Europe is not ready for electronic voting

When discussing electronic voting, it is very important that we look back on history. We […]


When discussing electronic voting, it is very important that we look back on history. We should be very cautious when we introduce new technology and remember why laws have been established in certain ways.

When it comes to electronic voting, the weak links are everywhere. I have been hacking every single aspect, which are all weak in their own way.

First of all, if you look at the phase involving optical scanners – the machines where paper ballots are scanned – I have shown how it is possible to falsify the machine’s records, which means that they produce incorrect results when people vote.

Then there are the touch screen or physical electronic pen machines, where the same problem can be observed: I can modify the machine so it shows the wrong results. And since there are no audit trails, you cannot audit the results. Then we have the essential tabulation phase where, again, the results are easily falsifiable. Examples of weaknesses are everywhere.

Last but not least, we stumble upon the horrible idea of internet voting. We simply do not have the technology for it today. Internet voting is possible only if you have no secret ballot or accept that the voting is un-auditable and therefore do not know what the results are. We are decades away from finding a suitable encryption method for secure internet voting.

Yet another problem is that a great deal of legislation, for example in Germany, stipulates that election methods have to be auditable and understandable by common citizen, with no extra tools or knowledge. So, until we inhabit a Star Trek-like world where teenagers casually talk about quantum physics, I do not think we will see a situation in which the common man or woman can understand homomorphic encryption, especially when we take into account that there are currently less than 500 people in the world who currently understand these concepts.

The Estonian internet vote

age_2005-2015As a part of the team that supervised Estonian internet voting, I can confirm that this system is at the level of a high-school project. If you wanted to organise a high-school presidential election with such a system, it might be acceptable. However, this approach should not be used for anything more serious. They have not even tried to make it more secure: the whole system lacks fundamental basic principles which any secure system should have.

A digital electronic voting system is not feasible in Europe during our lifetime. I think electronic and digital systems may have a role to play in elections; in some countries, the voting is so complex that computers are useful. But you always need to rely on the paper ballot and always need a process to audit the results.

I fully support the idea of using technology in elections in a responsible way. But I do not consider it conceivable to introduce a trustworthy digital voting system that will solve all of our problems. The required technology simply does not exist. Even if there were perfectly programmed systems, it would not work because there would be a gazillion other mistakes.

When it comes to the paper vote we still have a lot of problems: it is easy to argue that it is not perfect. But we also have hundreds of years of practice and experience using this system. Today, we have no alternative system that is better or more secure than paper ballots.

Not a way to fight abstention

Young people do not vote online. The reason for this is very simple. Everybody who has grown up during the internet era, playing World of Warcraft or had their accounts hacked or stolen understands how the electronic world works. Young people know better than the older generation how unsafe this world is. If they choose to vote they want their vote to count, and that is why they choose to vote on paper.

This is not just an opinion: it has been shown in results both in Norway and Estonia. Only retired citizens can be counted among a growing group of electronic voters. But since this is also a group that is already actively voting, it does not have an effect on abstention.

The claim often made by politicians and populist groups according to which electronic voting will encourage young people to vote has been proved wrong by every single result of every electronic vote every carried out.

My recommendation for secure voting is very simple: stick to paper ballots, but make voting accessible by allowing people to vote, in person, at a convenient location of their choice with the possibility of voting during an extended pre-vote period.

Flexibility and accessibility

In Finland, we have an ‘early voting’ system whereby you can vote in any post office and your vote will be counted as if you were in the polling station on polling day. We live increasingly hectic lives, so people should be given more options. I do not believe in home voting: a vote needs to be cast in secret in a secret booth, where no one can influence you or know how you voted.

It is also very important to provide information and historical background. The problem is that whether you are in Brussels, Helsinki or Berlin, you may forget that a lot of people in Europe live in small rural communities. There are a lot of people in Europe who simply do not feel comfortable voting: for them, elections are neither secret nor accessible. Europe is divided into different groups and it is very easy for highly educated people, and young people who are familiar with technology, to forget the realities lived by other societies. Democracy only really works when people can vote and have the confidence to vote in whatever way they want.

Finally, what is really important is to keep in mind that everything we say about the problems in voting systems can potentially provoke apathy. And apathy is equally as dangerous for democracy as getting the wrong results. Even if you do not trust the system right now, it is not an excuse to stop voting.


Photo © Alexandru Nika / Shutterstock, Inc.
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