Electronic voting: I want to understand the issues

Note: This hasn’t been updated meaningfully since 2004.

This guide has been developed in an attempt to provide an objective introduction to the issues surrounding the introduction of information
technologies into the voting process. This page provides links to discussion, resources and news items protraying various sides of the debate while
giving you an overview of the events, actors and concepts fundamental to this field.

Created by Jason Kitcat: I have aimed to be objective but please keep in mind that I am opposed to electronic voting and at the time of writing was a member of
the Electoral Reform Society and The Green Party and biases will have crept in.

Why is voting important?

Voting is the fundamental action of democracy. By casting a vote we hold previous politicians to account and express our hopes for the future.
Of course democracy is more than votes – it’s debate, letter writing, campaigning, consultation – but the vote is how every single citizen can wield
real and immediate power. It’s incredibly important that everyone can vote without interference, safe in the knowledge that it will be counted.

Typical ballot paper (BBC)

Through the long history of democracy we have learnt that in the pursuit of power some groups are willing to threaten voters to make sure they
vote ‘the right way’. But if the vote is secret then there is no way for intimidators to know whether someone has voted for them or not – threats
become useless.

So votes are a vital expression of the people’s power which need to be secret and restricted to only one per citizen.

The types of voting

Vote Classic

The traditional way of voting has been to mark a token (shell, card or piece of paper) in private and then put it into a box or pot. The key points
were to make sure that:

  • Each voter could only have one token to vote with.
  • The token could be marked in private.
  • The box could only be accessible to voters.
  • At the end of the election the box would be opened in the presence of observers of all the parties standing for election.
  • If results were in doubt the tokens could be counted again by different people.

That’s it… the simple fundamentals to ensure that an election is free, private and reliability. If the results could be doubted then the legitimacy
and power of the winners would be undermined – resulting in serious instability.

New Vote

Since the early beginnings there have been some innovations, especially in the United States. This is mainly due to the large number of issues
Americans are asked to vote on at the same time. Thus to ease the counting lever and optical machines are used in elections.

The Recount in Florida (BBC)

Recently there have been major initiatives to ‘modernise’ the voting process across the world. After the problems of the Florida 2000 Presidential
race in the US significant funds were released for new voting equipment. Brazil has a national electronic voting system in place and several European
countries are moving towards or already use various types of machines.

Here in the UK Robin Cook MP, when Leader of the House of Commons, committed the UK to being the first country in the world to use the
Internet for a national election.

So we have a whole pile of new voting systems being trialed and used, let’s try to categorise them:

  • Postal
    Here an ordinary paper ballot is delivered to voters, normally by post, and is returned by post for counting. Usually
    voters need to sign a declaration, occassionally with a witness, to prove they are authorised to cast the vote posted. While counting is straightforward
    there are concerns over the privacy of postal votes and how sure we can be that only authorised citizens have cast their votes.

  • Punch Card
    The infamous system (as seen in theFlorida elections) where mechanical machines or voters with a stylus
    punch holes in cards to register their votes. These are then counted automatically. Such systems have reliability problems but, as Florida showed, the
    cards can be checked manually.
    Fairness Verdict: Possible, if considerable care is taken.

  • Optical
    Here specially designed ballots are marked in such a way that an optical counting machine can read them. Thus the
    advantages of putting a paper ballot in a box are retained but counts are quicker, if problems arise recounts of the ballot can still be done by hand.
    There are error rates from using the wrong type of pencil or misunderstanding the card.
    Fairness Verdict: If properly designed,

  • Phone
    Voting is provided either through a touch-tone system (similar to that used for television votes) or through SMS text
    messages on mobile phones. Authentication is achieved through the use of PIN and access codes which are mailed to voters ahead of the ballot.
    While proven in entertainment settings without any strong requirements for authentication the reliance on unreliable (in the case of SMS) and highly
    centralised, private infrastructures (in both cases) result in privacy being virtually impossible to provide and security based more on the commercial
    confidentiality and control of the connections than any explicit protocols (such as SSL on the web).
    Fairness Verdict: Poor.
    Convenient but extremely unlikely to meet basic voting requirements.

  • Electronic Machine Voting [EMV] (or Direct Recording Electronic [DRE])
    This consists of a normal computer or more often a
    specially designed electronic ‘kiosk’ in the polling booth. Using buttons or a touch screen votes are made which are stored in an electronic memory
    and sometimes another format too. Unless a paper ballot is printed at the time of voting manual recounts are not possible.
    Fairness Verdict:
    Highly debatable. Better with paper ballots printed at time of voting.

