Online voting won’t work, but that won’t stop them from introducing it anyway

As part of the ongoing attempt to sell off every part of the British state that isn’t nailed down (while issuing a tender to recruit a specialist nail removal company), it looks like attention is turning to elections and voting because those are exactly the sort of things you want to entrust to the lowest bidder.

Even less surprisingly, it’s being driven by the ‘Hey! Why can’t we vote online?’ mantra, in which people who really should know better pretend that the well-documented security issues of moving voting online can be ignored. The companies who stand to make a tidy profit from this are very good at pretending these issues don’t exist, or that they can easily solve them, providing someone throws enough money at them to do so. In the same way that companies pretended making an IT system for the NHS was essentially a trivial problem that could be solved by throwing enough money at it, it’s in the e-voting companies’ interest to pretend that their business model doesn’t have fundamental flaws that don’t have quick fixes.

The problem, though, is that none of these genuine concerns will be listened to. Pushed on by the dual carrot of being able to be seen to be embracing technology while looking like they’re saving money, I fully expect the next government to rush ahead with some form of electronic/internet voting and those of us who try to raise concerns will be dismissed as Luddites for imagining that pencils and paper are somehow better than the internet. But hey, who cares about security and the integrity of the ballot when you can bring in something shiny, new and seemingly cheaper until all those unexpected glitches bring the bill in at double what it used to be?

5 thoughts on “Online voting won’t work, but that won’t stop them from introducing it anyway”

  1. The key thing that e-commerce relies on to make it relatively secure is that when a valid user sees money disappearing out of his/her account they complain. This identifies a potential technical problem that can be investigated and eventually corrected – until a new hole is exploited. How many voters do you see checking that their vote for the Lib Dems was actually recorded as a vote for the Lib Dems, maybe a couple of thousand of them if the Tory majority was 1 vote, but probably not 100 if the majority was less than a thousand. Likewise, but in a more concerning manner, a corrupted programmer or company could report all valid votes correctly but come up with incorrect totals.

    The advantage with the current system is that it does not put all the power into one place, but it is dispersed across many individuals. Hence you can see corruption even if it is difficult to prove it.

    David Evans – ex technical Computer Auditor with a major bank.

  2. I fully expect the next government to rush ahead with some form of electronic/internet voting and those of us who try to raise concerns will be dismissed as Luddites for imagining that pencils and paper are somehow better than the internet

    I doubt it. The public really doesn’t like people messing with the voting system. Remember the failure that was the all-postal-voting experiment? Remember the 6th of May 2011?

  3. Security and ease of use tend to be contradictory aims for an IT solution to any problem. As David Evans notes, e-commerce is relatively easy to use and relatively secure; it’s a compromise. To make it more secure would make it less appealing to use. The ability to correct mistakes is an essential component of the compromise (cf electronic bank transfers which are often not reversible).

    I don’t see how you could implement such compromises in an e-voting system. Probably the best known example of remote e-voting (ie ability to cast a vote from home) was practised in Estonia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_voting_in_Estonia).

    Voters required their national ID card (which we don’t have in the UK), an election smart card (which would have to be issued in advance) and access to a computer with a smart card reader (not many homes have one). UK electoral admins could work around these problems, say, by providing a voting certificate on a USB flash drive handed over at the town hall. Certificate plus password equals ability to vote over the internet. And it’s still not very secure — flash drives are lost and passwords can be guessed.

    Convenience of e-voting? Every five years or so, I’ll have to go to the town hall for a smart card refresh or certificate and show who I claim to be. That’s two hours of time, five miles in the car to a city centre or £4.60 on the bus. To get a card or certificate that saves me a short walk to a parish hall four times in five years?

    Those who can’t manage a short walk can use postal or proxy voting. And yes, I comprehend the risks.

    One of the things I love about being British is the shock when a postal worker is discovered to have buried mail bags in a field. Lost letters seem to be as important to newspaper sub-editors as lost lives in a distant city. The sub-eds are partly right.

  4. @K @ 2015-02-20 12:59: “Remember the failure that was the all-postal-voting experiment? Remember the 6th of May 2011?”

    I think that we should skip that stupid exercise. The first time that I knew that there was no polling station was when I received my ballot paper in the post. My ballot paper sat a while before I defaced it and put it inside the return post envelope. My vote didn’t matter to the organisers and it did not matter to me.

    A couple of years later, for the Mayor elections in my city and the police commissioner, I walked down the road to vote. I had a chance to vote positively in one (which I adopted) but the other was a placeholder (another spoiled paper).

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