Postal voting is a faff, but that’s not why election turnout is so horrifically low. So why are people touting online voting as a silver bullet?
We’ve just had another local government election. As voter turnout has declined, again, and problems with postal ballots have surfaced, again, for some people it’s time to talk about online voting… again.
Advocates of online voting hope it will raise voter engagement, lower costs, and make it easier to vote. They argue that technology can have a democratising effect and improve our processes. I think these hopes are misplaced. The nature of computerised systems, the track record of information technology projects and research on voter behaviour all suggest that online voting might not solve these problems and could create new problems of its own.
It’s not a new technology or a new debate. In New Zealand, online voting is possible through specialist companies that offer it as a service for organisations to elect boards and officers. Electionz.com and Election Services Ltd form a local duopoly and the local government sector has almost completely outsourced election management to them.
In recent years, demand for online voting in local government reached the point where two successive governments felt the need to let trials take place. But after an abortive attempt in 2016, there still hasn’t been a trial. A consortium of councils sought tenders for a system for the 2019 local government elections, but couldn’t afford to go ahead with the winning bid.
Who doesn’t want it?
Technologists, mostly, who say election processes need to be anonymous, transparent and resistant to attack in order for the results to have legitimacy. Online voting systems have repeatedly been shown to be vulnerable to attack.
Who wants it?
Voter turnout has declined steadily across the western world since WWII, particularly in local body elections. Politicians are concerned that low turnouts undercut their legitimacy. Especially in left-wing circles, the particularly low turnout among young and poor people is seen as a problem. Many theorise that since polling shows younger and poorer people lean left, if they would just turn out at the same rate as other demographics, left victories would be assured.
A popular explanation for low turnout is that voting is difficult, and that an online system would be easier and would therefore increase turnout. Certainly, anyone who has been confronted with an STV voting paper must wonder whether a decent user interface couldn’t remove some of the tedious effort involved in choosing and ranking candidates. And on the face of it, online simply seems less challenging than finding a postbox or a polling station – at least if you have a computer or a smartphone.
Elections cost money to run, and they have to take place. As doubts grow over New Zealand Post’s ability to deliver, literally and figuratively, councils need to develop alternative plans. Yet they lack the ability and know-how to run an election. For many years, they have outsourced election management to private companies, and they no longer have the expertise in-house. An alternative to a postal election, run by another agency which spreads the costs across its customers, seems attractive.
People with disabilities
Finally, people with disabilities currently suffer from the sheer logistical difficulty of voting and the lack of privacy when they do. To use existing assisted voting options, blind or low-vision voters have to share their intention with a stranger and trust them to carry it out. Online voting might make elections genuinely accessible for them.
So, all the institutional players in the local election process have professionally relevant reasons for advocating online voting, as do disabled New Zealanders whose needs just aren’t met by in-person or postal voting. Unfortunately, there is good reason to think that most sectors’ hopes will not be met by online voting.
The most appealing prospect online voting offers is increased participation. But research tells a different story. The Electoral Commission’s survey of eligible voters after the 2017 general election showed that the biggest reason (24%) given for not voting was ‘Can’t be bothered or not interested’. A difficult pill for candidates to swallow! While 7% said they didn’t vote because of work commitments, few of the other reasons cited hint at logistical barriers of significance.
Local Government NZ’s surveys give the following reasons: not knowing enough about the candidates (31%), forgot or left too late (24%), not interested (14%) or too busy (14%).
When the Auckland Council’s research unit asked non-voters why they didn’t vote in the 2016 election, the top reasons were:
- I don’t know anything about the candidates (25%)
- I don’t know enough about the policies (22%)
- I can’t work out who to vote for (16%)
- Too much effort to select the candidate (10%)
- I did not know when voting finished, missed deadline (18%)
- I forgot to vote (18%)
- I’m not interested in politics or politicians (14%)
- I don’t think my vote will make a difference (11%)
- I can’t be bothered voting (11%)
While survey respondents clearly say they would like online voting, the reasons given for not voting don’t seem linked to the difficulties of posting a ballot. They speak to disengagement with politics, not the voting mechanism.