  • Remote Electronic Voting [REV] (or Online Voting)
    This is where voters sit at home or in a library and use a computer (or
    digital television or mobile phone) to mark their ballot. Because of the difficulty in being sure the voter is who they claim to be and the chance that
    other people can access the servers via the Internet the result can be called into question or just disrupted. Recounts are not possible as all the
    authorities have is a database of votes. Voter privacy and anonymity are also hard to maintain.
    Fairness Verdict: Most independent
    reports are, at best, cautious. Debatable to poor.

But why are politicians and other actors keen to introduce new technologies and techniques into the voting process? There is a general
perception in countries such as the US and UK that politics is in something of a crisis. Media portrayal of politicians and governments is negative and
people in general seem disengaged, or in their language ‘apathetic’, from the political arena. Politicians routinely do very poorly in surveys rating the
level of trust different professions garner. Others would argue that people are engaged but expressing themselves through non-party political
means such as pressure groups like Greenpeace or activism such as marches and petition-signing. Either way the number of people voting has been
falling in many western nations and a large number of people see this as a proxy for a widening disconnection between the political elite and the

Typical voting (Corbis)

Politicians need to be seen to be doing something about this, but what to do? Some suggest re-forging the media-politics relationship to
revolutionise the way political issues are presented and debated with the public. Others promote constitutional reform through devolution, more
proportional voting systems or changing the mechanics of democratic institutions such as the House of Lords’ membership. There are plenty of ideas
aimed at widening participation but the key question is does an increased turnout mean more participation?

Or, to put it another way, should policies focus on the specific target of increasing turnout figures and hope that in doing so democracy itself
will be re-invigorated or should we work in the other direction by re-invigorating democracy first in the belief that turnout will naturally be boosted
as a result? In other words is turnout a means to an end or an indicator of success in achieving another aim?

The current UK policies seem to focus on just increasing turnout, thus we have seen a large number of improvements which aim to make the act
of voting itself easier. What remains to be proven is whether it is the difficulty of voting the traditional way that keeps turnout down or there are
other factors at work.

One other reason electronic methods of voting are being promoted is that their widespread adoption in a country help to build a perception of it
being a technologically advanced, ‘modern’ nation which can help encourage inward investment from firms. Politicians are always hard at work
promoting their country to global businesses and a successful e-voted election could be a useful marketing tool in that task.

Fallen chads (BBC)

The key players

Before we explore the arguments for and against electronic voting let’s outline the main actors in the debate and the market so we are clear
where various perspectives are emerging from.

  • Vendors
    This list includes suppliers of postal, remote electronic and electronic machine voting solutions.

    • Association of Electronic Voting Systems [site]
    • Avante [site]
    • Diebold Election Systems [site]
    • Diversified Dynamics [site]
    • Election.com [site]
    • Election Systems & Software [site]
    • Electoral Reform Services [site]
    • Evote.ca/The Online Assessment Company [site]
    • Guardian Voting Systems [site]
    • Hart Intercivic [site]
    • iBallot.com [site]
    • Integrity Voting Systems [site]
    • MicroVote [site]
    • MTI [site]
    • Reply Systems [site]
    • SafeVote [site]
    • Sequoia Voting Systems [site]
    • SureVote [site]
    • The Voting Group [site]
    • TrueBallot [site]
    • UniLect [site]
    • VoteHere [site]
    • Voting Technologies International [site]
    • IFES Buyers Guide has a more comprehensive list [site]
  • Government
    US and UK focus so far, please send us international sites!

    • Electoral Commission [site]
    • Federal Election Commission [site]
    • Office of the Deputy Prime Minister > Local Government > Elections Section
    • Office of the e-Envoy [site]
  • Non-Governmental Organisations [NGOs]

    • Association of Electoral Administrators [site]
    • California Voter Foundation [site]
    • Caltech-MIT Voting Project [site]
    • Center for Voting & Democracy [site]
    • Electoral Reform Society [site]
    • Foundation for Information Policy Research [site]
    • OASIS Election Services Technical Committee
    • People for Internet Responsibility [site]
  • Experts
    Here are the experts that we know of and a summary of their opinions.

    • David Chaum [site]
      Position: Pro, runs SureVote.
    • Lorrie Cranor [site]
      Position: Cautious, existing implementations
      not satisfactory. [detail]
    • David Dill [site]
      Position: Against unless with voter-verifiable
      audit trail (ie paper print-out) and has over 1,000 signatures supporting this view [detail]
    • Douglas Jones [site]
      Position: Cautious, wants all voting
      machines to have open code and workings. [detail]
    • Rebecca Mercuri [site]
      Position: Against unless with non-
      electronic audit trail (ie paper print-out) [detail]
    • Peter Neumann [site]
      Position: Very cautious
    • Avi Rubin [site]
      Position: Against with current technology.
    • Bruce Schneier [site]
      Position: Against.

