Dear Readers, as you may probably know, in one of our previous articles we talked a bit about e-elections, that means elections that are carried out by means of digital tools, unlike “analogue” offline elections carried out on the basis of paper documents.

It is a logical step when some countries apply digital tools of technical progress and offer their citizens to vote online, without a necessity to visit offline election areas. Among such countries are the US, UK, Switzerland, Estonia, recently Russia.

In today’s article we are going to deep dive into the subject of online elections. Possibly, being part of global digital transformation, online elections will be applied in more and more countries, even despite all the risks that e-voting has.

To start with, let’s specify the principles, online elections must base on:

  1. Strict following democratic principles of an election: universal, equal, secret voting.
  2. Vital results: no matter a person votes online or offline, the vote is registered on a mandatory basis.
  3. Availability: any citizen has an option to vote online or offline with the same result.

Briefly about world’s online election experience

The situation is that a number of countries apply some software and hardware solutions to digitize the process of election partially. For example, election areas in the US are equipped with terminals that scan bulletins and calculate votes automatically. Please note that situation in the US varies from state to state. The process of elector’s identification, registration, voting itself is carried out without digital tools. Such approach is applied also in Brazil, India, Venezuela.

In Switzerland, a system of e-bulletin is used. Citizens receive access to their e-bulletin via the post and vote online on local referendums.

Looks like the only country where the election process is fully digital is Estonia. In Estonia any citizen can vote online. To do this, he/she simply needs a computer, internet access, Estonian ID-card and a special card-reader. Even despite some problems, the Estonian e-voting case was recognized as successful.

Factors that slow down implementation of digital elections

Level of digital culture

We would also like to pay special attention that a successful implementation of digital elections depends on a certain level of a so-called digital culture. Digital culture is an aspect of a digital transformation of a company or an establishment, that means that all the staff takes any decision on the basis of data instead of on the basis of their personal experience and/or intuition. High level of digital culture of any organization means that processes of data collection, processing, storage, access management and security are properly organized. This means also that all the employees follow and maintain digital culture, actively use data collected, take decisions basing on data, use digital tools even for small routine tasks, constantly look for and learn new digital tools. More about digital culture here.

When we are talking about online elections, in our opinion a certain level of digital culture is also required. In case digital culture level in a society is low, people will simply ignore online elections. And, we suppose that high level of digital culture will bring a great number of citizens to online voting instead of offline voting. Basing on the desire not just to support online elections, but to make the choice deliberately, understanding that the online vote is to be counted, it was made in reliable, secured, trusted system.

Here it is also possible to say about necessity of high level of digital culture among software developers and authorities who will develop and promote such an online election system. Their great challenge is to create a reliable system, in fact invulnerable. A system, that citizens will trust…

Absence of legislation base

Obviously, development and implementation of any state online election system should base on a set of relevant laws. These laws should proclaim not only the possibility to vote online, but describe the policy of working with citizen’s personal data, its storage, processing, and all other aspects of e-voting.

Digital divide

Digital divide is limited access to internet service among part of the society from region to region. The first point is that there is simply no internet in distant locations, like, for instance, in Russia. The second one is perceptiveness level of digital solutions in general, not only dedicated to online elections, among the people. Some have no desire to use any digital solutions, like, for example, banking cards or online shopping, say nothing of getting national ID-card and taking part in online voting.

High cost of development and implementation

The cost of a state information system for online voting development, according to some specialists, is much higher that cost of “analogue” paper-based elections. Especially considering extremely high security requirements.

online elections within global digital transformation

Risks of an online elections

Let’s imagine we have a task to develop a state-level e-voting system from scratch. To do this, we need to address the following risks:

  1. Risk of leakage of voters’ personal data. In, Estonia, according to news, a hacker noticed a vulnerability in the system and used it to edit online votes. The hacker, however, didn’t complete the process, so his breach didn’t affect the results of e-elections, but published the results of his actions, trying to demonstrate that the system requires some improvements. Such behavior of the hacker, by the way, shows that his level of digital culture is high…

The most recent example took place in Russia: a database of 1.1 million of online voters who took part in voting for amendments to the Russian Constitution in June is available for purchase in Darknet. The database contains personal data of voters. Actually, this fact means a great loss of authority of the team that created the system. By the way, they declared implementation of blockchain technology, but they didn’t manage to organize data protection properly.

So, looks like this fact shows us extremely low level of digital culture among several representatives of the Russian society.

Oh, by the way, if the database of online voters is just deleted after some time of the election, will it be a solution?

  1. Risk of leakage of the votes. The risk of publication of voters and their votes is also possible. This is not just violates democratic principle of secret voting, but also can cause consequences for people whose data was published, they can be persecuted for their votes.
  2. Risk of manipulating online votes. One more risk we see is a possibility to manipulate the votes, editing them. Developers can intentionally make such a “feature” and use it, depending on who pays more).
  3. Risks of the principle of personal voting violation and freedom of expression violation in the process of remote voting. It is impossible to track that the person who registered is voting. In addition, it is possible that a pressure is exerted on the voter at the time of voting and that there is a “inspector” behind him. – According to the research of Prof. Elena Gritsenko from the Saint Petersburg State University. 

Possible solutions

We brainstormed some possible solutions to address the risks. If you have something to add, please let us know, and we will be happy to discuss!

  1. Operator of the online election information system is a third party that is not interested in the results of elections. – Sounds good but looks like it is unreal to do.
  2. Implementation of several mechanisms for checking the voting process at once. For instance, voters can be asked to send their votes anonymously in some separate platform after they vote online. Then, votes are calculated and compared – Also not very good solution, it is difficult to create 2 or more trusted systems, and not all the people will be ready to do this.
  3. Complete transparency of the development process – Publication of the source code of the software so that any person, specialists, expert can check it and test. By the way, some experts already proposed to distribute such a software as freeware.
  4. Ask the community of citizens, developers and even hackers to test the system with a certain reward for detection of bugs, errors, vulnerabilities etc. before the launch and official use of the system, in case it is developed by an IT department of a state authority responsible for elections.

To sum up, looks like the implementation of comprehensive e-voting information systems is a question of a distant future. The main reason is that a lot of countries already tried to implement such solutions and stopped or returned to analog elections then – currently, using e-voting systems is not considered to be a common practice. Looks like despite all the necessary technologies required to develop a digital election’s system already exist, there are still issues that cannot be addressed, and the most important one is security and following democratic election principles.

In our opinion, government authorities of any state should focus on digital transformation in general, providing citizens with comprehensive online services that raise the standard of living and leave the question of e-voting for a later day. Possibly, we can expect invention of some breakthrough technologies that will guarantee invulnerability of a future e-voting system.

In the same way as before, we predict appearance of a comprehensive state information systems where every citizen, if so desired, will have an account and interact with state authorities, and all the processes will be digitized and take place in this system. Starting with ordering pizza and finishing with registration of business. E-voting will be one of the modules of such a system.