Voting For The Past

votingWinston Churchill once said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried”.  In essence, he meant that democracy has a lot of faults, yet we have not found anything that is better.

Europe recently went through a major vote to elect its Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) for the next five years.  India has gone through the world’s largest democratic election for a new president and government.  Other elections at national and local levels have been going on — mostly conducted by people turning up to a place and making a mark on a piece of paper.  These pieces of paper are then collected together and counted, either by a machine or by hand, before a winner is announced.  Election fraud is perceived to be widespread — the systems used are generally open to abuse somewhere along the line.

This all seems rather old-fashioned in an age of connectivity and technology.  You would think that it would be possible to devise some means of allowing people to vote securely from home.  However, although there are a range of companies offering electronic voting (eVoting) systems out there, the move is actually away from the idea rather than towards it.

Indeed, in Europe, the count for the MEP elections was held up, as older eVoting systems were affected by a bug in the counting system which required Stesud, the company supplying the software, to create and test a patch so that the count could be completed.  Although testing of systems (and use in non-national elections) has been carried out in other countries in Europe, the German Federal Constitutional Court has banned the use of eVoting systems due to a perceived lack of capability in verifying the votes.  The Netherlands banned the system as activists demonstrated that systems could be tampered with.

India has moved in the opposite direction.  Simple eVoting systems were introduced in some areas in 1989 with nationwide use for the 2014 elections.  Gujarat has introduced internet-based voting based on software provided by Scytl.

However, any system has to be considered against the status quo.  With voter turnout for MEPs across the whole of Europe barely tipping 43%, the UK managing a paltry 34% and many newer democracies with a less than 30% turnout, anything that can make voting easier could lead to greater voter involvement.

The keys to an effective eVoting system are that it must be capable of embracing any means of voting, and that it must be verifiable as to how the votes were cast and counted.

On the first point, it is not good enough to just have a system that is purely electronic.  Not everyone has access to a computer; eVoting systems must allow for the use of polling stations and other centers where voters can turn up and use systems.  They must also allow for different abilities — can the person voting see or read the system, and if not, can the system talk to the person and provide them with the details? Can it guide the voter through the process successfully? Options should be available in multiple languages, as well.  All these considerations help to ensure that as many of the electorate as possible can participate in the process.

On the second point, multi-factor authentication may be required, along with multi-stage commit.  With electronic systems, it is very easy to make a mistake.  Ensuring that the voter is making the decision they mean to take is not that difficult (a challenge before committing such as “You have selected this person from this party.  Is this correct?” may be all that is required) and ensuring that every vote cast has a metadata tag associated with it that is secure along the whole vote count process makes sure that vote counts are verifiable. By matching the multi-factor credentials and the metadata tags, multiple votes from one person can be avoided.

Churchill was right — democracy as carried out in many countries is fraught with issues.  Manual systems are too open to fraud; voters lack engagement and perceive a trip to a polling station as being too much of a hassle to bother with.  However, pulling back from eVoting systems based on problems with technology a decade or more ago is not only short sighted, but it also continues to reinforce the status quo.

It is time that we all caught up with the capabilities of today’s technology and looked more into how a secure and effective eVoting system could be employed to the benefit of all. Of course, voters may still choose not to vote due to the politicians concerned — that, unfortunately, may never change.

Image credit: DonkeyHotey (flickr) / CC-BY