The Commission on Digital Democracy led by the Speaker of the House of Commons recommends that the UK adopt online voting by 2020. Recent developments have not made online voting a safe option; if anything, they demonstrate just how risky it is.
Government should consider alternatives to online voting
The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, published on January 26, makes recommendations to Parliament on digital policy over the next five years, some more radical than others. A particularly difficult recommendation is the call for universal online voting by 2020.
Preventing fraud is a tall order. Estonia is the only country that uses online voting for national elections, and has done so since 2005. Although there have been no major scandals, in 2014, an independent report identified vulnerabilities in the system. In 2010, a trial of online voting in the District of Columbia in the US failed when hackers at the University of Michigan managed to rig votes en masse.
An additional challenge is preserving the secret ballot, as digitization makes it more difficult to reliably separate voters’ identities from their ballots. This problem is greatly exacerbated by what we now know of anglophone states’ digital surveillance programs. Not only do digital ballots need to be free of any explicit “mark” of voters’ identities, but steps must be taken prevent ballots from being deliberately traced back through the system to those who cast them. This is assuming that users’ identities can be verified in the first place, the practicalities of which are still being worked out in countries that eschew national identity registers as a matter of policy, such as the UK.
Strangely, the Commission acknowledges the need to address these challenges but endorses the 2020 goal without discussing how they might be addressed. This is unwise, as it assumes that secure online voting is merely a question of good practice. This might not be the case: many cryptographers are skeptical of online voting altogether. Governments interested in this area should weigh up the alternatives, such as electronic systems for polling stations, which might make counting more accurate and efficient while avoiding some of the risks inherent in online voting.
ID Management for Public Services: Opportunities and Pitfalls, IT0007-000767 (September 2014)
Nick Wallace, Analyst, Public Sector