In response to a letter organised by Webroots Democracy and co-signed by 30 leading academics and charity bosses, Minister for Parliamentary Business Joe Fitzpatrick MSP has reaffirmed the Scottish Government’s commitment to the trialling of an electronic voting system.
The government outlined its commitment to improving its online services as part of the Digital Strategy for Scotland, this trial is part of that mission statement.
The governmental consultation on the trial of electronic voting or e-voting closed on the March 29th. According to the Scottish Government website it had been considering two methods in which to cast electronic votes. The first is electronic voting machines and the other internet or mobile phone voting.
A spokeswoman from the Scottish Government told DIGIT: “The responses to the consultation on electoral reform are being analysed. Once this is complete we will consider the scope and timing of electronic voting trials and where and when these trials will take place.”
Innovating the Voting System
The way in which people vote has remained relatively unchanged over the past 100 years, mainly in local polling stations using paper ballots. However, increasingly people are embracing technology to perform their daily transactions such as internet banking, aircraft boarding passes, touch screen supermarket checkouts and online shopping.
In response, the Scottish government has decided the time has come to revamp the current system. While e-voting would be new to Scotland it is already implemented and routinely used in countries such as India, the USA, Canada, Australia, Belgium and Estonia. The Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, France and Norway have trialled it or are considering doing so.
The Benefits of E-Voting
E-voting has the potential to significantly reduce not only the cost of elections but also the required human labour, carbon emissions and waste. For example, e-voting would reduce the cost of printing and transporting 4.5 million paper ballots and would require fewer staff to support local government elections especially at counting centres.
In the 2017 elections, 2% of votes were reject and thus not counted, the government believes that e-voting could lead to fewer rejected ballots. Despite the positives the government conceded that to use this method it would require new software, rigorous testing and would be costly in terms of time, money and other resources.
Fitzpatrick in a letter to Webroots said: “We see the pilots as an opportunity to explore how electronic voting can increase voter participation, provide voters with choice and flexibility over how they vote and assist groups of people who might find voting in elections challenging.”
Benefits as listed by the Scottish Government:
- Increase voter participation
- Provide voters with choice and flexibility over how they vote
- Support the rotation of candidates’ names on ballot papers
- Reduce the number of rejected ballot papers
- People with visual impairments can utilise voice-activated interfaces, making it potentially easier to vote than on paper.
- People whose first or preferred language is not English could choose to have voting instructions presented electronically in another language, including British Sign Language.
- Armed forces personnel stationed abroad might find this a more practical way to vote than by postal or proxy vote.
Chief Executive at WebRoots Democracy, Areeq Chowdhury told DIGIT: “We are pleased that the Scottish Government has decided to explore this reform. Online voting will, in future, form an inevitable part of our democracy and it is right that we begin to understand how best this should work at the earliest opportunity.”
“An online voting option, alongside the existing methods of voting, has the potential to dismantle barriers to an independent and secret ballot for many voters with disabilities and vision impairments, as well as citizens overseas. For young people, online voting presents a method of voting that can meet the expectations of the digital age.”
Rigorous System Testing is Needed
Professor of Computing at Edinburgh Napier University, Bill Buchanan told DIGIT: “My greatest worry here is that the system that is implemented has not been properly reviewed, as any failure in it could cause a complete lack of trust in the system, and will hold back future developments.”
“This system would have to be open to everyone to review from a technical point-of-view, and to thus make sure it did not have any weaknesses that could be exploited. A closed system often has problems, and secret information can be leaked.”
“For example, in the US, there’s widespread dissatisfaction over the integrity of the voting machines used in a number of elections. If any system implemented does not pass these three tests, then we need to think again.”
Fairness and Transparency are Key
Scottish director of Open Rights Group, Matthew Rice said: “We have got to think what would happen if a foreign actor was interested in the outcome of our elections. It [electronic voting] always introduces security risks. We are saying that it should not be rolled out.”
Director of Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo told DIGIT: “We are deeply concerned about the e-voting trials in Scotland. It is vital in a democracy that elections are free and fair. But computerised rather than human ballot counting undermines transparency and risks serious security breaches.”
“E-voting could also dramatically raise the stakes for hacking ordinary voters at home. These are unacceptable risks to take and we urge Scottish government drop plans for this failed and broken system.”
System Failure Could Lead to Distrust
At this time e-voting is not hack-proof, a simple system error could potentially wreak havoc on the Scottish electoral system. There are weaknesses that nefarious individuals may exploit to influence our votes. Currently, voter confidence has been rocked by the recent immoral use of data and the examples of e-voting set in the US are not heartening.
However, there is no denying that at some point e-voting will happen. As technology continues to develop, improve and permeate our daily lives it will come almost naturally. It has massive potential to reinvigorate the voting system but before it can be widely implemented in Scotland the government must take the necessary measures to ensure they do it right, one failure would destroy confidence in the system and it would be hard to win that back.