Work from home. Learn from home. Exercise from home. Vote from home? That’s the question a lot of politicians and voters are currently grappling with. The past year has witnessed a mass exodus. One that saw broad swaths of society moving away from offices and schools and into private spheres, out of offices and online. The ways we interact, do business and go shopping have changed. Is it time to change how we vote?
E-voting is by no means a new phenomenon. In countries like Estonia, with ample experience in all things digitalization, e-voting has been a staple of the democratic process since the early 2000s. Dozens of other countries — among them the United States, Switzerland, France, and Brazil — have also forayed into digitalized voting processes. And now, in the midst of a global pandemic, citizens are willing and eager to safely exercise their voting rights from the comfort of their own homes.
By making voting more mobile and flexible, e-voting has the potential to give more people access to the polls. And that is a real plus for our democratic systems. However, as is always the case with digital solutions, comfort can not come at the expense of security. In countries where e-voting initiatives have been halted, like Germany for example, both voters and politicians are concerned about concrete security logistics. Namely: how to prevent voter fraud and voting manipulation. So how can we digitalize the voting process while simultaneously protecting the legitimacy of the election results?
What exactly is e-voting?
Voting in absentia (i.e. not in person) is no new concept. Mail-in voting has been around in many countries for decades. And in places where it is acceptable, it has made voting more accessible and resulted in higher voter turnout. However, when done right, electronic voting, or e-voting, can be faster, more affordable, and more transparent than mail-in voting. Why? Because it eliminates a very extensive paper trail and the very analogue system of manual vote counting.
E-voting can either be done on electronic voting machines located at a polling site or on computers connected to the Internet. For on-site voting using electronic voting machines, identification is relatively simple. Voters need only provide a valid form of ID. For Internet voting, the identification and verification process is far more complex. And herein lies one of the major concerns of e-voting.
Are the risks of e-voting a threat to democracy?
The world watched as the US elections were called into doubt by a number of politicians and voters. Though the claims were unfounded, the resulting panic and hysteria were evidence of a lack of trust in the voting system. In this case, there were accusations of fraud involving both the electronic voting machines and mail-in ballots. There were claims that voting machines were not properly counting the votes. There were accusations of dead people voting or people double voting using mail-in ballots.
In Germany, where e-voting for political officials was declared illegal in 2009, events like those that played out in the 2020 American presidential elections further prove the dangers of digitalized voting. Legal concerns in Germany are centred around the fact that election results are not traceable, and the final results can, therefore, not be publicly scrutinized or recounted if necessary. Any shift in e-voting perception will have to resolve this dilemma.
In countries like Switzerland, where e-voting is gaining an ever-stronger foothold, there are also starkly contrasting opinions on the safety and relevance of e-voting. As in Germany, critics argue that its lack of traceability poses a threat to the democratic process. However, the Swiss government has opted to push forward with its e-voting initiatives. It is collaborating with Swiss Post, an already trusted and well-established institution, which may bolster acceptance and support for the e-vote.
Regardless of what technologies and strategies are implemented to drive forward e-voting, one thing is certain: trustworthiness and security must be guaranteed. How can governments instil trust in e-voting?
What obstacles do we need to overcome to establish trust in e-voting?
Is secure e-voting even possible? Even now, credit card fraud and identity theft are legitimate concerns. How can we ensure that the person authorized to vote is indeed the person voting?
The only way to uphold confidence in election results and the democratic process is to implement the highest security standards possible. The implementation of two-factor (2FA) or multi-factor authentication (MFA) would require voters to verify their identity on the basis of two or more factors. These factors can be any combination of something they possess (a mobile device), something they know (a single-use TAN), something they are (a fingerprint), or somewhere they are (geolocation).
Taking security one step further, the integration of biometric features (facial recognition and fingerprint scans) or behavioural pattern analysis (like keystroke dynamics) would make it possible to create a passwordless verification solution, which would be especially secure as it would eliminate the weakest link when it comes to security: the password. When logging into e-voting portals, voters could use their irreplicable biometric features already stored on their own devices as proof of identity.
If done right, e-voting has the potential to create a more accessible, affordable, and error-free voting system. And we can all agree that giving more people access to free and secure voting is the surest way to protect our democratic institutions.