Benefits and risks of e-voting and on-line voting

Introduction

E-voting is a term that covers several different types of use of electronic means in elections to cast and/or count votes. This could typically be direct recording electronic voting machines or other electronic ways to register votes at the polling station. On-line voting or Internet voting are versions of e-voting where voters have the possibility to cast their votes, without visiting the polling station, using a computer, tablet or smart phone from a place of their choice. As other e-voting approaches, these systems also facilitates the counting of the votes.

Although no country has opted for using only on-line voting in elections and/or referenda, some countries, like Estonia, Switzerland, and Canada, have given voters the choice to cast their votes through the internet. In Mongolia, voting by SMS was made possible in a referendum in 2015.[1]

Electronic voting technology intends to speed the counting of ballots, reduce the amount of staff needed to count votes manually and can provide improved accessibility for voters. The investments in new systems are expected to pay off in the long term, as running expenses are expected to decrease. Other expected benefits include that results can be reported and published faster and – in the case of on-line voting – that voters save time and cost by being able to vote independently from their location, which may increase overall voter turnout. The citizen groups benefiting most from on-line elections are the ones living abroad, citizens living in rural areas far away from polling stations and the disabled with mobility impairments.

On the negative side, issues like new risks for election fraud, breaking of the voter secrecy and, consequently, decrease of public trust in the election procedures and results, have been highlighted.

The wider context

The use of ICT in election is not only about the act of voting, but relates to all steps in the electoral processes: the creation of the electoral register, the identification of voters (at polling stations and on-line), the processing of results and the presentation of the outcome.

Examples from different countries show all kind of mixes of the level of ICT use in the different steps. In Sweden, completely computerized systems for establishing voter lists and for tabulating and disseminating the results are used in combination with a completely paper-based system for the casting of votes, including the system for early voting[2].

Requirements

For on-line voting the secure on-line identification of the voter is crucial. A minimum requirement is a general system for identification of citizens (and, if applicable, non-citizens with rights to vote). In other words, there should be an identification code or number that follows the individual from the civic registration to the voters register and further into the world of on-line identification methods. An alternative, used in local elections in Canada and in some countries for citizens living abroad, is to send out letters with a unique pin code that could be used for internet voting[3].

Equally crucial are the guarantees for voter secrecy. The systems must be able to, simultaneously, securely register who has been voting and not making it possible for anyone to find out whom they have been voting for. This task is double; it is both about building a water tight system and assuring the voters that the system is completely secure.

Further, an on-line voting system should preferably duplicate the options given to voters using other methods to cast their votes. For example, if early voters (voting at temporary polling stations or by post) have the chance to regret their early vote on the election day by casting a final vote at the polling station, this possibility should also be given to on-line voters. Likewise, if it is possible to cast a blank vote at the polling station, this should also be the case on-line.

IT security

When introducing or using information and communications technologies (ICTs) in elections, electoral management bodies usually need to assure themselves and other stakeholders that a given technical solution is going to work—that is, that it fulfils legislated requirements, is secure and trustworthy, is of high quality, and will perform as expected. Certification of ICTs for use in elections is often seen as an option to provide this kind of assurance. But there is currently no global technical standard for the various ICTs used in electoral processes. Therefore it is up to the individual electoral management body to develop requirements for the certification process and assure compliance.[4]

Attempts to hack election ICT systems have been reported from various countries, including USA, South Africa and Ukraine[5]. In 2014 Ukraine's central election system was hacked. Officials found and removed a virus and said the totals were correct.[6] These examples relate to the systems for processing the votes. However, an introduction of on-line voting opens for new risks for tampering with the electoral process that need to be mitigated.

Experiences

Voters in Estonia have the possibility to cast their votes via the Internet in local and parliamentary elections. They either use their national identity card, equipped with a computer-readable microchip, or a mobile phone with a Mobile-ID application. Estonia was the first country in the world to implement Internet voting in national elections and electronic voting with binding results has been carried out since 2005[7]. Estonian  Internet votes can be cast during the days of advance voting, i.e. from the 10th to the 4th day before elections. It is thus similar to the advance voting with paper ballots.

Internet voting is popular primarily because it is efficient and convenient, the procedure takes only some few minutes.  Today, about one third of votes are cast via the Internet. But the growth in user numbers has been slow given that it has taken 15 years to reach one third of the voters and that Estonia is a forerunner in e-governance where many people are used to interact with public institutions on-line. Background variables like age and sex have little or no impact on the use of on-line voting. The main difference in voting patterns relates to distance; people are more likely to vote online rather than on paper, when they live more than 30-minute roundtrip to vote at a polling station. Similarly, Estonians living abroad are more likely to vote through the internet. Roughly 90% of votes from abroad in Estonian elections are now cast as on-line votes; hardly anybody votes via post or in embassies anymore.

