Emerging Electronic Voting Standards

Last updated on December 17, 2013

Electoral standards based on public international law are well-elaborated in documents issued by intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations; the African Union; the Commonwealth; the Council of Europe; including its European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission); the European Union; the Organization of American States (OAS); the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); and other bodies. These sources illustrate a common understanding of the content of international electoral standards, drawing directly from the wording of Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), other articles in those documents related to the exercise of rights that are essential to democratic elections, and other human rights treaties, declarations and instruments. A number of rulings by international tribunals concerning genuine elections and writings of highly-qualified legal experts advance electoral standards in harmony with those sources of law, and the generally-accepted practices of states conducting elections reflect them as well.

The core of these international electoral standards can be defined as the right of citizens, without discrimination, to take part in government and public affairs, directly or indirectly through freely chosen representatives, by exercising their right to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections, which shall be by universal and equal suffrage, held by secret ballot and guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors. This combines with the right to seek, receive and impart information (i.e., the freedom of expression) about the nature of electoral processes, forming the basis for electoral transparency.

These international electoral standards frame the conditions for using any tools to secure genuine elections, including electronic voting and counting. Because these new technologies for voting and counting fundamentally change the way many components of the electoral process are conducted, the standards demand corresponding new techniques to safeguard electoral integrity and earn public trust in their use. As a result, there have been initiatives in recent years to evolve these international electoral standards in order to cope with the challenges of using voting and counting technologies. The Council of Europe’s 2004 Recommendation on Legal, Operational and Technical Standards for E-voting did much to set the agenda for this adoption of existing standards for electronic voting and counting technologies. The Council of Europe followed up this document with several other publications, including documents on transparency and certification of e-voting systems. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OAS, the Carter Center and NDI have approached the issue of standards for electronic voting and counting technologies from the perspective of observing or monitoring elections in which these technologies are used. IFES and International IDEA have also sought to provide guidelines and standards for the implementation of electronic voting and counting technologies by EMBs.

In analyzing the publications by the organizations listed above, it is clear that some trends are emerging in the recommendations about the conduct of elections using electronic voting and counting technologies. Common themes can be seen in the following areas:

  • Transparency – as much of the process as possible should be transparent and verifiable. Effective access should be provided for party/candidate agents and observers in a manner that does not obstruct the electoral process.
  • Public Confidence – closely related to and relying heavily upon transparency is the requirement that voters understand and have confidence in the electronic voting or counting technology being used. Public confidence requires that stakeholders are: involved in the processes of deciding whether to introduce electronic voting and counting technologies and considering the type of system to be introduced; provided information so they understand the technologies being used; given the opportunity to take part in simulations of the systems that take place; allowed to monitor testing, certification and auditing and review findings; and informed well in advance about the introduction, timeline and how to participate.
  • Usability – electronic voting and counting technologies must be easy to understand and use. Stakeholders should be involved in the design of electronic voting and counting technologies and in public testing. Further, electronic voting and counting technologies should endeavor to maximize the accessibility of the voting system for persons with disabilities and minority language groups, and must not disenfranchise others. They must also afford voters the possibility to review and amend their vote before confirmation of their choice.
  • System Certification – electronic voting and counting technologies must be certified by a qualified, independent body before their use and periodically thereafter. This ensures the use of such electronic technologies continues to meet the requirements of the electoral jurisdiction as well as the technical specifications for the system. Further, the certification process should be conducted in a transparent manner providing electoral stakeholders access to information on the process and earning public confidence.
  • System Testing – any electronic voting or counting system should be subjected to a comprehensive range of testing before it is approved for use by an EMB. This testing should take place transparently and with access for electoral competitors and observers.
  • System Security – the opportunities for systematic manipulation of the results mean that system security needs to be taken seriously. Security measures need to ensure that data cannot be lost in the event of a breakdown; only authorized voters can use an electronic voting or counting system; system configuration and results generated can be authenticated; and, only authorized persons are allowed to access electronic voting, counting and results management functionality, although party/candidate agents and observers should be able to monitor the integrity of that functionality. Any intervention that affects the system while electronic voting and/or counting is taking place should be carried out in teams of two, be reported on and be monitored by the electoral authority, party/candidate agents and observers. Attempts to hack into electronic voting and counting machines or the election management system into which results are received need to be detected, reported and protected against.
  • Auditability and Recount – electronic voting and counting technologies must be auditable so it is possible to determine whether they operated correctly. It must be possible to conduct a recount. Such recounts must involve accurate and monitored manual recounts of votes cast electronically (e.g., with the paper record representing the basis for legal determination of the vote cast) and not merely be a repetition of the electronic result already provided.
  • Verifiability – it must also be possible to assure voters their votes are being counted as cast while also ensuring that secrecy of the vote is not compromised. This requires that electronic voting systems create an audit trail which is verifiable. It should provide the voter with a token or code with which to perform the verification. However, the token or code must not allow the voter to prove to others how they have cast their vote. The most common solution to this for in-person electronic voting machines is through the production of a VVPAT, and this solution is emerging as a standard in this regard. It should be noted that a VVPAT is not appropriate for unsupervised remote electronic voting (e.g. Internet voting, text message voting etc.) as there would be nothing to stop a voter from removing the paper record of the vote, and making vote buying and voter coercion possible.
  • Mandatory Audit of Results – the existence of an audit trail for electronic voting and counting systems achieves little if it is not used to verify that electronic results and the audit trail deliver the same result. A mandatory audit of the results generated by electronic voting or counting technologies should be required by law and take place for a statistically significant random sample of ballots whether or not results are subject to a dispute.
  • Secrecy of the Ballot – the use of electronic voting and counting technologies must comply with the need for secrecy of the ballot. This requirement is not a new standard, but it is one that is made more difficult by electronic voting and counting technologies. This is especially the case for remote electronic voting systems, where voters have to first identify themselves and vote electronically using the same interface.
  • Accountability in Vendor Relations – the EMB needs to remain in control of the relationship with the vendor and ensure the relationship does not violate its own responsibility to be in charge of implementing the electoral process. Any role for the vendor must be clearly defined so the EMB remains in control of the process at all times and remains accountable, should a problem arise.
  • Incremental Implementation – whenever electronic voting and counting technologies are introduced, they should be done so in an incremental manner and should start with less important elections. This will allow public understanding and trust to develop in the new system, and provide time to deal with problems and resistance.

It is too early to say international standards are fully evolved concerning the use of electronic voting and counting technologies. Nevertheless, trends can be seen in emerging electoral standards concerning their adoption. As a means to maintain electoral integrity, these trends in emerging standards should be carefully considered when the adoption of any new technology is deliberated and employed. 


Implementing and Overseeing Electronic Voting and Counting Projects


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