Analyzing the Risks of Implementing Electronic Voting

By: Djina Pavlovic, Queen’s University

Voting is a fundamental right of every citizen. Therefore, it is important to keep our electoral system efficient, safe, and accessible for all citizens casting their votes. Governments in many countries are eager to establish electronic voting for a variety of reasons: it is convenient, it reduces costs and there is a hope for an increase in turnout, especially amongst young people. E-voting refers to electronic voting machines; voting via the Internet from one’s own computer, cell-phone, or any digital device. Although advocates for electronic voting argue that these systems minimize costs, increase participation, and provide convenience, there are a number of setbacks. These include skepticism of privacy, lack of transparency, policy mitigation, fraud, and a digital divide, which, in sum, highlight why electronic voting should not replace the traditional ballot system.  

The Appeal of Electronic Voting

The purpose of Internet voting (online voting, electronic voting and e-voting) is to support decision-making. It can also be used to gather information (public opinion polling) and for deliberation. Advocates of e-voting believe this establishment increases civic participation and has the potential to reduce election costs. Donald P. Moynihan states, “The increased use of information technology promises to revolutionize both the provision of government services and the vibrancy of democracy”. Additionally, the adoption of technology communicates to the public that the government is innovative, values technology, and is moving towards modern systems. Increasing voter participation is also of interest in the political sphere, due to low levels of voter turnout in most countries. Some individuals argue that the Internet- savvy millennial generation would show up in numbers if they were allowed to vote online. Another possible advantage of e-voting is increasing voter access. The current ballot system used in democratic countries is not completely fair due to overlapping work schedules of citizens. There are often time conflicts, which prevent individuals from visiting their designated polling stations. Advocates of e-voting argue that increasing convenience encourages participation and leads to a stronger electorate. Terence Green states, “Balloting over the Internet may make elections cheaper and faster, but it could further disenfranchise the disadvantaged”. Along with disenfranchisement, there are various other implications that need to be considered when thinking about the implementation of electronic voting; implications such as security, policy implication, and digital divide.

The Reality of Electronic Voting

Although convenience and speed are important considerations, the core criterion for an election system is the accuracy to translate the intent of voters. The failure of e-voting technology has profound consequences for the reliability of, and public confidence in, our electoral system”. There are several negative aspects of electronic voting systems, such as programming error, tampering, policy implications, and security, which together suggest that e-voting is not yet technologically ready to replace the traditional ballot system.  

Error and Tampering
A small error in a complex system can lead to dramatic and unexpected system failures in technologies like those that administrate e-voting. Moynihan explains, “E-voting hardware is more complex than traditional voting machines, [which] also creat[es] potential risks” for its establishment. Journalist Ben Harris found many documented miscounts by election machines. These errors included obvious malfunctions such as candidates receiving no votes, more votes being counted than registered voters and high numbers of unaccounted votes. According to Moynihan, the most reliable voting methods are the oldest technologies: manual ballot counting and levers.
Additionally, Harris recognizes that there are malicious programmers who have the ability to rig certain machines and hack into e-voting programs. Hackers may exploit the information found if an interested actor could profit from a system failure. Even the process of certifying direct recording electronic (DRE) machines on Election Day is problematic because these machines may not be the same versions as those that were tested. If a vendor finds internal problems in the machines after certification, he or she may decide to simply “add a patch to eliminate the problem”. For example, 17 counties in California found that their DRE vendor, Diebold, ran software on machines that were not certified by the state”. The risk of manipulation ultimately undermines our democratic voting system and directly skews the establishment of legitimate policies.


Policy Implications
Moynihan lays out three obvious policy implications of e-voting. The first is that the implications on policy ultimately undermine the electoral process, the basis for our representative democracy. The second is that the quick adoptions of these technologies risks locking the government into “suboptimal technology”, meaning that new electoral technologies are expensive compared to their use. The third implication is the decrease in public confidence in the electoral process. As evidence of the risks associated with electronic voting comes to light, the public will become skeptical, especially without a recounting mechanism.

