Electronic Voting

The Issues

Democracy depends upon a fair, accurate, and transparent electoral process with outcomes that can be independently verified. Conventional voting accomplishes many of these goals - private polling stations enable citizens to cast their votes anonymously, election day scrutineers offer independent oversight, and paper-based ballots provide a verifiable outcome that can be re-counted if necessary.

Electronic voting, particularly remote from supervised polling stations, threatens the hard-fought secrecy which protects voters from coercion, peer pressure and bullying. By breaking the secrecy of the ballot, it breaches the United Nations and European Human Rights treaties as well as our own UK Human Rights Act. Another point worth noting is that the Representation of the People Act 2000 specifically calls for the tieing of a voter to their vote under judicial review. Also the RPA takes precedence over ALL other legislation, including DPA, human rights acts etc.

Electronic voting is a hard computer science problem. The software needs to be able to authenticate voters are being real voters, allowed to vote who haven't already voted. It also needs to allow a vote to be cast in secret, so you cannot link who voted with how they voted. You also need to prevent ballot stuffing by using a method to ensure that ballots are valid, unique and from an authenticated voter - while not giving up the voter's privacy. Around all this is needed some kind of audit trail which can reveal any failed or successful manipulations, this trail must be detailed and permanent, but again cannot break the secrecy and privacy of the votes.

This is in complete contrast to electronic commerce where customers give up their privacy to help the website they are buying from mitigate fraud. Anonymous purchases are not permitted, you must provide your address, credit card number (which links to a whole set of your information again) and so on. E-commerce's success does not mean that e-voting is possible.

Putting aside the large technical problems inherent in building an electronic voting system for a moment, just the idea of an electronic audit trail is highly problematic. For election results to be a successful contribution to democracy participants (voters, candidates, observers, media etc) need to, in the majority at least, have faith in the integrity of the result. It is very difficult to prove, even to a computer scientist let alone candidates and voters, that an electronic audit trail definitively shows that an election result has not been tampered with in some way. This assumes that the audit trail covers all aspects of the e-voting process. In one UK e-voting pilot ward-level results were manually copied from one system into an Excel spreadsheet for the final results calculation - not only is such a process ripe for error or manipulation, it is entirely outside of the e-voting system's audit trail.

History of the secret ballot in the UK

The UK was a laggard in introducing the secret paper ballot method known as the paper ballot. It took fifty years of hard campaigning in and out of Parliament before the 1872 Ballot Act changed British voting from the hugely corrupted viva voce (spoken aloud) system to a secret paper-based system. Even then there was a sunset clause and the changes did not become permanent until 1882.

King William IV had opposed the secret ballot, telling a minister that he opposed it because it 'would be inconsistent with the manly spirit and free avowal of opinion which distinguished the people of England' (Park, 1931, pp56). Much opposition was based on the notion that voting in secret was 'ungentlemanly'. But with ever widening suffrage pressure grew and with the success of the secret ballot abroad, change became hard to resist.

For more on the history of the secret ballot in the UK, see:
Asquith, H. H. (1888). The Ballot in England. Political Science Quarterly, 3(4), 654-81.
Brent, P. (2006). The Australian ballot: Not the secret ballot. Australian Journal of Political Science, 41(1), 39-50. online
Park, J. H. (1931). England's Controversy over the Secret Ballot. Political Science Quarterly, 46(1), 51-86.

The Representation of the People Act 2000 enabled new voting methods to be piloted in elections. Since that time we have seen numerous pilots in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006 (e-counting only, not e-voting) each has been evaluated by the Electoral Commission. Pilot Evaluation Reports

There was a minor consultation on whether e-voting and all-postal voting should be used in the 2004 European Elections, but truly the only public open-ended consultation on e-voting in general was the 2002 e-democracy consultation (which disappeared without much trace).

September 2005 Harriet Harman MP, a minister responsible said to Radio 4 that

"We just think that the time is not right for it (e-voting) at the moment. We talked to a lot of people, we listened to a lot of views including from the Conservative Party. The general consensus seemed to be that the time is not right for it at the moment. So we are not going ahead with the pilots that we were planning to run otherwise in the May 2006 council elections."

Books and articles

  • Kitcat, J. (2003) The uncertain nature of elections to come. PDF version (includes the use of Excel in UK voting pilots and other problems)
  • Watt, B. (2002). Implementing Electronic Voting. ODPM. PDF version
  • Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting by Aviel D. Rubin (Morgan Road Books, 2006)
  • What Went Wrong In Ohio: The Conyers Report On The 2004 Presidential Election by John Conyers, Anita Miller (Editor), (Academy Chicago Publishers, May 2005)
  • Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century by Bev Harris with David Allen (Pan Nine Publishing, 2003).
  • Steal this Vote: Dirty Elections and Rotten History of Democracy in America by Andrew Gumbel (Nation Books, 2005)
  • Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression by Spencer Overton (W.W. Norton & Company, 2006)
  • The History and Politics of Voting Technology by Roy G Saltman (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)

Other resources

See also