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Study Notes

Digital Democracy - Increasing Participation by Digitising Elections

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 6 Oct 2017

Could electronic voting help address the issue of low voter turnout?

One aspect of the democratic deficit in the UK is the issue of voter turnout, particularly among the young. Although UK turnout has increased steadily over recent years, it is still relatively low when held against comparable figures elsewhere and there are continuing concerns about the poor engagement of younger voters. 

One obvious attempt at a solution would be to allow electronic voting in UK elections. Research by Survation found that two thirds of non-voters in 2010 would have been significantly ‘more likely’ to vote had there been an online voting option. Chief executive Damian Lyons Lowe said this was especially true of the roughly 1 in 10 non-voters claiming they were 'not able to access a polling station or get a postal ballot' and a Commons commission set up by the Speaker John Bercow later promised that by 2020 ‘secure online voting should be an option for all voters’.[1]

This isn’t a wholly new idea. Futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler, writing in America in 1995, predicted that voting over the internet ‘might unlock a truer, more direct democracy closer to the one the U.S. Founding Fathers experienced.’[2] 

However, there are mixed results from elsewhere in the world, and some very real concerns have been raised. 

Machines are vulnerable to technical problems (a Brennan Center for Justice report found the US state of Georgia, for example, relies on old operating systems such as Windows 2000 – so is vulnerable to crashing and to hacking – and also leaves no paper trail, making post-election auditing impossible)[3] and, when schedules are tight, this might have the effect of disenfranchising citizens in some areas, in much the same way as UK voters unable to access polling stations before 10pm on polling day will not be able to cast their ballots. 

Moreover, not all voters are comfortable with technological solutions and any scheme involving physical machines might more easily be implemented in urban areas than in more remote locations. 

Voting via home or mobile devices is an alternative but might demean the act of voting, or else is clearly vulnerable to corruption and a lack of transparency. 

Linked to this, the most common concerns raised against e-voting surround fears that such systems are too easily manipulated. The Brazilian Electoral Tribunal has allowed no testing of the country’s electronic voting system since 2012, when a research team uncovered several holes in the system having been granted brief access to millions of lines of code. A 2010 NetIndia Ltd. (Hyderabad) / University of Michigan study into electronic voting in India also found evidence of vulnerability to fraud, leading Professor J. Alex Halderman to insist:

‘Almost every component of this system could be attacked to manipulate election results. This proves, once again, that the paperless class of voting systems has intrinsic security problems. It is hard to envision systems like this being used responsibly in elections.’[4]

In both countries, government officials insisted the system were absolutely secure, but persistent concerns have dogged the efforts of EVM[5] manufacturers to export them more widely – their use has been ended or restricted in recent years in Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany and some American states - and a consensus does seem to have developed in the research community that EVMs contain fundamental susceptibilities. Technology expert Zeynep Tufekci wrote in 2016 of the American electoral security as inhabiting ‘a bleak landscape’, reflecting darkly on many criticisms and concerns about the system as it currently operates:

‘Experts have warned about voting machine vulnerability for years, but nothing has changed. The mere existence of this discussion is cause for alarm. The United States needs to return, as soon as possible, to a paper-based, auditable voting system in all jurisdictions that still use electronic-only, unverifiable voting machines ... Our elections need to be open to oversight without the need for voters to understand how encryption works. We can’t tell them to simply trust the experts, especially when people are deliberately sowing distrust.’[6]

Dutch hacker Rop Gonggrijp foreshadowed arguments concerns in a 2010 interview:

"In order to have any transparency in elections, you need to have votes on paper. Computers can be programmed to count votes honestly, but since nobody can watch them, they might just as easily be programmed to count dishonestly. How is the voter supposed to tell the difference?"[7]

Even if the machines are secure – and we should hope this is the case, given our likely reliance on cryptology for online banking, shopping and personal registration tasks – it is easy to imagine how a tight election result would offer the opportunity for the defeated side to question the legitimacy of the process. Presumably this is what Donald Trump would have done had he lost in 2016 (he famously announced he would only accept the result if he won) and he would have had an audience, a poll at the time finding 34% of US voters expected the election to be ‘rigged’. No doubt this number also contained many Clinton supporters fearful of Russian manipulation of electronic voting systems in favour of the Republican candidate. The effect of this is to further diminish voters’ faith in the system, a poor result for everyone. Matthew Green, a cryptography and cybersecurity expert at Johns Hopkins University, echoes the view of Gonggrijp above:

‘There is only one way to protect the voting system from a nation-state funded cyberattack: Use paper.[1]


[1] Daniel Wainwright, ‘Council elections: Five ways to get more people to vote’, BBC News, 03 May 2016. Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-36047612.

[2] Jason Healey, ‘Estonia's Democracy Goes Digital’, The National Interest, 17 March 2015. Source: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/estonias-democracy-better-americas-12422

[3] Zeynep Tufekci, ‘The Election Won’t Be Rigged. But It Could Be Hacked’, in the New York Times, 12.08.16

[4] From the Press Release: ‘In a video released today, the researchers show two demonstration attacks against a real Indian EVM. One attack involves replacing a small part of the machine with a look-alike component that can be silently instructed to steal a percentage of the votes in favour of a chosen candidate. These instructions can be sent wirelessly from a mobile phone. Another attack uses a pocket-sized device to change the votes stored in the EVM between the election and the public counting session (which in India can be weeks later).’ Read more: https://indiaevm.org/press.html

[5] EVM = Electronic Voting Machine

[6] Zeynep Tufekci, ‘The Election Won’t Be Rigged. But It Could Be Hacked’, in the New York Times, 12 August 2016.

[7] Hari K. Prasad, J. Alex Halderman & Rop Gonggrijp, ‘India's EVMs are Vulnerable to Fraud’ (Press Release for India EVM). Source: https://indiaevm.org/press.html

[8] Zeynep Tufekci, ‘The Election Won’t Be Rigged. But It Could Be Hacked’, in the New York Times, 12 August 2016.

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