Security Concerns
Security is one of the largest problems of e-voting. Electronic voting systems are used for storing and processing sensitive data. A system failure may result in the violation of security principles. Examples of trusted systems include online banking systems, online transaction processing systems, and customer relationship management systems. Essentially, the most significant technological threats are to the security, integrity, and secrecy of Internet ballots. “Security is as important as reliability in guaranteeing the integrity of the voting process and public confidence in the system. Losing confidence in elections means losing confidence in our system of government”. Members of the public are losing confidence in e-government establishments, expressing their concerns regarding security and privacy, and favouring slower execution.
Bribery, vote buying, and selling are easier from remote sites than from polling stations. Casting a ballot without an electoral officer watching is risky. This threat also applies to home computer, workplace computers, or an unsupervised kiosk in a public place. In a study conducted by Oostveen, that measured public opinions regarding e-voting, many of the participants believed that the government gains information about citizens and are afraid that e-voting will only add to that information. Some believed that the ballot was not secret, stating, “This can always be used against you. It can be traced back to you. With the current system it can’t be traced back to you”. It is evident that there is fear that the vote would not be anonymous, since voters would register on the computer. Maryland, in the United States, adopted an e-voting system for soldiers overseas; however, security implications were evident. Voters forfeited their rights to a private ballot as local officials would read them, and the emailed ballots would be opened surreptitiously. Similarly, due to the lack of transparency, participants in Oostveen’s study argued that you cannot see what happens to your vote, and therefore, cannot be sure that it will be counted. Alexandros Xenaxis and Ann Macintosh state that in the case of Westminster, where electronic ballots were piloted, people complained about being too far from the counting arena. The greatest risk of e-voting proved to be the possibility that a voter could be forced into voting a certain way, by family pressures or by the surrounding people; under the ballot system, every citizen is contained in their own private space while casting their ballot.

Turnout and Digital Divide
Although the majority of voters expect that Internet voting will increase the turnout among youth, the effect would not be lasting. Voters appreciate convenience; however, one participant argued: “People are disillusioned and that is why they don’t vote”, while others argue it will complicate the ballots. Therefore, electronic voting will not provide any improvement to the problem of low turnout rates; it does not have an “educational effect,” and therefore only acts as a tool. Electronic voting would also replace the “civic ritual” of casting a ballot, and would devalue the process of voting. The loss of civic ritual could decrease the turnout percentage overall.
Many people are of the opinion that e-voting should be used only as one alternative voting possibility so there is no digital divide. In other words, eliminating the traditional ballot system would cause a digital divide phenomenon. Moving completely towards electronic voting, as many governments around the world are pushing towards, dismisses the importance of traditional voting for elderly people. Internet voting could discriminate against voters who are limited in terms of technological experiences and computer knowledge, as well as those who do not have access to computers. For instance, the vote “will be enhanced for the middle class” who are more likely to own computers than the working class who are less likely to own computers.



The appeal of electronic voting is understandable. Advocates argue that e- voting would increase participation, due to its convenience, and would especially encourage youth turnout. Others argue that adopting technologies communicates to the public that the government values technology and is moving towards a modern democracy, as well as, reducing election costs. But the cost of electronic voting is much higher than the benefit. Errors and tampering lead to unexpected system failures which causes inconvenience and shows the public how illegitimate this process can be. Further, there are policy implications to electronic voting, such as losing the confidence of the electoral system and risking that the government will become locked in “suboptimal technology”. Security concerns are one of the largest problems due to privacy and lack of transparency. Lastly, electronic voting would increase youth turnout for the beginning of the process but would not leave a lasting effect. Rather, dismissing the traditional ballot system for a technological one would create a vast digital divide that would exclude those that cannot afford computers or do not have access to computers and those who are not as tech-savvy. Due to these costs, especially the security threats, electronic voting would undermine our traditional system of voting, as well as, mitigate the election results, and ultimately ruin a fundamental aspect of our representative democracy.



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