The definition of electronic voting, its advantages, and disadvantages
The 2020 United States presidential election is scheduled for Tuesday, November 3, 2020. It will be the 59th national presidential election and the 15th time when electronic voting technology will be used for this purpose.
PaySpace Magazine is going to shed some light on the nature of e-voting, its pros & cons for the electorate and the country.
Definition and types of e-voting technology
E-voting differs from the traditional voting process in a way that it employs technology. The processes of collecting and counting votes may be automated by several types of machines.
The main technologies employed back in the 1960s were punched-card systems. With those systems, voters punched holes in cards using a supplied punch ballot-marking device, to indicate votes for their chosen candidates. The voters could insert the card directly into a computer vote-tabulating device (where available), or place the card in a ballot box, which was later transported to a central location for counting votes.
The modern e-voting equipment includes optical scan voting systems and electronic voting machines installed at the polling station.
In the case of an optical scan system, people cast ballots in a traditional way, but the results are processed by machines. The optical scanner’s sensors detect black and white pixels on the paper ballot in the areas designated for marking votes. The scanner’s processor interprets the results from the sensors, creates a tally for each candidate, and usually stores the image for later review. Those ballots that are unrecognizable for the scanner can be recorded manually if needed.
Electronic voting machines (EVMs) may be similar to self-service touchscreen devices found at the fast-food restaurants and retail networks. Or else, there may be ordinary PCs, laptops, or tablets designated for this purpose. All they need is Internet access and the relevant software.
Some progressive countries may even organize full-function online voting through any available common connectable household devices including cell phones.
In theory, the degree of automation in a separate e-voting system may be limited to a single function like marking a paper ballot or tallying the results. However, most governments would prefer a comprehensive system of vote input, vote recording, data encryption, transmission to servers, consolidation, and tabulation of election results.
Where is it used
According to the ACE project, 31 countries around the world either use or have used EVMs for binding political elections.
Legally binding electronic voting with voting machines is used in Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, India, Japan, Kazakhstan, Peru, Russia, the United States of America, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela.
India, Brazil, Bhutan, and Venezuela use e-voting nationwide, while a dozen other countries use this voting method only in certain parts of their territory.
Legally binding internet voting is implemented in Austria, Australia, Canada, Estonia, France, Japan, and Switzerland.
A number of countries have started to discuss, test, and try out e-voting technology for non-legally binding elections at some point in time. Those include Argentina, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Chile, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Finland, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Norway, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, and Ukraine.
E-voting projects have piloted and stopped in Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands, United Kingdom. The discontinuation had different reasons.
After a largely successful trial period spanning from 1998 to 2005, two citizens challenged the constitutionality of electronic voting before the German Constitutional Court. Though the public generally viewed the voting system in a favorable manner throughout the trial period, the actual legality of the technology was compromised. The decision by the German Constitutional Court did not rule out the voting machines completely.
However, it stressed the need for transparency in the electoral process without specialist technical knowledge. It meant that a complimentary examination by the voter, by the electoral bodies or the general public should be made possible, for example, with electronic voting machines that offer physical vote records besides electronic storage. That ruling effectively ended Germany’s recent use of e-voting, since no other technology was offered instead.
E-voting trials have previously been conducted in local elections in England, between 2002 and 2008, but were discontinued. The independent Electoral Commission called for the end of “piecemeal” telephone and internet voting pilots in the UK until improvements in security and testing were put in place. The trials were not smooth due to limited testing and insufficient planning prior to the election.
At the same time, another e-voting system was tested in 2019, meaning the UK has not given up on the concept completely. Voters in Gateshead could vote twice in the local elections – via the traditional ballot box and on a touch-screen computer (a trial vote didn’t count). What made it different from previous systems was the ability to verify the voting process “end to end”, said the team at Warwick University who developed it, funded by the European Research Council and Innovate UK.
Anyone wanting to take part in a trial had to enter a passcode previously issued to them, select a candidate on the touch-screen and then receive a paper confirmation receipt. All encrypted votes were published on the election website, where anyone could be able to look at the tally for each candidate. The trial system also flagged up any e-vote that had been illegitimately modified.
Pros & Cons
Although almost all the processes today are moving towards automatization and going online, voting electronically (and especially online) is still treated with caution. Governments and citizens are concerned about the following issues:
- there is no way for a voter to trace their ballot in many systems;
- the e-voting system can be hacked, causing a major data breach and/or misinterpretation of voting results;
- as for security concerns, the environment which is hardest to control is the voter’s computer. Anyone who has a laptop runs the risk of downloading malware, which makes online e-voting hard to control;
- votes from pre-election tests may be counted alongside actual votes due to either a technical error or human factors;
- protecting the identity of the voter and the information contained on the ballot requires some very complex encryption, and yet the data should be verifiable;
- without a paper backup, accurate audits can be difficult;
- if officials of a given party have time alone with machines, there is a possibility of tampering or fraud, especially when there are USB flash drive ports on the electronic voting machines;
- touch-screen voting machines are susceptible to errors, especially when they rely on outdated and unsupported software;
- it may be difficult to check the identity of a voter by online means.
On the other hand, the steady progress and continuing efforts to implement and improve e-voting processes all over the world signify a great potential for the given technology. The advantages of e-voting are:
- convenience and speed of counting votes;
- the flexibility of remote online voting empowers every citizen to take part in the election wherever they are;
- when e-voting is combined with national electronic ID cards, it enables citizens to securely identify and authenticate themselves over the Internet;
- online e-voting helps to avoid mass gatherings and so decrease the risk of spreading COVID-19;
- people will not be appalled by long waiting lines and have more chances to participate in elections;
- if correctly organized, it provides a safe and private channel that allows all users to participate on equal terms;
- increased participation improves the legitimacy and fairness of the election outcome;
- e-voting brings a reduction in organizational and implementation costs, saving some budget money on human resources required to give out, register, and transfer paper ballots, as well as the tons of paper itself;
- in addition, online voting also may lower the cost of voting for many electors by creating many more access points from which they are able to vote so that they shouldn’t spend additional money on commuting from remote places;
- using technology for voting may engage the youngest voters who are usually reluctant to take an active part in the political and social life of their country;
- the computers or voting machines will not permit making inappropriate marks on a ballot or choosing more/fewer candidates than needed (which is often the reason for considering a ballot invalid), the system will simply not allow that.