Implementing Internet Voting. A policy brief

This is a personal position about the state of Internet voting and what could be done to implement it in the medium term in a thorough way. It does only reflect my own views and not necessarily represents those of my employer.

For the last months I have been working on whether and how to implement internet voting (i-voting), as the Catalan government submitted to the Parliament in 2016 and later on 2018 a bill to enable Internet voting for Catalan citizens living abroad.

Besides the desire to deploy new normative related to parliamentary elections, there also is a growing need to provide robust technologies for e-participation platforms. A good example of this is the recent tender issued by the City Council of Barcelona to provide the deliberative participation platform Decidim with appropriate e-voting (i-voting) technology. This technology would be used not only to vote for a specific citizen proposal, but also to sign citizen petitions.

Last, but not least, scattered —but relevant enough— initiatives raise in the civil society to implement i-voting for several purposes: elections in chambers of commerce, in school councils, in trade unions, in primaries in political parties, etc. are being held more and more frequently and are thus pushing forward the issue into the public agenda. How should a government be present in such a debate is becoming a major issue. Should it provide legal coverage? Provide methodology? A state-wide infrastructure?

My following reflections are the result of some reading on i-voting and e-voting in general, lots of conversations with experts in the field, and my attendance to Estonia’s 2019 Parliamentary Elections International Visitors Program (my personal notes on that event can be read at Elections in Estonia and the current parliamentary elections (I) and Elections in Estonia and the current parliamentary elections (II)).

This policy brief necessarily comes in a very executive format. Many statements should be consequently be better and extensively substantiated, and much more brought to detail if there were to be accepted as a working policy departing point. Thus, the only goal of this humble reflection is to briefly list where we are at and peak at some of the hypothetical options ahead.

Internet voting in the world

  • The technology is mature. Although zero risk can not be guaranteed —and this is the main objection to i-vote at the moment— the number of countries and regions adopting it is growing: technology, not being perfect, does already provide more guarantees than other modalities such as the vote by mail, allows much more flexibility and has a hugely scales in costs.
  • Auditing the process is mandatory. It is, right now, the only way to ensure the same guarantees as face-to-face voting. Auditing should be extended, if possible, to the design of the software and not only to the implementation and vote scrutiny.
  • Awareness is essential for the success of electronic voting, both with citizens and with politicians. The main detractors of electronic voting, other than technologists (see more about this in the technology section), are citizens who also distrust the institutions and the political system in general. Confidence in the vote must therefore work in itself but also at the level of the democratic system.
  • A broad ecosystem of e-services and, above all, a simple user-friendly e-identity is a requisite so that electronic voting can be adopted massively. Digital capacity, infrastructure and awareness are inadequate without a habit of interaction between citizens and technology. This ecosystem must evolve in parallel in all areas.
  • Electronic voting has returns of scale. Returns in efficiency and efficacy happen not only at the economic level, but at the sociopolitical one: electronic voting allows citizens to consult more often, encourages citizen participation and approaches decision-making to the society, improving the perception on policy-making and accountability in general.

Main opportunities and challenges of Internet Voting implementation

  • Technology and the infrastructure network are easily accessible. There are national and international providers that can provide technology and services, and the infrastructure network of most developed countries is fully prepared for e-voting.
  • Audits are totally feasible. There are experts worldwide capable of performing e-voting audits and the costs are quite fair. In addition, it would be socially very much welcome and would provide guarantees and confidence.
  • More awareness should be raised about the advantages and disadvantages of electronic voting, as well as the risks of taking it forward. There still is not a solid consensus around the issue, which is much needed for its successful implementation.
  • Electronic identification systems are still not adopted by the majority of citizens and their use is still cumbersome. Paradoxically, citizens use electronic identity devices to carry out other transactions on a virtual basis, from banking and electronic commerce to social networking sites. It is, therefore, a problem of technological model and habit, not of lack of digital skills or lack of confidence in technology.
  • Regarding the performances of scale, implementing electronic voting only for parliamentary elections would be slow and expensive, since while voting on paper remains an option, e-voting is an added a cost and not a minor one. Instead, implementing electronic voting in processes of citizen participation, internal voting processes in the administrations, as well as mixed bodies —or even in the private sphere— would return undeniable advantages, both economic and sociopolitical.

