Over the recent decades digital transformation has ranked high on the agenda of many governments and it has intrinsically changed the way they operate and interact with their citizens. There are many reasons behind the changes, from better access to and management of information, to increasing public satisfaction and trust, as well as improving the efficiency and transparency of obsolete administrative processes and optimising costs.
Elections, however, are still a pending item on governments’ digitisation agenda. While election processes around the world are being progressively digitalised, general concerns on privacy and security still prevent governments from fully relying on technology, particularly when it comes to online voting. But are these concerns justified?
Traditional election processes based on paper and manual interventions present a series of challenges that technology can actually help overcome. Technologies, such as online voting, have already proved to successfully enfranchise voters who are unable to vote in person at the polling stations because they either live overseas, in remote locations or suffer from some type of disability. A recent research project funded by the US Election Assistance Commission showed that almost one-third of voters with disabilities reported difficulties in voting at a polling station during the 2012 US elections, compared to 8.4% of voters without disabilities. In Europe, according to the European Disability Forum (EDF), millions of Europeans with disabilities are deprived of this fundamental right; the most common problems being the difficulty in reading the ballot and issues derived from physical constraints, such as waiting in line and reaching the polling station.
Technology can also help reduce election costs. A recent study of Estonian elections shows how the costs per online vote are half the cost of paper ballots, making online voting the most cost-efficient way of organising elections nowadays.
Manual errors during vote casting or counting could also be avoided with the appropriate use of technology. Many will recall Florida’s hanging chads – which resulted in votes not being counted by the tabulating machines – or more recently, the error in counting in Austria’s 2016 presidential elections that led to elections being repeated. By avoiding manual interventions, electronic voting makes the whole election process much faster and accurate.
However, the security and transparency of election technology, and especially online voting is often being questioned. Lack of transparency as well as exposure to malware dangers and state-sponsored cyber-attacks are just a few examples of the criticisms that are usually mentioned. While online voting presents new challenges that do not exist with paper-based and manual voting processes, technology has evolved to such an extent that it can guarantee, contrary to traditional processes, the integrity and transparency of the election process as well as voter privacy and ballot anonymity.
Academics have actually recently demonstrated the many limitations of paper and postal voting, making these two voting channels extremely vulnerable and easy to rig. Postal voting, for example, cannot guarantee the timely delivery – if any delivery at all – of a voter’s ballot, not to mention the impossibility to demonstrate that the latter has been counted in the final tally or hasn’t simply been tampered with. Polling stations also face risks such as ballot stuffing or ballot box manipulation during transport.
Ensuring the end-to-end security of an online election is critical and needs to go far beyond security measures that can be found in highly demanding industries such as eBanking. Techniques such as advanced cryptography, digital certificates and anonymous decryption have become inherent to ensuring the integrity and anonymity of the vote and help prevent manipulation attempts from potential attackers. Also, in order to increase the transparency and auditability of digital voting processes, the concept of end-to-end verifiability was introduced as early as 2011 in Norway. This notion includes two dimensions, namely individual and universal verifiability. The former establishes that voters must be able to verify that their vote reached the ballot box as they intended. The latter requires that observers and auditors can check that votes are counted as cast without compromising the voters’ privacy at any point.
A variety of countries around the world have successfully implemented online voting in binding political elections. Switzerland and Australia are, to date, some of the countries currently paving the way for secure online voting adoption worldwide. By implementing a three-tier online voting certification system, the Swiss Chancellery ensures a progressive adoption of online voting among cantons, whereas the Australian State of New South Wales has successfully demonstrated over the past seven years that accessible technology helps enfranchise voters with disabilities.
Scytl: Leading the transformation
Jordi Puiggali, our Chief Security Officer, also acknowledges that: “Information security is a vital component in being able to address the challenges posed by online voting and particularly in ensuring an election’s integrity and transparency.
“It is important to understand that online voting can only be a success if everyone trusts the technology that is being used to support the online voting process. The most important aspect in gaining that trust is being able to provide verifiability throughout the election process. This trust can be ensured through the implementation of end-to-end verifiable online voting, by using the most advanced levels of information security controls, thus safeguarding the key pillars of a free and fair election.”
With its top-notch technology, Scytl has been leading the transformation of the voting industry over the past 20 years. With a strong focus on security, Scytl has helped governments in more than 30 countries across the globe to make their elections more accessible, efficient, transparent and auditable. Scytl’s expertise and strong investment in research and innovation allows the company to be uniquely positioned to understand the specificities of any election and to anticipate the challenges to come such as remote biometric authentication and post-quantum cryptography.
In a society where technology is present in all aspects of our lives, online voting is the natural step forward in the evolution of election processes and Scytl helps governments bring elections into the 21st century.