Last updated on December 17, 2013
While Internet voting has been utilized for national-level elections in only a few countries, it is a voting mechanism that is increasingly being explored as a means to allow access to the election process for voters who may otherwise find it difficult to go to their polling location on Election Day. Internet voting, however, presents a number of technological challenges focused on security, privacy, and secrecy issues, as well as challenges for stakeholder involvement in and observation of the process. All of these must be comprehensively addressed for election authorities to consider moving forward with Internet voting.
The first use of Internet voting for a binding political election took place in the US in 2000, with more countries subsequently beginning to conduct trials of and/or use Internet voting. A total of 14 countries have now used remote Internet voting for binding political elections or referenda. Within the group of Internet voting system users, four core countries have been using Internet voting over the course of several elections/referenda: Canada, Estonia, France and Switzerland. Estonia is the only country to offer Internet voting to the entire electorate. The remaining ten countries have either just adopted it, are currently piloting Internet voting, have piloted it and not pursued its further use, or have discontinued its use.
Examples of Internet voting in other countries around the world vary widely in scope and functionality. The early cases of Internet voting were less technically advanced than those being developed more recently. Many of the changes seen in Internet voting systems have been aimed at improving the quality of elections delivered by these systems and meeting emerging standards for electronic voting.
It is fair to say that Internet voting is not a commonly used means of voting. Of the 14 countries that have so far used it in any form, only ten currently have expressed any intention of using it in the future. However, Internet voting is a relatively new voting technology and has been developing significantly over the previous ten years. Internet voting seems to fit, for many countries, a niche corner of the electoral process. It is largely targeted at those who cannot attend their polling station in person on Election Day. In fact many more countries have expressed or shown an interest in the use of Internet voting, especially when they have large numbers of expatriate voters. However, the implementation of Internet voting, according to emerging standards, is a very technical exercise. It can also pose some difficult political questions if the aim is to facilitate the inclusion of large numbers of expatriate citizens in the political process.
The technicalities of implementing Internet voting systems are largely a result of attempts to reconcile the use of Internet voting with emerging and existing standards to which elections and electronic elections should adhere. These standards include the need for secure online voter authentication, protection of the secrecy of the vote, appropriate transparency mechanisms, testing and certification regimes. The need for secure online voter authentication mechanisms may be one of the biggest hurdles in implementing Internet voting. It presents a challenge for many established democracies, which often do not have ID card systems with secure online authentication mechanisms.
In reviewing the use of Internet voting since 2000, a number of important themes emerge:
Trust in Internet Voting – As already discussed, trust in the electoral process is essential for successful democracy. However, trust is a complex concept, which requires that individuals make rational decisions based on the facts to accept the integrity of Internet voting. The problem is that Internet voting is so complex that few voters have the technical expertise necessary to make the informed decision to place their trust in it. In order to compensate for the inherent complexity of Internet voting, extra measures need to be taken to ensure that voters have a sound basis on which to give their trust to Internet voting systems. Technical institutions and experts can play an important role in this process, with voters trusting the procedural role played by independent institutions and experts in ensuring the overall integrity of the system, rather than their own limited understanding of how Internet voting works and the verification mechanisms used.
A number of mechanisms can be used to enable the development and maintenance of trust in Internet voting systems. One of the fundamental ways to enable trust is to ensure that information about the Internet voting system is made publicly available. The system must also be trustworthy, and measures to ensure the integrity of the system are important. A vital aspect of integrity is ensured through testing, certification and audit mechanisms. These mechanisms will need to demonstrate that the security concerns presented by Internet voting have been adequately dealt with, and will need to recognize that there are some aspects of security that are outside of the control of the Internet voting system – such as the devices (i.e., the computers) that voters use to cast their ballots.
Due to the inherent lack of transparency with Internet voting, it is important to separate the responsibilities for different stages of the Internet voting process. Such a separation of duties will make it more difficult to manipulate the system. Allowing the repeated casting of Internet votes, with only the last vote being counted, also helps generate trust amongst voters. Making the Internet voting system verifiable, so that the results can be independently verified against the votes cast, is an increasingly important trust mechanism, although this needs to be done in a way that does not violate the secrecy of the ballot. Finally, Internet voting systems should be subjected to various evaluation mechanisms.
The Secrecy and Freedom of the Vote – Ensuring the secrecy of the ballot is a significant concern in every voting situation. In the case of Internet voting from unsupervised environments, this principle may easily become the main challenge. Given that an Internet voting system cannot ensure that voters are casting their ballots alone, the validity of Internet voting must be demonstrated on other grounds. One relevant argument is the similarity of Internet voting with postal voting, a method of voting considered to meet standards of secrecy by the Venice Commission. The chance to repeat and cancel an Internet vote is a common argument for the acceptance of Internet voting, as it means that a vote buyer or coercer will not know for sure which ballot will be counted for a voter. Finally, Estonia has argued that the principle of secrecy entails an obligation to provide the opportunity for a secret vote, but that voters are free to choose less secret voting options if they desire.