Potential benefits

There are three broad areas where theory and experience identify possible benefits of introducing electronic voting in legislative elections. Due to the Catalan case, our reflections are the following:

  • Increase in the turnout / reduction of abstention. International experience is not conclusive on this issue. In most cases, it depends a lot on the social, cultural and political context of each moment. In most cases, the requirement of having to register for voting (especially when being abroad) as well as the multiple difficulties that accompany voting by mail suggest that voting would be positive in terms of increasing participation both in advance voting and voting abroad. On the other hand, if a single census was created —necessary requirement for Internet voting— electronic ballot boxes could be enabled for early voting outside polling stations such as civic centers or supermarkets. The convenience of this vote could also be a factor to increase participation. Finally, given the penetration of mobile telephony, Internet voting could be fostered with an awareness raising campaign and appropriate advertising, to try to increase young vote, although, as mentioned, previous experience is not conclusive in this regard. In short, significant growth in the vote abroad could be expected (more or less significant in relation to the current foreign vote in many places, but probably small in relationship to the global turnout), but not too relevant in the vote as a whole. It is worth noting, though, that if good voting systems have no clear effects on turnout, bad voting systems do have negative effects on the probability of voting, which goes from discouraging voting to directly not allowing it effectively. Electronic voting, thus, can have positive effects where the alternatives are perceived as (or simply they are) not effective for voting.
  • Reduction of costs. Internet voting is significantly cheaper than face-to-face voting, and especially on paper. However, total costs are only reduced if one modality is replaced by the other one. If the traditional voting system is combined with Internet voting, costs actually increase as the voting modes are expanded and, therefore, a new infrastructure and organization is added.
  • Transparency and accessibility. The clearest advantage of i-voting is the increased accessibility of voting. This should not be understood only as removing barriers for the disabled, but also to information and cognitive barriers that go with any type of electoral process. The efforts that accompany the deployment of electronic voting have a positive impact on trust in the system, opening the black box of the functioning of institutions, and by establishing new channels of communication between the citizen and the Administration.

These three aspects, by themselves, are probably insufficient to initiate a strategy for the introduction of electronic voting and/or Internet voting, especially in parliamentary elections. Although it is generally a good idea making things easy for the voter —and the Internet voting undoubtedly does— the benefits in terms of electoral participation are doubtful, there are high implementation costs, and remaining doubts about electronic voting could be counterproductive.

However, the combination of the three aspects has, in our opinion, great potential. We believe that the international debate about Internet voting is no longer about whether but about when it is going to take place. Once it has been implemented for a given election, it is relatively easy to extrapolate methodology and technology to many other elections where the impact on increased participation and cost reduction can be enormous. It is in this scenario that we have to place ourselves and where a community can have huge returns on investment:

  • Increase of the citizen participation in the whole set of the different electoral calls as well as increase of the number of electoral processes of diverse nature.
  • Exponential reduction of the costs of electoral processes, again taken as a whole.
  • Improved knowledge of the functioning of public and private institutions where collective decisions are taken and/or representatives are chosen.

Consequently, a proposal of implementation strategy for Internet voting would be:

  • Use the electronic vote to increase the legitimacy of the democratic system as a whole, both at the institutional level and in civil society, based on facilitating electoral processes in all areas and encouraging participation. This includes:
    • Parliamentary elections.
    • Processes of citizen participation
    • Electoral processes of civil society
  • Implement an electronic voting system understood as a public infrastructure. This infrastructure must be involved in its design, open to the use of any user and democratic in its governance model.

Making steps forward: social and political levels

The nature, context and possible fields of deployment of an electronic voting project in a given administration exceeds, in our opinion, the scope strictly circumscribed to elections to its chamber of representatives.

In the same way, the strong technological component of this project also goes beyond the usual single-handed implementation of the typical technological application.

Thus, at the political level, one would propose:

  • Create a multi-stakeholder task force to define and foster a project for Internet voting as a public infrastructure.
  • Make a detailed inventory of the type of processes where Internet voting could be applied.
    • Elections to the chamber(s) of representatives.
    • Processes of citizen participation and citizen councils.
    • Citizen petitions and citizen polling of all kinds and at all levels of the Administration.
    • Electoral processes of bodies of the civil society (chambers of commerce, school councils, professional colleges, labour unions, political parties, etc.)

