28 March 2017
Salsa Digital

Electronic voting

Electronic voting is a topic that tends to come up around election time — and it’s a divisive issue. It’s certainly a great instance of digital transformation in government and delivering convenience to citizens, however security is always the paramount concern.

Electronic voting has also been in the news in the past year, first with the Census problems (the general feeling was that the ‘Census fail’ put online voting back years) and then again with allegations that Russia interfered with the US election (if they can hack into documents, then it follows they’d be able to hack into online voting systems too).

At the poll or on the net?

There are two different voting methods generally captured by the term e-voting or electronic voting. The first is lodging electronic votes at the polling place. People still need to get to a polling booth, but instead of submitting their votes on paper, they submit them electronically.

The second system is online voting, where citizens vote over the internet.

Online voting around the world

Currently, there are a few countries that use online voting. One of the most well known for its pioneering efforts in e-voting is Estonia, which introduced online voting in 2005. Since 2005 it’s grown, and in the 2015 election, 176,491 people voted online, accounting for just over 30% of the voters. An EER articleExternal Link includes online voting statistics from 2005 to 2015, which demonstrate the increasing use of online voting. The Estonian system has been widely touted as a ground-breaking case of digital transformation that delivers citizen convenience, but it’s also been attacked over security concerns. These problems are well covered in the ‘criticism’ section on WikipediaExternal Link .

Online voting in Australia

Here in Australia, iVote has been used in NSW and WA. In 2011, NSW used iVote for visually impaired voters, and in the 2015 election eligibility was broadened to: those with other disabilities, voters who lived more than 20km from a polling booth and people who would not be in NSW on election day.

iVote has also hit the news recently in relation to the WA election on 11 March. In WA, voters with visual impairments, insufficient literacy skills, or those who are ‘otherwise incapacitated’ were eligible to use iVote.

How iVote works

Eligible voters must first register for iVote. This can be done online or over the phone. When voters register, they’re given a six-digit PIN. Registered voters are given an eight-digit voter number and they need both the number and their PIN to cast their vote. Once they’ve voted, they can call the verification phone service to ensure their vote was received. After the election, they can also login to confirm their vote was counted.

What are the problems?

Obviously the biggest problem is security. The technology to facilitate online voting exists, however, there are inherent security risks.

While the security risks of electronic voting at the polls are less than those of online voting, many people argue that any data stored on a computer can be breached. With online voting, the risks multiply, with problems of security at the citizen end as well as on servers.

A recent Mandarin articleExternal Link in the lead up to the use of iVote for the WA elections detailed the iVote system and the security risks. The article was written by five academics, who investigated the system. They found that the Transport Layer Security (TLS) certificate was registered to an American company rather than the WA Electoral Commission. They also pointed out that if voters use the same computer to register and vote, the use of a cookie means a person’s identity and their vote can be linked.

They go on to talk about other security vulnerabilities within the system and mention the fact that the system may be breached without anyone realising it: “This is the key problem with the use of online voting systems such as iVote: the verification protocol does not guarantee that errors or fraud will be detected.”

So while the iVote system has been successfully used in both NSW and WA elections, there are many people who question its security.

The future of e-voting?

It’s hard to know what the future holds for electronic voting — the technology is there, but there are inherent risks involved in that technology. Will a future technology somehow mitigate these risks? Or will voting, with its unique combination of confirming identity but then allowing an anonymous vote, make it something that can’t ever be delivered 100% risk-free?

Salsa Digital’s take

Online voting is certainly a great example of digital transformation in government and how it can value-add to the citizen experience. However, it’s not surprising that both governments and citizens are wary of the risks associated with online voting. Being in the online space, we’re also extremely aware of the risks involved in running sites with sensitive information and how these risks must be mitigated.

Ultimately while e-voting is undoubtedly the most convenient way for most people to vote, it will be up to governments and society to decide if online voting is the way forward.

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