Across all democratic societies, voting is one of the most hard-fought, prized and cherished rights. Vigilance in protecting those rights is eternal – whether contending with a would-be dictator, election fraudsters, or an apathetic electorate. Modern democracies are faced with the challenge of making the voting process effortless but secure, from registration to final tabulation, with voter identification at its core. Technology can help with resolving many of these issues.
Electronic voting has frequently been touted as a modern and innovative way to address some of these issues and many countries are asking if the time has come to implement eVoting. Many of the benefits are clear and obvious – eliminating long lines, paper ballots and clunky voting machines, lowering the costs of elections and hastening the registration, balloting and tabulation process.
One of the biggest benefits of online voting is greater convenience, making it easily accessible to all eligible voters. That includes those with work or family obligations who cannot take hours out of their day to stand in a long line, citizens in rural or remote communities who have to travel great distances to vote, or others who cannot physically get to a polling station. An online voting solution can put the power of the people into the homes and hands of the people – literally.
But of course, online voting comes with a set of challenges Election officials must always contend with proper voter registration. One person, one vote is a central value in elections, but that person must also meet certain criteria such as citizenship and residency in the jurisdiction. A New Yorker doesn’t vote in California and a Canadian doesn’t vote in Cambodia.
Officials must be able to ensure that registration is not only easy, but also accurate. A clean election means having a robust system for identifying and verifying voters as well as mechanisms for detecting and preventing fraud. That’s true whether it’s paper or pixels. But in the digital space, face-to-face interaction isn’t present and there is a heightened risk of election fraud from hackers or other criminals.
The Estonia Example
One country has taken a significant lead when it comes to electronic and online voting technology – the small Baltic republic of Estonia. In 2005, Estonia became the first country to hold binding elections over the internet. First held at the local level, this expanded to the national level by 2007.
The success of eVoting in Estonia is backed by the country’s comprehensive electronic identity card, first introduced in 2001. The card is a national identity document required for all Estonians, but it also integrates smart technologies that allow for remote authentication and digital signatures across government services. That includes voting – both in-person and online.
Technology for the Win
Integrity and secrecy are two of the most sacred values of voting. Citizens have to trust both the process and the results for elections to be legitimate and they must feel secure that their right to privacy is respected and protected. Countries like Estonia have implemented this to some success, and others like Canada are investigating their options.
At the same time, very real concerns exist and some countries and jurisdictions have either balked at or halted progress in this arena. For example, fears of hacking in France caused that country to reverse its policy of online voting for citizens overseas in the 2017 presidential election. And in the U.S., the fears are particularly strong. There are currently numerous ways of tallying votes across the country, determined by each individual state. A number of those – voting machines in particular – raise concerns that rank with the hanging chads of 2000 and interference questions of 2016.
New technology and innovations can work to do much good. For example, adding blockchain technology and automation into an election process could allow more citizens to vote electronically, using cryptographic keys and biometric data to ensure each vote is counted toward an undisputed result.
Imagine being able to register and verify your vote by a thumbprint, a scan or an encrypted code unique to just you. It is coming. And so too are the days when citizens can vote from home or even from their phone.
Getting there will require systems and technologies – as well as legislation and regulation – being designed to allow voters to readily access the digital ballot box with ease yet with layers of security to cut the risk of hacking and fraud. That begins with ensuring the digital identities of eligible voters are registered and verified before a vote is cast.
There’s much to do before we get to a point where you can swipe left for the liberal or right for the conservative, but as countries around the world explore their options and technology continues to accelerate in that direction, the future of voting is digital. And that will hinge on our ability to securely identity voters and fraudsters alike.