Shaping the Future of Online Voting in Scotland
Experts say veritably, accessibility, security, privacy and usability are key themes that must be addressed before e-voting pilots go-ahead in Scotland.
Recently, WebRoots Democracy hosted a panel discussion, Votedotscot, at the Scottish Parliament to explore the future of electronic voting (e-voting) in Scotland. The panel raised concerns, issues and the possible benefits of Scotland adopting e-voting. It attempted to establish key barriers and measures requiring attention before e-voting trials are rolled-out.
Chaired by Ruth Maguire MSP, the expert panel included; Areeq Chowdhury Chief Executive at WebRoots Democracy, Liz Ure Digital Consultant at the Scottish Government, Simon Hearn Deputy Chief Executive of Electoral Reform Services, Mike Summers Program Manager for Online Voting at Smartmatic and Jon Abbott Director of Business Growth at Yoti.
Scottish E-Voting Trials Will Happen
The Scottish Government is committed to piloting e-voting in Scotland as part of Scotland’s Digital Strategy. Details of how, when and where trials will take place have yet to be disclosed. Whether the trial will include the use of online voting, voting machines or both, and what type of election it will be implemented in are unknown.
The proposal for changing the traditional paper-based system raises both fears and hopes for the future. While some are strong advocates for it, there remains a strong reticence over the risks involved with taking voting online. Supporters believe that e-voting will be more secure than paper ballots and, like other data sensitive services such as banking, should be moved online. Detractors on the other hand, urge caution unconvinced that a bullet-proof system can be developed to ensure e-voting integrity.
Ease of use, accessibility, digital inclusion, security and privacy were key themes that were consistently raised by the panel. For e-voting trials to be successfully executed these issues must be appropriately addressed or there is a real risk of damage to voter confidence. The panel also looked at the potential benefits e-voting could bring to Scotland such as improved voter turnout and greater voter inclusion. What follows are the key themes from the event and the suggested solutions.
E-Voting and Increased Voter Turnout
E-voting has the potential to increase voter turnout by making the process easier, more accessible and convenient. With the current system, voters must go to a specific location at a certain time to cast their vote. By implementing e-voting those who cannot make it to the polling station can still participate in the vote without the hassle of completing a postal vote. This would include expatriates, disabled people, housebound individuals, and those with time constraints. The fact more people are opting to use the postal vote, demonstrates already how traditional polling station voting is becoming increasingly incompatible with modern pace of life.
It has been asserted that e-voting will empower voters to decide when and how they vote. Citing the example of Estonia, where e-voting has been implemented as a voting option when the new option was first introduced in 2005 it was only used by 2% of voters but by the 2007 local elections this figure had leapt to 33%.
However, the issue of digital exclusion was raised and it was emphasised the need to maintain a good balance between online and offline to avoid this. If postal vote and paper ballots remained an option, then this would somewhat negate that risk.
Considerations for a Successful E-Voting Trial
Firstly, before trials can begin ministers need to clearly define what they want to achieve during the pilot period and what metrics will be used to measure its success. Without a clearly defined roadmap with a vision of the destination in mind, trials are likely to flounder. Within that map, contingency and technology refresh plans must be put in place.
Technology can become outdated quickly, therefore, new cryptography protocols, new architecture and applications must be regularly updated. Furthermore, by having a plan the government can factor in a risk analysis and cost.
A major necessity for the trial would be the need to build a verifiable system with properties that can be audited by voters and necessary stakeholders to show all security measures in place are there and functioning. Transparency with all stakeholders is an element that must be at the forefront of any e-voting trial.
In a recent survey on online personal data trust, UK consumers said that when an organisation had been compromised it was their failure to respond to the victims and be forthcoming that made them all the more distrustful how their data was handled.
Maintaining Voter Trust Crucial
With a recent slew of high-profile misuses of data, company hacks, IT meltdowns and a growing general distrust of online privacy and data handling, naturally, e-voting raises many public concerns. In a sceptical age when people have more access to online information than ever before, to establish this trust will be no easy task.
Liz Ure emphasised that trust would be a critical success factor in the trials, as without trust nobody would opt to use it. Security and integrity are the most significant areas of worry regarding e-voting and are both intrinsically linked to trust.
To address this the Government will need to identify potential vulnerabilities and act to secure these. Before trials can roll out, the Government will need to ensure that electronic votes cannot be tampered with. The trial will require a strong method of ensuring that only people eligible people to vote can access the system.
One method of verification suggested by Summers was an electronic ID be used, a method currently used in Estonia. There would have to be a process for the voter to verify that their vote had indeed been cast and was accurate. E-voting must ensure that the voter cannot be identified, and the ballot cannot be determined or manipulated.
Convincing solutions to these issues would need to be defined before the trials commence for people to have faith in an electric electoral system. Lots of process elements need to be verified and tested to protect voter trust.
Old Versus New
Although e-voting has potential security pitfalls, it is important to remember so too does the current system. Paper ballots and postal votes can also be tampered with and made to vanish. Furthermore, voters heading down to the polling station can face intimidation and pressure as they head to the booths.
As it stands, neither system is infallible, and both have their shortfalls and vulnerabilities. For example, in the 2017 elections, 2% of votes were rejected and thus not counted due to voter errors; this is a problem e-voting would solve since voters would not be able to accidentally invalidate their vote.
Another benefit would be that votes would not go missing in transit or be miscounted, minimising the risk of human error. However, it was noted that adding new channels such as e-voting would add another level of administrative task, creating more work, and ultimately raise response expectations from the public.