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When will UK citizens have the chance to vote online?

Published 13 September 2016

Ian Brook of Scytl asks whether advanced encryption and decryption methods that incorporate digital signatures and immutable logs may lead to improved trust in, and the wider adoption of e-voting


Brexit sparked a lively debate about the need to reform the UK’s electoral system and engage more young voters in the democratic process. The provision of online voting as a complementary channel to traditional and postal voting was part of this discussion, with some claiming the EU Referendum would have seen more engagement from 18-24 year olds had this group been able to cast their vote online.

So what is holding up the integration of online voting in the UK’s democratic process? And why are we lagging behind many other countries when it comes to eDemocracy?

Technology allowing voters to cast their votes privately, securely and efficiently online has been available for some time, but uptake from governments has been noticeably slow and almost non-existent in the case of the UK.

Indeed, the Digital Democracy Commission has called for the provision of online voting by 2020 – a target which seems very far off when we consider the pace of change and the types of technology already used by prospective voters. 

Security has been an ongoing objection to online voting, with many fearing it would be too easy for hackers to break into systems and manipulate election results. However, as we all know there is a clear distinction between basic and advanced information security.

Although standard encryption and decryption methods have proven more vulnerable to both internal and external attacks, advanced measures which incorporate digital certificates, digital signatures, immutable logs and end-to-end encryption guarantee that voters are strongly authenticated, privacy is protected and election results and votes cannot be manipulated by hackers. This level of security ensures even internal election staff, with particular system privileges, would be unable to manipulate data without being detected and immediately stopped.

Indeed, the latest advances in applied security has enabled the Swiss Government to implement end-to-end, verifiable online voting, allowing citizens to check their votes have been cast as intended, recorded as cast and counted as recorded.

The Canton of Neuchatel, for example, put online voting in place in 2005 so voters would have this option for any type of election being held in the region. Since this time, Neuchatel has seen a 420% increase in engagement in eConsultations and a 238% increase for online elections, not to mention reducing the costs associated with their electoral processes.

Additionally, since June 2008, Neuchatel citizens living abroad have also had the opportunity to vote online in order to make it easier to participate in elections.

Similarly, the New South Wales Electoral Commission (NSWEC) in Australia utilized online voting for persons with disabilities and remote voters in its 2015 state elections. The Commission integrated Scytl to further boost the security of its iVote system. With a recorded 500% improvement in its online channel adoption compared to its 2011 election, NSWEC is the perfect example of how online voting can enable persons with disabilities, visual impairment or those living in remote areas who might struggle to access a polling station to vote on equal terms. These voters can now securely and privately cast their vote without having to rely on ‘snail mail’ or proxy voting.  In addition, the satisfaction survey post-election revealed that 97% of voters were satisfied with the iVote solution and 98% of respondents said they would recommend using iVote.

And finally, Canada is an example of how online voting is slowly but surely being implemented across key provinces. A recent report from the Center for E-Democracy prepared for municipal partners on the findings collected from Ontario´s online voting experience, found that surveyed groups are satisfied with online voting and voters and election administrators would like to see it used in elections at higher levels of government.

As Nicole Goodman, PhD, director of the Centre for e-Democracy (CeD) said: “When offered alongside other voting methods, Internet voting is Ontario voters’ preferred method for municipal elections and a strong majority of users say they would recommend its use to others.”

So why has the UK Government been so resistant to the adoption of online voting? This is especially pertinent when you consider the huge advantages including a faster and more accurate vote counting process, greater accessibility for remote or disabled voters, prevention of human errors like over or under counting, multi-language support, greater convenience – not to mention greater engagement from younger voters.

Trust continues to be a significant barrier to the adoption of online voting systems. Will voters feel comfortable with a new, internet-based platform? And how do they know their vote has been cast and counted?

Of course the introduction of online voting should be progressive and there will always be voters who prefer traditional methods, but governments risk losing out on a large proportion of votes, from overseas and disabled voters to disengaged young people, if they fail to evolve and utilise technology.

With advanced security and verifiability technology now available and the proportion of digital natives increasing all the time, the absence of online voting options seems to be almost exclusively about the UK Government’s slow response to the changing needs of voters and very little to do with voter mistrust or information security.

In a world where democracy continues to spread and migration is commonplace, in addition to increasing demand for online services from millennial voters, there will be an imperative to provide cyber voting as standard alongside traditional paper and postal voting.

Ian Brook is director for Scytl in Northern Europe

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