The International Foundation for Electoral Systems office in Ukraine have published a paper looking at the issues surrounding a move to voting remotely via the internet. This is particularly welcome as various commentators have suggested that internet voting could be a response to the problem of holding elections in a time of Covid-19. (You can read earlier thoughts here and here.)
In essence, the IFES paper suggests that whilst new technologies can help to deliver a more efficient election, this is not without risk factors. On the positive side, remote internet voting can help to give votes to the disenfranchised, such as citizens living abroad, people with disabilities and IDPs. It also provides quicker counts without the risks inherent in manual counting undertaken by (often) tired poll workers.
But, internet voting also introduces risks and concerns around security, secrecy, transparency and trust. As with any ‘black box’ technology, there is a risk of hacking and a high degree of faith that citizens need to have that the votes they cast will be accurately reflected in the result. And with no paper trail, if something does go wrong then the process needs to be re-run.
There is also the issue of cost. A significant change such as this would require procurement of the system, training, public information and security. And while the relative cost would go down the more that the system is used, the USA has found that voting technology requires regular (costly) upgrades if it is not to become obsolete.
The only successful nationwide use of internet voting for public elections is in Estonia where the government has invested in smart card readers for each home. These link to home computers and can read the biometric ID card that is mandatory for each citizen. That’s a lot of expensive hardware, even in a country of fewer than one million voters.
In the UK we tried internet voting in some local elections in the early 2000’s. That proved to be technologically problematic, but also failed to raise turnout – the stated aim of the project. It seems that making voting more convenient is good for those already inclined to vote, but unlikely to bring new people to the ballot box.
In the time of coronavirus, it is right that all ideas are considered. But the IFES paper makes clear that the costs and risks of internet voting do not make it a quick fix for the current problems.
Read the full paper for yourself here.