Last updated on December 17, 2013
One of the fundamental principles elections must comply with is that they must accurately reflect the will of the voters. The integrity of the electoral process also has implications for other related issues, as discussed later in the section on trust.10
The integrity of the process when using electronic voting and counting technologies is a particular challenge because of the nature of these technologies. With traditional paper balloting and hand counting, the entire process is not only clearly visible to those observing it, but it is also easily understandable to the average voter. The ballot box can be shown to be empty at the start of voting by polling staff, then sealed, observed in the polling station to ensure that only legitimate voters are putting in ballots, and at the end of voting the seal can be broken and the ballots counted in full view of observers. This overall transparency and simplicity of the process makes it relatively easy to observe the process and identify errors in the system if and when they occur. While political party and candidate agents, observers and the media perform a monitoring function, they also carry out a verification function to ascertain whether the process leads to an accurate reflection of the will of the voters.
This basic transparency is lacking for electronic voting and electronic counting, especially for electronic voting. The complexity of electronic voting tends to be beyond the understanding of the vast majority of voters. The technologies have what are known as “black box” components that take inputs from voters and produce outputs in a way that cannot be observed and verified by external observers or easily checked by election administrators. This is a potential problem from a transparency, trust and integrity perspective.
Those advocating against the use of electronic voting and counting technologies in the United States have long argued black box voting should not be accepted or trusted. They argue there is absolutely no basis on which to accept or trust these voting and counting technologies.11 Examples of voting and counting machines making significant errors in the results they generate have been provided, and the worry is that there are many more discrepancies taking place that are not identified because they are not as egregious and obvious or are impossible to identify because the necessary audit mechanisms are not in place.
As a result, additional and varied measures are required to provide the same level of assurance that an electronic voting or counting process is actually delivering an election that reflects the will of the voters. Additional measures may include transparency mechanisms; testing and certification regimes; authentication mechanisms; and audit mechanisms:
Transparency – is a crucial tool to ensure the integrity of electronic voting and counting technologies. While ensuring voting and counting technologies are transparent does not alone guarantee that technologies will generate accurate results, it does provide the space and tools to do so. Making electronic voting and counting processes transparent allows the EMB and stakeholders the opportunities to monitor critical elements of the process and ensure that errors, accidental or otherwise, are not made in these aspects of the electoral process. The previous section details steps that can be taken to improve transparency in the process of introducing and implementing electronic voting and counting technologies. Steps range from access to system documentation and source code for electoral stakeholders, to additional points of observation for observers.
Testing12 and Certification13– given the lack of transparency of electronic voting and counting processes compared to paper balloting, it is essential that election administrators make efforts to build confidence in voting or counting machines, ensuring they work properly before they are used. This testing needs to not only ensure the systems developed meet the requirements specified by the EMB, but also that they meet the requirements of the environment.
These tests are essential so the EMB can use electronic voting and counting technologies with confidence. It is important to note that these various tests take time and money to conduct, and an appropriate amount of time needs to be allocated for these testing processes. The testing itself and reports analyzing results of the testing should be reviewed by electoral contestants and observers to ensure public confidence.
In addition, some countries choose to have electronic voting and counting technologies certified prior to use.16 Certification serves a similar purpose as testing, but it should be conducted by a body independent of the EMB, political parties, government and suppliers. Ideally, the certification process is conducted in an open, transparent manner builds confidence in the operation of the voting or counting technology. Certification should be done by a source that is widely accepted by stakeholders as independent and competent.
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s Voting System Testing and Certification Program Manual defines certification as, “the process by which the Election Assistance Commission, through testing and evaluation conducted by an accredited Voting System Testing Laboratory, validates that a voting system meets the requirements set forth in existing voting system testing standards…and performs according to the Manufacturer’s specifications for the system.”17
The Council of Europe’s Certification of E-voting Systems considers certification as, “a process of confirmation that an e-voting system is in compliance with prescribed requirements and standards and that it at least includes provisions to ascertain the correct functioning of the system. This can be done through measures ranging from testing and auditing through to formal certification. The end result is a report and/or a certificate.”
The Council of Europe continues, “Certification can be applied in different ways. Solutions chosen by a member State may include certification of a single e-voting system for nationwide use, it can opt to certify multiple systems, provisionally certify an e-voting system, or only test one or several parts, i.e. component testing. Member States may choose those measures described in the present guidelines that correspond with their particular voting system, bearing in mind the need to ensure that the voting procedures respond to possible threats and risks while being in line with international commitments.”
Certification has an important role to play in ensuring electronic voting and counting systems comply with requirements and standards, but it also plays a vital role in establishing trust among key stakeholders. The independence and competence of certifying institution(s) is fundamental to this trust building role.
Authentication – it makes little sense to spend time testing and certifying an electronic voting or counting system if there is subsequently no check that this is the actual system being used for the election. Authentication can be done through digitally signing the version of software that is tested and approved. Mechanisms can then be established so the digital signature of installed software can be checked by those observing the election.
Likewise, when electronic data passes from one stage of the process to another, for example if voting/results data from the polling station is passed to the tabulation process (often done through portable electronic media, such as a memory stick), the validity of the data received for tabulation needs to be verified. Otherwise, it would be easy to substitute false data into the process. This issue can also be dealt with through the use of digital signatures for data. This means only results data with an authentic digital signature would be accepted by the tabulation system. All such results transfers require verifiable safeguards that are observable by party/candidate agents and election monitors in order to maintain confidence in this highly-sensitive aspect of elections.
Audit – the ability to verify the operation and audit the results of an electronic voting or counting system is an emerging standard for electronic voting and counting technologies. While electronic counting solutions have a natural audit trail in the ballot that is fed into the counting machine, electronic voting solutions do not inherently have this feature. It can easily be added to electronic voting systems though. The most common way is through the use of a VVPAT, which was discussed in the section on transparency. The VVPAT is a paper record of the choices made on the voting machine, which can be checked by the voter to ensure the same electronic choices were made. The voter does not keep this paper record.
However the audit trail is provided, it is critical that it is used to check the accuracy of the electronic voting or counting process whether or not election results are contested. A random sample of audit trails should be routinely checked against electronic results produced by electronic voting or counting machines to ensure there are no differences between the electronic and audit trail results. This is important not just for the present but for future elections that may be closely fought and where even small discrepancies may be critical. Conducting the audit in a public manner will provide an additional check on the integrity of the system and help build confidence and trust in the system. Such an audit provides an important check on the accuracy of the results. Without this audit of the paper trail, the value of the VVPAT is undermined.
10 For more detailed information on this topic, please refer to the following sections in Part 2: Election Day, (Set-Up, Testing, Security, Troubleshooting); Tabulation; Challenges and Recounts; and Internet Voting.
11 See Harris, B. (2004) Black Box Voting and www.verifiedvoting.org.
12 For more detailed information on the topic of testing, please refer to the following sections in Part 2: Pilot Project; Legal and Procedural Framework; Design Requirements; Testing, Source Code Review and Certification; and Election Day.
16 Council of Europe (2011), Certification of e-voting systems: Guidelines for developing processes that confirm compliance with prescribed requirements and standards, Strasbourg: Council of Europe.
17 U.S. Election Assistance Commission (2011), Voting System Testing and Certification Program Manual. Washington, DC.