When postal voting was introduced in Australia, it raised participation levels significantly, but over two to three election cycles, voting levels reduced and began to track downwards again. This has also happened in other jurisdictions with online voting. In other words, convenience isn’t a big factor in why people don’t vote, and while novelty can create a blip of interest, that interest is not sustained.
Even worse for left-wing politicians, some research suggests that where there is increased turnout it is in older, wealthier demographics – the conservative voters who have higher turnout anyway. The youth vote will likely not materialise just because they can vote with their phones.
To vote online you need access to a suitable device with an internet connection. A sizable minority of eligible voters have neither. They may be too poor, or they may live in rural areas where reliable internet is not yet available, or they may be older people who have not adopted the new technology. If the paper system isn’t maintained, online voting may not provide a net increase in turnout, since some who might have voted via the old methods will not be able to with the new.
The security question
Advocates of online voting tend to believe in the power of technologists to solve problems, and dismiss security and integrity concerns as merely a matter of finding the right people to implement the right solution to the right standard.
But securing online systems is a genuinely difficult problem, and online voting has some specific requirements that make it harder: assuring voter anonymity, preventing attacks on uncontrolled parts of the system in the form of the voters’ computers or phones, and safely issuing voters their log-in credentials.
Good voting systems need certain characteristics: secrecy (so voting can be anonymous); integrity (so votes are recorded correctly); verifiability (so doubters can check votes are recorded correctly, persuading those who doubt); and availability (so all who are eligible find it easy to vote). Paper-based systems, including postal voting, can meet these criteria.
Online voting advocates often imagine it as a simple translation of existing paper systems. But computerised systems fail in very different ways to manual systems. They are centralised and hence can fail completely, not just in parts, while manual systems are distributed over many people and places and are much harder to compromise.
Attacks don’t need to be restricted to the system itself. If your goal is simply to reduce faith in the result and in institutions generally, a campaign of bogus emails, fake election websites, attacks and leaks from adjacent systems and institutions can easily reduce confidence in the outcome. You can use the fact that verification would rely on expert testimony, not a manual count, to attack trust further: who believes those experts?
Another problem for those who see online voting increasing turnout by providing convenience is the need for voters to identify themselves to the system. Anyone who has gone through the process of obtaining a verified RealMe account knows that this is not necessarily a simple undertaking.
When voters are forced to go through a log-in process, the difficulty of casting a vote is replaced by the difficulty of the authentication processes before voting. Ironically, perhaps the most practical and fairly safe way to distribute login credentials is through the postal system!
It’s true that current voting processes more or less run on an honour system, but it would require an implausible conspiracy to commit large-scale fraud, and there are checks in the form of scrutineers and returning officers crossing voters off the rolls. With paper, it’s easy to corrupt one vote, but hard to corrupt a million. Online voting, however, gives attackers the same efficiencies from digitisation that it gives the operators of the election: if you can corrupt one vote digitally, you can corrupt a million. Indeed, you can corrupt any number you like: just enough to throw the election, or so many that it is obviously illegitimate.
It is worth probing why advocates are so determined to advance online voting in the face of the arguments against, and unwilling to consider alternatives such as in-person voting managed by the Electoral Commission.
But there is no alternative (or is there?)
The next time you hear about online voting as a panacea for low voter turnout or engaging the disenfranchised, think twice about whether these claims are true and who is making the claims. The evidence suggests otherwise. We cannot simply wave a magic technology wand to solve our problems.
It would be easier to evaluate the merits of arguments for online voting if they were contrasted with other options. What would happen to engagement if we spent millions of dollars on voter education? What if we revisited STV, or at least redesigned voting papers as suggested by the Auckland Council’s researchers? What if we used the undoubted draw of social media to promote voting? What would it cost for the Electoral Commission to run local elections the way they run general elections?
And beyond that, we need to start with the fundamental questions about why people don’t vote. Is it about the process? Or is it about how much they care? Why don’t people care enough to vote? And what should we do about that?
This article is based upon a chapter by Stephen Judd in ‘Shouting Zeros and Ones: Digital Technology, Ethics and Policy in New Zealand’ (BWB Texts) edited by Andrew Chen