E-voting is increasingly on the cards, but reformers remain sceptical.
As the short campaign of the this year’s general election begins apace, technologists and electoral reformers are wondering whether this will be the last time the country goes to the polls without access to some form of online voting.
Back in January the House of Commons speaker John Bercow again raised the possibility that the next election, expected in 2020 now that parliament has a five-year fixed term, could be the first in which citizens can vote online.
Experiments in other countries have led some to question the wisdom of such a move. Having worked as an election official in the 2008 US presidential election, Paco Hope, principal consultant at software security firm Cigital, warns that fraud could rise if the technology is implemented.
"I’m not sure that you can secure it," he says, arguing that the voting process could be hijacked by hackers. "We can’t make websites that are resistant to the type of attacks that target an election."
On the face of it e-voting is not dissimilar to postal voting, which has caused significant controversy due to allegations of voter fraud. Electoral authorities have no means of checking whether a particular postal vote was filled in by the correct person, and the process lacks the secrecy of casting the ballot in person.
Yet e-voting also opens up the possibility of the automated manipulation of votes, which could see voter fraud skyrocket. Not only could a person sell their credentials to someone else, effectively selling their vote, but the process could be hijacked on mass to rig the result.
As Hope points, we do put up with a fraud risk when it comes to financial transactions, but the possibility of voting fraud raises more fundamental questions over a citizens’ rights. He is unsure that people can accept a poll that is only a "probabilistic" measure of what people want, since a vote is supposed to lend democratic authority to those elected.
What he does concede is that the issue might come down to a cost-benefit analysis, much like a business case. Advocates of e-voting have argued that they raise participation, particularly among young people whose lack of interest in voting causes much angst among reformers.
Such a view is disputed by the Electoral Reform Society, a campaigning group. "Essentially we’re favour of innovations and we think lots of things should be tried to improve turnout, but electronic voting has not been shown to improve turnout in an election," a spokesman for the group said.
Other obstacles to voting include problems with implementing it. Following a report by the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, a Cabinet Office minister told the House of Commons that: "The fact electronic voting is incredibly rare across the globe I believe is testament to some of the problems delivering it."
Any electronic voting system might cost a huge amount to implement for the sake of only a few votes every parliament, and would have to contend with the British government’s unhappy record of installing IT systems. The coalition’s disastrous Universal Credit system is just the latest example of this, and is thought to have wasted at least £40m from the public purse.
Despite these complaints Hope believes that more attempts will be made to experiment with e-voting as democracies try to accommodate themselves "to the speed of modern life". One suggestion he has is that it be used between general elections to hold politicians to account more often than the current five years.
"I don’t think we can apply the same rules to an internet election as to the ballot box," he says. For a software security vendor who stands to make money securing such systems his pessimism is puzzling, CBR points out. "I just haven’t seen technology that I believe works."