Electronic voting: a threat to democracy?

This post is also available in: frFrançais (French)

The fiasco of the 2000 and 2004 American elections did not settle the issue of electronic voting. The 2004 presidential election victory by Georges W. Bush and the defeat of Al Gore had been characterised by incidents, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the winner: in poor neighbourhoods, some voting technologies had a 10% error rate. In 2000, the vote difference between Al Gore and Bush was very small in Florida (less than 0.5%): 3 countries had to recount all of the ballots. In Palm Beach County, errors caused by electronic machines were detected. The Republicans filed a lawsuit at the Florida Supreme Court and the Federal Supreme Court to object to a recount. On 12 December 2000, the Federal Supreme Court ruled that the Florida Supreme Court’s recount order was unconstitutional due to issues of deadlines. Following this, Al Gore ended up acknowledging defeat.

The question of electronic voting is sensitive. It could lead to a higher level of participation but electronic voting also raises democratic and technical concerns. This text deals exclusively with institutional elections.

There are two kinds of “electronic voting”: 1. the vote using electronic voting machines in polling stations and 2. the Internet voting system. The electronic voting machines register and count ballots. Internet voting means distance voting (for example Internet voting).

There is no European consensus on the matter: in the European Union, we find different approaches to electronic voting. In 2017, the Netherlands renounced to use electronic voting for the legislative elections due to an elevated threat of attack. As for the French legislative elections, the government had dropped plans to let its citizens abroad vote electronically. By contrast, Belgium regularly uses electronic voting.

This overview highlights some of the main concerns about electronic voting.

Transparency. Democracy is characterised by a transparent election process in which each step is open to scrutiny by stakeholders, from the opening of polling stations to the publication of minutes. Direct transparency is guaranteed and allows each citizen to verify the validity of the ballot. Electronic voting implies indirect transparency: the transparency has to be verified by a human or technological intermediary. Voters are deprived of their monitoring capacity, the foundation of a democratic election. Voters have to trust an intermediary they did not choose. Moreover, there are risks of error, deception or fraud. The transparent system, a principle of the rule of law, is replaced by an uncontrolled opacity.

Organisation. Electronic voting, especially internet voting, does not require polling station staff and scrutineers, people enlisted to assist in the conduct of a vote. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find scrutineers. By replacing scrutineers by electronic voting machines, states forget the primary problem we are facing and we should resolve: the disenchantment of citizens with elections.

Secrecy. Democracy implies and presupposes secrecy of the ballot. It means that citizens can vote protected from prying eyes in order not to be put under pressure by anybody and to avoid the temptation to “sell” their vote. Contrary to a polling station, Internet voting does not offer a space where citizens can vote in total privacy. It does not protect citizens against external constraints.

Fraud. When electronic systems are widely used, often incidents occur or claims of fraud are made. One can distinguish between two types of fraud. Fraud can be committed by a person involved in the organisation of the vote or can be committed by external actors. A system is considered as completely secure if an attack of the system is not possible. But no system, software or technical measure can ensure complete security and ensure the failure of any attempted attack.

Viruses and worms[1]. They are one of the risks for ballots. Most anti-virus software can only detect viruses and worms already known. Otherwise, the software is unable to identify them. Many computers can get infected by a virus which lies dormant in the computer until the day of the vote. Thus, it is extremely difficult to detect it. On election day, it can work without voters’ knowledge. The virus may modify their vote or expose it to a third-party.

Dysfunction. With an electronic voting system, anomalies can occur due to technical deficiencies, design errors or operating mistakes. Without a transparent process, these incidents can only be detected when unexpected results appear such as differences between the number of voters and the votes that have been cast.

Privatisation. One of the arguments in favor of electronic voting is cost reduction. It means that cheap responses to public procurement contracts are privileged: this may jeopardise the safety of the ballot. Moreover, contracting out core government functions may pose a risk since it puts much power into the hands of private companies.

Blockchain: the future solution? Blockchain is a technology for digital storage and transmission of information, in a transparent and secure manner, without involvement of any central regulatory body. Currently, this technology is used for financial transactions (for example with bitcoin). It has never been used for a national election but countries such as Australia are considering it. Blockchain would guarantee the integrity of the election process: voters could be able to verify if their votes have been counted. This technology should also be more reliable in terms of security and fraud. But nothing guarantees a total reliability of such an election.

Given voter’s increasing abstention in many European countries, it is necessary that European governments address the causes and find adequate solutions. For electronic voting to be an alternative solution, the highest levels of security would have to be ensured and national or even one European solution should be found instead of ending up with different approaches for different territories/

This is the only way to protect secret ballot and democratic principles.


[1] A computer worm is a standalone malware computer program that replicates itself in order to spread to other computers