On the other hand, we believe that the level of knowledge and acceptance of Internet voting is still not optimal among many citizens. Moreover, we feel that, in some circles, there might be a need for a thorough debate on the benefits and possible risks of this modality in an open, broad and well-founded way, beyond academic environments or scattered appearances in the media.

This knowledge and acceptance, however, will hardly come only through awareness and dissemination campaigns: Estonia’s reality suggests that only through practice and habit comes the familiarity and necessary confidence to achieve high levels of legitimacy in the use of Internet voting.

One would, thus, propose at the citizen level:

  • The deployment of campaigns of dissemination and awareness raising about the potentials and risks of electronic voting to engage in a deep and grounded debate.
  • The celebration of academic and sector discussion conferences to define a consensual strategy of Internet voting as a public infrastructure.
  • The progressive and practical implementation of Internet voting in all kind of elections and voting processes: elections of public representatives, citizen polls, citizen petitions, professional chambers, school councils and university boards, labor union elections, primaries in political parties, etc.

Making steps forward: economic and technological levels

There are two key considerations when it comes to deploying an Internet voting strategy at the technical level: the resources that will need to be spent on it and the resulting technological model.

We propose, at an economic level:

  • To calculate the cost of implementing Internet voting according to the various scenarios, depending on the inventory of potential uses of Internet voting.
    • Implementation only in the parliamentary elections.
    • Implementation in all the electoral areas and of citizen participation with direct or indirect involvement of the Administration.
    • Implementation for the civil society at large as a public infrastructure, for free or under a given structure of fees.
  • Calculate the benefits of replacing the current voting modalities for scenarios with electronic voting, based on the previous calculations.
    • Depending on the technological model: commercial solution for rent, commercial solution in property, free software solution.
    • Depending on the coexistence or substitution of modalities, absolute or progressive.
    • Depending on the expected increase in participation, especially in areas where it is extremely low: collegiate bodies, civil society, etc.

Beyond the economic issue, the technological model also has an impact on the confidence in the system as well as its flexibility. Although we have stated that the technology is mature and that auditing guarantees almost full confidence on Internet voting, it is no less true that this audit, to be fully comprehensive, must have total access to the code of the software, which is not always possible and, in any case, easy to do.

In the long term scenario —electronic voting as a public infrastructure applied to multiple areas of the Administration and civil society— we believe that the best option in terms of economic costs and trust in the system is free software. Only this option makes the economic returns to be highly growing with the number of votes and gives total confidence to the various stakeholders —not to mention the administrative simplification for the disappearance of the public procurement of electronic voting services.

We would propose, at the technological level:

  • An inventory and analysis of the current free Internet voting software solutions: reliability, scalability, flexibility, total cost of ownership, existence of a community of developers and users, etc.
  • Evaluate the institutional possibility (resources, political capacity, etc.) to create a consortium/community around a new free software tool that can become the de facto standard in the field of electronic voting.

These technological considerations are for the medium term and, in no case, they should suppose an impediment to the initiatives of Internet voting that could arise in the short term, that would have to execute with the concurrence of the market.

Regarding the consortium or community around a free software tool, it would be advisable that it be composed, at least initially, by a group of governments of an international nature (states, regions) with the triple objective of collecting all the sensitivities/needs a tool of this type, increase its legitimacy and distribute the development costs.

Acknowledgements

Administration

Priit Vinkel, head of the State Electoral Office, Government of Estonia

Casper Wrede, Elections administrator, Government Offices, Government of Åland

André Fecteau, Policy Analyst, Office of the Chief Electoral Officer, Government of Canada

Researchers

Jordi Barrat. Professor, Universitat Rovira i Virgili

Josep Maria Reniu, Professor, Universitat de Barcelona

David Dueñas-Cid, Assistant Professor, Kozminski University
Researcher, Tallinn University of Technology

Robert Krimmer, Professor, Tallinn University of Technology

Guillem Clapés, Analyst and political advisor

Adrià Rodríguez-Pérez, PhD student, Universitat Rovira i Virgili
Analyst, Scytl

Mihkel Solvak, Researcher, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies

Martin Möller, Researcher, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies

e-Voting private sector

Liisa Past, Expert in cybersecurity, McCain Institute

Peter van der Veldt MSc., Sales Director Europe, Smartmatic

Jordi Puiggalí, CSO and SVP Research & Development, Scytl

Readings

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