A 2017 headline from the site, e-Estonia, reads; “online voting has become a norm in Estonia—and it is now more secure than ever.”
Wired magazine called Estonia, the Baltic nation of about 1.4 million people, “the world’s most advanced digital society.” Today, 99% of state services are online and 46.7% of voters vote via the internet. It’s an increasingly popular option.
Meanwhile, in the midst of what is arguably the most important U.S. election in modern history, public debate concerns the adequacy of in person or regular mail infrastructure. In the UK voting technology also is far behind our northern European counterparts. In fact, British citizens can’t vote online full stop. In the 21st century, voting by snail mail is so old fashioned we might as well be talking about how much wax is needed to seal correspondence.
How is it possible that in the UK (and US) we are not voting online when so much of what we do is already online? We freely give e-commerce sites our credit card information to make purchases online. We keep our medical records online. We file our tax returns online. We trust our precious money to be handled online including banking and equity trades. Why don’t we vote online?
Voting is a fundamental process in a democracy and the right to vote is one of our most important individual freedoms. Yet, a persistent issue in Britain has been low voter turnout. Indeed, the 2019 general election saw a lower voter turnout than the 2017 election.
Online voting is not possible in the UK yet -. but it could be in the general election scheduled to be held 2 May 2024, in line with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
The technologies and safeguards that can solve most of the biggest concerns about online voting are available today. They just haven’t been applied to online voting.
Take the concern of voter fraud. We have technology for iris scanning, fingerprint detection, facial recognition, and other identity verification techniques that are used routinely in billions of transactions each day. We do not think twice about answering simple security questions or responding to visual quizzes to prove that we are who we say we are and not robots.
Then there is the need for privacy. Voter anonymity must be protected. If someone were to register to vote electronically, it is possible and the local election authority could be required to create individually encrypted, personal identifying information for that election alone. Then it could be disposed of after the election.
Estonia has figured this out. Time magazine reported that in its 2015 election, 176,491 citizens cast their votes online. A centralised digital identity system with citizen ID numbers prevented fraud and IDs and identifying factors were removed as the vote was logged to ensure anonymity. In addition, voters were able to change their minds as many times as they liked before polls closed. Only their last decision was counted.
Of course, it’s also imperative that any nation’s online voting system could not be hacked by Russia, China, Iran as apparently has been attempted in the US, or any other predator, foreign or domestic. Security is a serious concern and it must be addressed.
Security features would likely vary depending on which company is managing a UK election, but in many cases, may include varying functionalities such as; single-vote verification, secure nomination and election sites, ballot tracking, and data privacy. There are also the protections that go a long way to preserving election integrity, such as real-time monitoring, firewalls, back-up generators, and precautions for “main server” failures.
In addition, the UK Government should start applying existing fraud, privacy, and security technologies to elections, so its citizens would have more choices for voting in upcoming elections.
An argument against online voting can be made that UK citizens are comprised of digital haves and have nots, and the have nots would not be able to vote online. This is undeniable. However, the vast majority of people are (more than 46 million people according to Statista) connect to the internet daily.
It’s important to note though that adding online voting as an option doesn’t mean we eliminate the options of voting in person or by mail. Even if voters were to take Donald Trump’s odd suggestion to his supporters to try to illegally vote more than once, the technology exists to cross-reference in-person ballots, mail ballots, and online votes to prevent duplication.
Of course, Estonia is a tiny nation compared to the UK, which boasts a population of nearly 68 million. So, a remaining question is: Can e-voting be implemented for elections at national and local levels?
The answer is yes. Here’s why.
We are already able to scale up technology nationwide to transfer highly sensitive, private information with tax filings every year on tax day. As I speak to my friends in the UK, most do not worry about transferring income information via CE-filing. HM Revenues & Customs deal with problems as they arise.
It’s time to adapt the digital tools we have so that voters have more choices for voting … and more people vote.
About the authors
Nick Allard is American educator and lawyer with international prominence in public policy, technology and innovation. He served as President and Dean of Brooklyn Law School and also is Senior Counsel at Dentons, the largest law firm in the world. Allard’s academic and professional work regularly brings him to the UK whereas a Rhodes Scholar he read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Merton College.
John Gentry, CTO of Virtana, is likely the only CTO of a tech company who majored in economics and sociology. That educational background has been his foundation to dedicate his professional life to leverage technology to drive economic value while making people’s lives better. His career encompasses 25 years of IT experience having held senior-level sales, sales engineering and marketing positions at industry leaders including Qlogic, McData, CNT and Borland. John earned his double major from the University of California at Santa Cruz.