Accessibility of Internet Voting – Improving accessibility to the voting process is often cited as a reason for introducing Internet voting. The accessibility of voting systems, closely linked to usability, is an international standard for elections, and is relevant not only for voters with disabilities and linguistic minorities, but also for the average voter. Internet voting can have a significant impact on the accessibility of the voting process. It is important that voters, especially those who may have special accessibility issues, are involved in the development of any Internet voting system. The way in which voters are identified and authenticated can have a significant impact on the usability of the system, but a balance needs to be found between accessibility and integrity.
The voting process itself, and vote-verification mechanisms, can also be difficult to design in ways that are accessible to all. Voters will often demand that Internet voting be made available through the end of normal voting, but the duration of voting will need to be determined while considering other factors, such as any requirements for Internet voters to be able to cast a paper ballot. The proliferation of computer operating systems and web browsers presents Internet voting system developers with increasing challenges in making their systems functional on all or most of these operating systems and browsers.
A counterargument can be made related to the “digital divide” in terms of the accessibility of Internet voting. Different groups in society have different levels of access to the Internet. Therefore, the provision of Internet voting in societies where there is very unequal access to the Internet will have a different impact on accessibility for various communities. Of course, these communities may have very different voting preferences, which could have implications for the results of the election.
Even in well-developed democracies, more affluent voters may be able to vote from the comfort of their own homes, while others may have to take time off work to wait in line to vote. The possible unequal impact on accessibility created by the provision of Internet voting would be far more severe if Internet voting were the only means of casting a ballot. However, as can be seen even where traditional voting mechanisms are also in place, Internet voting can create accessibility concerns, although the accessibility of these other voting mechanisms could be improved in order to compensate.
Electoral Stakeholders and Their Roles – The introduction of Internet voting significantly changes the role that stakeholders play in the electoral process. Not only do new stakeholders, such as voting technology suppliers, assume prominence in the Internet voting process, but existing stakeholders must adapt their roles in order to fulfill their existing functions. While electronic voting in general requires changes in the roles of these stakeholders, the introduction of Internet voting, in particular, changes the roles in a much more fundamental manner as the act of voting is taken outside of the polling station.
This new network of stakeholder roles and relationships may be difficult to manage well, and some of the various stakeholder demands may be contradictory (for example, they may take different positions on the disclosure of information on the Internet voting system). Central to this new network of stakeholder relationships is public administration, especially the role of the EMB. Public administration and the EMB will establish the legal and regulatory framework for the implementation of Internet voting; and this framework will define the roles and rights of the various stakeholders in the Internet voting process. The EMB will also need to manage the implementation of the Internet voting technology, ensure control is maintained over the supplier and facilitate the open involvement of all relevant stakeholders during implementation. An open information policy will be essential to the EMB’s interactions with stakeholders to develop trusted relations while implementing Internet voting.
Internet voting presents obvious challenges for party poll watchers and observers. While the role of observers in the pre-election period will be similar to their role with other forms of electronic voting as discussed above (e.g., legal framework, design requirements, testing and certification, security, etc.), observers will be unable to make a systematic assessment of the voting and counting process. Observer groups and political parties must therefore design observation strategies with this in mind and must be candid with the public about any limitations of their assessments. At the same time, Internet voting introduces several new elements and points of inquiry for election observers. These include evaluating the security of voting servers, assessing the EMB’s monitoring of voting server security and threat response plans, and the functioning of Internet Service Providers (ISPs)44. As with other forms of electronic voting, IT expertise will be critical to such efforts. Observers may also use survey techniques to gauge voters’ experience with Internet voting, including their level of trust in the system.
EMBs need to be sensitive and responsive to opposition and concern about the introduction and use of Internet voting systems. There will likely always be some opposition to such systems; however, to ignore opposition and concern is very risky. Even small groups opposing voting technology can have a significant impact by raising concerns that resonate with the public. EMBs that fail to respond to concerns about Internet voting may lose control of any public debate in a way that could be fatal for implementation. Proactive engagement with opponents of Internet voting by the EMB and attempts to mitigate these concerns will serve to diffuse potentially damaging public debates on Internet voting. It will also help ensure that Internet voting does not become a, or the, divisive issue in a country’s political discourse.
44 Pran, V. and Merloe, P. (2007) NDI Handbook: Monitoring Electronic Technologies in Electoral Processes, pp. 85–88.