There is no evidence that on-line voting in Estonia has led to increased voter turnout. Analysis show that the aggregate turnout did increased marginally after the introduction of internet voting, but it cannot be claimed that this was only down to on-line voting as such.[8]

Estonia decided to create a separate administrative level institution, the E-voting committee, to operate the Internet voting system in order to assure trust in the system. Though the on-line voting system was fully functional by 2005 and was launched nationwide in one go, the procedures have been consonantly improved. The system currently used was completed before local elections of 2017.

The voters have the possibility of changing their vote, as this has been seen necessary for ensuring the free will of the voter. The possibility of changing protects the voter against influencing of their voting preferences. Influencing would not be effective because the voter can change their decision later either electronically or with a ballot paper in the polling place.

In the judgment made in 2005, the Supreme Court of Estonia has said the following: “It is clear that in the case of electronic voting in an uncontrolled medium, that is via Internet outside a polling division, it is more difficult for the state to guarantee that voting is free of external influence and secret./../ The Chamber is of the opinion that the possibility to change one’s electronic vote is necessary for guaranteeing the freedom of elections and secrecy of voting”.[9]

In Switzerland on-line voting has been piloted in local referendums in ten cantons. The conditions for introducing on-line voting in Switzerland were very specific, as referendums take place about four times annually, which can cause voter fatigue. Furthermore, unsupervised voting is commonplace and preferred to paper-based voting at the polls with about 90% of all votes cast by postal ballot. Rationales for adoption in Switzerland were to improve voter convenience and boost voter turnout, which is quite low.

Due to security problems, the piloting was stopped in 2019. Never the less, on-line voting continues to be regarded as an important service for voters and the intention is to establish stable operations using the latest generation of systems in the coming years.[10]

In Canada on-line voting has been used at the municipal level in some provinces, where municipalities have been allowed to organise such procedures. There is no national standard for on-line voting; municipalities have developed their own systems or used what others have crafted.[11]

Whereas some municipalities required on-line voters to pre-register to receive a PIN code necessary for the on-line election process, others sent PIN codes to all voters on the voting list.[12]
 

Conclusions

The only country where on-line voting is used for all election is Estonia. Hence the experiences of this country are of special interest. The importance given to IT-security, prevention of electoral fraud and the secrecy of the voters preferences also makes the Estonian solutions well worth to study.

Simultaneously, Estonia is very advanced in other areas of e-governance and in using internet for financial transactions. The existing IT infrastructure and the public trust in systems for on-line transactions have given Estonia clear advantages in the development of the system for internet voting. Therefore the Estonian solutions should not be directly copied to other contexts, where different pre-conditions are at hand.

In all the three countries with more extensive experiences of on-line voting, the systems have been constantly developed. A country that opts for introducing on-line voting must be prepared to constantly evaluate and refine its system. In consequence it is impossible to make reliable conclusions about the eventual cost saving connected to an on-line voting system.

Likewise, no general conclusions could be drawn on the likelihood of achieving higher voter turnout through on-line voting. Although the Estonian and Canadian experiences show that voters that live far from polling stations tend to use e-voting more frequently, it is not clear that these individuals would not have travelled to the polling station or used voting by post if on-line voting had not been available. As the authors of the most in-depth study of the Estonian experience put it:

An increase in turnout can only happen when people who previously did not participate decided to participate because of the availability of e-voting. It just so happens that these very same non-voters are also quite unlikely to be sufficiently e-literate to e-vote in the first place. Paradoxically, to have a clear impact on voter turnout, e-voting should mobilize exactly those people who are very unlikely to e-vote.[13]

The only clear conclusion is that on-line voting makes voting much easier for those who choose to use this option, which definitely is a merit of its own.

 


[1] International IDEA maintains a global database on ICT in Elections, see https://www.idea.int/data-tools/data/icts-elections

[2] Early voting in specific polling stations – often close to places of work or commerce – is increasingly popular in Sweden, with more than 36 % of those eligible for voting using this opportunity in the latest general election. For information about the procedures, see  https://www.val.se/servicelankar/other-languages/english-engelska/to-vote/early-voting.html

[3] An example is Armenia, see https://www.idea.int/node/230975

[4] International IDEA has published a guide for certification of ICT in Elections; https://www.idea.int/sites/default/files/publications/certification-of-icts-in-elections.pdf

[7] https://www.valimised.ee/en/internet-voting/internet-voting-estonia

[8] A thorough analysis of the Estonian e-voting experience was made by researchers at the University of Tartu, see https://skytte.ut.ee/sites/default/files/skytte/e_voting_in_estonia_vassil_solvak_a5_web.pdf

02.11.2020 - 11:32 | Views: 21447
Benefits and risks of e-voting and on-line voting

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elections participation of citizens Mahnus Lillestrom international experience

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