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Electronic Voting: I want to understand the issues

updated 30 March 2004

This guide has been developed in an attempt to provide an objective introduction to the issues surrounding the introduction of information technologies into the voting process. This page provides links to discussion, resources and news items protraying various sides of the debate while giving you an overview of the events, actors and concepts fundamental to this field.

Created by Jason Kitcat: I have aimed to be objective but please keep in mind that I am opposed to electronic voting, am a member of the Electoral Reform Society and The Green Party and biases will have crept in.


Why is voting important?

Voting is the fundamental action of democracy. By casting a vote we hold previous politicians to account and express our hopes for the future. Of course democracy is more than votes – it’s debate, letter writing, campaigning, consultation – but the vote is how every single citizen can wield real and immediate power. It’s incredibly important that everyone can vote without interference, safe in the knowledge that it will be counted.

Typical ballot paper (BBC)

Through the long history of democracy we have learnt that in the pursuit of power some groups are willing to threaten voters to make sure they vote ‘the right way’. But if the vote is secret then there is no way for intimidators to know whether someone has voted for them or not – threats become useless.

So votes are a vital expression of the people’s power which need to be secret and restricted to only one per citizen.


The types of voting

Vote Classic

The traditional way of voting has been to mark a token (shell, card or piece of paper) in private and then put it into a box or pot. The key points were to make sure that:

  • Each voter could only have one token to vote with.
  • The token could be marked in private.
  • The box could only be accessible to voters.
  • At the end of the election the box would be opened in the presence of observers of all the parties standing for election.
  • If results were in doubt the tokens could be counted again by different people.

That’s it… the simple fundamentals to ensure that an election is free, private and reliability. If the results could be doubted then the legitimacy and power of the winners would be undermined – resulting in serious instability.

New Vote

Since the early beginnings there have been some innovations, especially in the United States. This is mainly due to the large number of issues Americans are asked to vote on at the same time. Thus to ease the counting lever and optical machines are used in elections.

The Recount in Florida (BBC)

Recently there have been major initiatives to ‘modernise’ the voting process across the world. After the problems of the Florida 2000 Presidential race in the US significant funds were released for new voting equipment. Brazil has a national electronic voting system in place and several European countries are moving towards or already use various types of machines.

Here in the UK Robin Cook MP, when Leader of the House of Commons, committed the UK to being the first country in the world to use the Internet for a national election.

So we have a whole pile of new voting systems being trialed and used, let’s try to categorise them:

  • Postal
    Here an ordinary paper ballot is delivered to voters, normally by post, and is returned by post for counting. Usually voters need to sign a declaration, occassionally with a witness, to prove they are authorised to cast the vote posted. While counting is straightforward there are concerns over the privacy of postal votes and how sure we can be that only authorised citizens have cast their votes.
    Fairness Verdict: Debatable.
  • Punch Card
    The infamous system (as seen in theFlorida elections) where mechanical machines or voters with a stylus punch holes in cards to register their votes. These are then counted automatically. Such systems have reliability problems but, as Florida showed, the cards can be checked manually.
    Fairness Verdict: Possible, if considerable care is taken.
  • Optical
    Here specially designed ballots are marked in such a way that an optical counting machine can read them. Thus the advantages of putting a paper ballot in a box are retained but counts are quicker, if problems arise recounts of the ballot can still be done by hand. There are error rates from using the wrong type of pencil or misunderstanding the card.
    Fairness Verdict: If properly designed, good.
  • Phone
    Voting is provided either through a touch-tone system (similar to that used for television votes) or through SMS text messages on mobile phones. Authentication is achieved through the use of PIN and access codes which are mailed to voters ahead of the ballot. While proven in entertainment settings without any strong requirements for authentication the reliance on unreliable (in the case of SMS) and highly centralised, private infrastructures (in both cases) result in privacy being virtually impossible to provide and security based more on the commercial confidentiality and control of the connections than any explicit protocols (such as SSL on the web).
    Fairness Verdict: Poor. Convenient but extremely unlikely to meet basic voting requirements.
  • Electronic Machine Voting [EMV] (or Direct Recording Electronic [DRE])
    This consists of a normal computer or more often a specially designed electronic ‘kiosk’ in the polling booth. Using buttons or a touch screen votes are made which are stored in an electronic memory and sometimes another format too. Unless a paper ballot is printed at the time of voting manual recounts are not possible.
    Fairness Verdict: Highly debatable. Better with paper ballots printed at time of voting.
  • Remote Electronic Voting [REV] (or Online Voting)
    This is where voters sit at home or in a library and use a computer (or digital television or mobile phone) to mark their ballot. Because of the difficulty in being sure the voter is who they claim to be and the chance that other people can access the servers via the Internet the result can be called into question or just disrupted. Recounts are not possible as all the authorities have is a database of votes. Voter privacy and anonymity are also hard to maintain.
    Fairness Verdict: Most independent reports are, at best, cautious. Debatable to poor.

But why are politicians and other actors keen to introduce new technologies and techniques into the voting process? There is a general perception in countries such as the US and UK that politics is in something of a crisis. Media portrayal of politicians and governments is negative and people in general seem disengaged, or in their language ‘apathetic’, from the political arena. Politicians routinely do very poorly in surveys rating the level of trust different professions garner. Others would argue that people are engaged but expressing themselves through non-party political means such as pressure groups like Greenpeace or activism such as marches and petition-signing. Either way the number of people voting has been falling in many western nations and a large number of people see this as a proxy for a widening disconnection between the political elite and the citizens.

Typical voting (Corbis)

Politicians need to be seen to be doing something about this, but what to do? Some suggest re-forging the media-politics relationship to revolutionise the way political issues are presented and debated with the public. Others promote constitutional reform through devolution, more proportional voting systems or changing the mechanics of democratic institutions such as the House of Lords’ membership. There are plenty of ideas aimed at widening participation but the key question is does an increased turnout mean more participation?

Or, to put it another way, should policies focus on the specific target of increasing turnout figures and hope that in doing so democracy itself will be re-invigorated or should we work in the other direction by re-invigorating democracy first in the belief that turnout will naturally be boosted as a result? In other words is turnout a means to an end or an indicator of success in achieving another aim?

The current UK policies seem to focus on just increasing turnout, thus we have seen a large number of improvements which aim to make the act of voting itself easier. What remains to be proven is whether it is the difficulty of voting the traditional way that keeps turnout down or there are other factors at work.

One other reason electronic methods of voting are being promoted is that their widespread adoption in a country help to build a perception of it being a technologically advanced, ‘modern’ nation which can help encourage inward investment from firms. Politicians are always hard at work promoting their country to global businesses and a successful e-voted election could be a useful marketing tool in that task.