26 Mar 2011
Dr Anne-Marie Oostveen
Last week I gave a statement about remote electronic voting at the European Parliament. The Scientific Technology Options Assessment (STOA) workshop, organised by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI), discussed the opportunities and risks of e-voting and focused in particular on the question whether e-voting can increase electoral participation at European elections. “In view of the low participation rates in the elections of the European Parliament, voting over the Internet (e-voting) is suggested as a possibility of involving more Europeans in the political and electoral process. E-voting is regarded as an especially promising way to motivate younger voters to participate in the elections, because they are already familiar with using the Internet every day and for various reasons”. E-voting is also expected to increase turnout among other groups.
When I started my research on e-voting in 2001 the main reasons for governments to contemplate electronic voting systems was the idea that its convenience would lead to higher electoral participation. Another prediction was that e-voting would be a lot cheaper than traditional voting systems. Ten years on, we see that proponents still use the same arguments to push e-voting forward. Nothing has changed there! What has changed though is the more critical stance taken by academics. Most scholars involved in e-voting research (on both technical as well as socio-political issues) now acknowledge the problems with e-voting and are sceptical about its opportunities to increase turnout. Because there are not many countries that have used e-voting for longer periods there is very little empirical evidence that it would lead to higher turnout and lower costs. What is clear, is that there are still numerous risks related to remote e-voting (lack of transparency, insufficient security and anonymity, no possibility of a recount, coercion, vote buying, digital divide, loss of civic ritual, etc).
It is amazing that with so many risks and dangers, e-voting is still seen by many politicians and citizens as a silver bullet. Other technical systems would most definitely not be accepted if they had even a fraction of the risks we encounter with e-voting. Of course technical problems are a common occurrence and become even more frequent with systems becoming increasingly more complex. But usually these problems are soon detected and fixed. It is for instance unacceptable for car manufacturers to produce cars with technical issues. However, it does happen regularly that cars have faults and need to be recalled to rectify the problems. Recently, manufacturers have experienced windscreen wipers coming off (Jaguar), faulty airbags (Honda, Volvo, Hyundai), steering issues (Chrystler, Mazda, Mercedes), sticky gas pedals (Toyota), stalling engines (Honda) and brake faults (BMW). Obviously as a driver you will notice when your windscreen wipers fall off or when your airbag spontaneously inflates.
However, remote e-voting problems are much more difficult to detect. First of all, voters cannot be sure that their ballot was transmitted, even if there is no detected attack. Secondly, the required anonymity for Internet voting makes it difficult to trace errors and fraud. E-voters can not verify if their vote is correctly stored and counted. It is the nature of computers that their inner workings are not visible. Thus, it is not possible for humans to observe exactly what a computer is doing with their votes. Furthermore, as some of the speakers at the workshop pointed out, there are many potential security flaws with e-voting because devices are used which can not be fully controlled: personal computers can be affected by viruses or Trojan horses and different attacks can affect the server or the connection can be spoofed and manipulated by third parties. In short, as the Fraunhofer researchers rightfully argue, governments today are not in a position where they can guarantee that the principles of general, free and anonymous elections and a transparent counting of votes can be assured in e-voting. A very scary thought! Hopefully the MEPs who were present at the workshop in Brussels are now more aware of the inherent problems with e-voting and will be reluctant to see it is a miracle cure for disappointing turnout figures at European elections. I am convinced that political apathy will not be solved by changing the voting process or voting methods.
The statements of the speakers have been filmed and can be seen on the website of the European Parliament.