As we prepare for the UK general election in May we may not reflect on the method most of us will use to vote on the day. We are used to being physically present at a polling station to cast our vote the old-fashioned way with a paper ballot.
In the 21st century though, should we be asking whether electronic voting shouldn't now be the norm? It may seem like a not unreasonable question but the whole concept of digital casting of votes is fraught with security issues and operational challenges.
There are good reasons for considering an electronic voting approach. Not just to be up-to-date but also to facilitate, improve and ultimately extend the exercise of democracy.
The underlying core principle of democracy is an informed and engaged citizenry. Most governments get passing marks for "informing" citizens via digital communication, however the vast majority has a long way to go to "actively engage" citizens or to effectively exert global influence using digital media.
With e-voting, citizens can vote from anywhere. Is this important? It is when you examine the most common reasons people cite for not voting, which include not being able to take off time from work/school, family emergency, out of town, no way to get to the polling station and lines too long at the polls.
The people who claim these reasons represent the majority of those who did not vote. Logic follows that they could have voted if an electronic internet-based means was available. Of course there are inherent problems that could arise in such an electoral system.
Security experts acknowledge that there will always be some degree of electronic voting fraud. Nevertheless, we now know the UK is seeking to trial online voting in 2020. We also know that while Estonia has embraced electronic voting since 2005 in local, general, municipal and parliamentary elections, independent researchers have shown the system is vulnerable to a series of wide-ranging attacks, which could manipulate the results without being detected.
To give an example of the risk of getting it wrong with computers, in the Fairfield Township in Cumberland County, NJ, USA, a candidate ran for a seat on his local Democratic Executive Committee in 2011 earning only nine votes, compared to 34 votes for the winning candidate. However, at least 28 people told the candidate they voted for him. He challenged the result in court and when the equipment was examined, key files were found to be deleted, making it impossible to investigate the cause of the malfunction. A new election was held and he won.
Deploying an electronic voting system is difficult for many reasons, not least the hard-and-fast deadline coupled with the sheer volume of simultaneous users. In fact when you examine what an e-voting system must do to protect the vote, you can see why governments are hesitant.
It must, for instance, be able to verify the identity of millions of users within a 24-hour window, allow them to cast votes in an anonymous fashion (that part alone is not easy), and securely store the data recording each vote in a 100 per cent tamper-proof way that allows independent checking later. Also, it must be resilient to denial of service attacks, which have brought down most of the technology giants of the internet in the last 12 months at one time or another.
Even the software to run any agreed upon e-voting system is open to debate. Some believe it should not be proprietary - but rather open source - thus they argue ensuring greater transparency and thereby greater security. However when one of the earlier online voting open-source software systems was released, it was found that versioning problems led to issues verifying that the same version of source code was being used in the voting machines.
To date, many countries including the US, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, the UK and Ireland have all spent large amounts on electronic voting in pilot schemes and yet none have progressed to full roll-outs. Quite simply, the risks have been deemed too high.
Dr Kevin Curran is a senior member of the IEEE, reader in Computer Science at Ulster University and group leader for the Ambient Intelligence Research Group
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