Online voting is no fix for Covid-19 elections, or any others

In the past fortnight we’ve heard suggestions that the local elections scheduled for 6 May will be delayed, some for the second time since the Covid-19 pandemic erupted. Local authorities tasked with running them are cash-strapped and unsure they can do it safely, and such elections have dismal turnouts anyway.

As I argued in The Article earlier this week, such thinking devalues democracy. Officials like London mayor Sadiq Khan have been holding office without a mandate for months already, and voting is the most fundamental function of any democratic government – not an optional service.

Plenty of people agreed with me in the comments. But an alleged solution that came up several times was online voting. “It is surely time, especially under the given circumstances, to move to online voting,” said Michael Rieveley. “Estonia has been doing it for years, so why can’t we?” asked Peter Booker.

Online voting has obvious appeal even outside of a pandemic. Many people are used to shopping online, working remotely, and using the internet to book holidays. If pollsters can conduct their research online, for some it follows that elections could be done digitally.

The greatest beneficiaries of online voting would be those who struggle to attend polling stations. In Britain they can currently use a postal vote or choose a proxy to vote in their stead, but it would be easier for them to click a button on their computer or smartphone.

Advocates note that Estonia has used online voting for elections since 2005. The officials running the system say it works well and that 44% of Estonians use i-voting. The country has been a pioneer in digitising public services more generally, and claims that 99% of its public services are available online.

However, computer researchers believe Estonia’s voting system is vulnerable to breach. It would be surprising if the Estonians had designed a system that couldn’t be interfered with. The Internet was designed to share information rather than safeguard it, and few systems are genuinely secure by design.

As commentators like Tom Scott have explained, online voting has to meet contradictory demands of maintaining voter anonymity while ensuring the validity of votes. When you use online systems your actions are usually tied to an identity, but to prevent vote-rigging this is undesirable in elections.

More broadly, computers can be corrupted. The device you’re reading this on is vulnerable to hackers, and would be vulnerable if you used it to vote. The same applies to whatever system would receive and process the voting data.

Unlike with paper voting, electronic attacks are easy to scale. Comprising a single paper vote requires similar efforts each time, but automated malware can target a thousand votes as easily as ten.

This is before one gets to trust in such systems. Western democracies have lately been roiled by accusations of foreign influence in elections, with Russia the usual culprit. Mostly this has focused on online campaigning, where Russia can use bots to spread misinformation.

It is impossible to quantify the impact of these efforts. But the fears about misinformation would pale in comparison to accusations that the Russians had broken into a digital voting system and changed people’s ballots. This prospect has already been raised in the United States, which uses electronic voting machines. Online voting would amplify the problem.

Amid all these trends is the fact that most of us don’t understand digital systems well, with naivety about online security being widespread. People continue to access public Wi-Fi without going through a virtual private network (VPN), to open unsolicited email attachments, and to use the same password across multiple accounts. This behaviour is all discouraged by cybersecurity workers.

In some constitutional arrangements this naivety is a barrier for digital voting. In assessing electronic voting, Germany’s constitutional court wrote that the voting process must be assessable to voters “without any specialist knowledge of the subject”. Having sat through many blockchain seminars, I don’t rate the chances of the public understanding how online voting would work.

On the other hand, the opaqueness of computer technology might encourage some to place their trust in it. It is easy to see how a ballot box full of papers might be swapped out for another one. Explaining how digital voting might be corrupted to a technophobe is harder.

That so few Western democracies have digitised voting is probably more attributable to a general tardiness in modernising than principled opposition. As time passes, sceptics will have to work hard to explain why paper voting is better.

Jimmy Nicholls
Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact jimmy@rightdishonourable.com

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