and marked paper is challenging to duplicate or alter. It can be easily checked and recounted by pretty much anyone and we can all watch the counting process to assure ourselves of the outcome.

Online systems find it incredibly hard to provide similar qualities. They can provide two of the three key electoral properties at a time, but not all three. Online shopping and banking aren’t secret – the merchant, banks, card processors and others all know who you claim to be – if something goes wrong they can refund you. Refunding votes after the result has been declared just isn’t possible. In commerce a certain level of fraud is accepted as a cost of doing business which is covered by the margins reaped from customers. Such an approach to electoral votes would be unacceptable.

Internet voting is a huge computing project with an immovable deadline; massive risks and the potential for undetectable attackers from around the world to have a go at influencing the results. This is why so many groups of computer scientists around the world have come out against the use of electronic and internet voting or said it should only be used in parallel with a paper system for verification. The costs, risks and limited benefits are why online voting technologies have been tried and discarded in places including the UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Finland and Italy.

Experience has shown that running online elections ended up being much more expensive than paper-based elections, had little or no impact on turnout and created a level of complexity administrators struggled to manage.

I recently was part of an independent team that observed Estonia’s online voting system, the world’s only one used in national parliamentary elections. Our team found serious flaws in the system and recommended that its use was discontinued. (You can read more about this and other research in the useful links below) Estonia has an admirable and very advanced e-government infrastructure including digital identity but even they couldn’t create a sufficiently robust online voting system. That should give pause for thought to the rest of us operating in less advanced settings.

I know digital technology has huge potential to improve public services and democratic participation. It just so happens that due to its unique nature, voting in public elections is one place where we are best sticking to another technology: paper. That’s not to say that there isn’t room to improve our existing processes, there is, just not with online voting.

Useful links

Jason Kitcat (www.jasonkitcat.com) is the Interim Digital Lead at The Democratic Society. He sits on the advisory councils for the Open Rights Group and Foundation for Information Policy Research. Until May 2015 he was the Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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