The arguments for Electronic Machine and Remote Electronic Voting

Increased Turnout

Turnout (the number of people who vote in an election) has been steadily decreasing across most of the Western world. People are living
increasingly busy lives with growing work and family commitments. Having to go to an old school or church hall to vote is difficult to fit into the day
and seems anachronistic in this modern day. The younger generations, who vote even less than the rest, are probably turned off by the idea of voting
with a stubby pencil and piece of paper when their lives revolve around the digital world of mobiles and consoles. If we make voting easier and more
modern a greater number of people are likely to vote.

While some people do find it difficult to vote the traditional way, most people don’t choose to not vote because of the
hassle or its dated image. Surveys generally indicate that they feel their votes don’t count, all the options are the same or they simply don’t feel they
know enough to make an educated choice. Jeremy Paxman has shown that turnout is significantly lower in areas where polling stations are within
walking distance, when it’s a trek people actually make the effort – convenience isn’t the problem in the vast majority of cases.

Voting is important but by focussing on increasing turnout we miss the broader point that to re-invigorate participation in democracy we need
to fundamentally reform our constitutional institutions and processes, not fiddle with the method of voting. With a strong representative democracy
turnout will naturally rise. Give voters some credit, they aren’t lazy couch potatoes who will only vote if it consists of pressing the red button on the
TV remote.

For more on this argument see “Turning Round Turnout” on this site.
Also the BBC News Online report on e-voting’s impact on turnout in May
2003 and an earlier
BBC report on the potential positive impacts on turnout.

DRM voting (Corbis)

Improved image for Britain

Great Britain suffers from a stuffy, backwards, traditionalist image amongst some people. By leading the world with the implementation of
national e-voting we can show how modern, technologically savvy and ‘with it’ we really are. This will encourage inward investment and greatly
benefit our businesses and universities.

Most of the core e-voting technology being piloted is from non-UK companies, in fact mostly from the USA. Britain
already has an excellent reputation for technology particularly biotechnology (e.g. Cambridge cluster) and microprocessors (e.g. ARM) amongst
others, is it worth risking the legitimacy of our votes and spending taxpayers’ money on the off-chance it might attract additional investment?

Read Robin Cook MP announce his desire to introduce Internet voting to the UK in
an interview with the Guardian when Leader of the House.

Faster Results

In this day and age it seems anachronistic to wait late into the night while results are counted. Instead of having broadcasting companies
spending a fortune on all-night coverage and candidates, police and returning officers monitoring counts late into the night electronic voting would
let us know the results almost instantly and have it over and done with.

Making the results instantly could trivialise election results, they might be announced like the results of yet another
football match. Furthermore counts are already quite quick, the vast majority of results for the 1st May 2003 election were known by 2am. Canada,
the second largest nation geographically, also gets their election results done overnight. Faster counts reduce the opportunities for proper scrutiny
by officials and candidates alike.

See Alexander Chancellor’s
column in the Guardian for a view on the impact of the
instant count and electronic voting.

Click to vote (Corbis)

Cost Savings

Renting, manning and equipping polling stations across wards and constituencies is an unnecessarily expensive and complicated affair.
Furthermore the printing of special ballot papers securely in sufficient quantities is costly, as is employing the counters. Dealing with special needs,
including minority languages also increases the costs. All electronic voting eliminates most of these costs allowing the money to be better spent

The evidence is very unclear about whether electronic voting is in fact cheaper in the long run. Electronic voting
methods can help multi-lingual situations by reducing printing costs but there are many security risks and translation costs remain present. The
overall cost of running elections is a miniscule part of government expenditure and is certainly worth it to ensure the free and fair election of a
legitimate government.

The arguments against Electronic Machine and Remote Electronic Voting

Increased Fraud

Electronic voting’s reliance on technology allows all sorts of fraudulent activity to be disguised. The programming code of an electronic voting
system could be altered so that clicking to vote for ‘Party A’ would actually register ‘Party B’ without the voter knowing.

Remote Electronic Voting particularly needs on a way of authenticating users as being allowed to cast a vote. The three primary methods
proposed for making sure voters really are who they claim to be, are:

  • Passwords and/or PIN codes
    Like with postal ballots pass-codes suffer from being vulnerable while being delivered to voters. If using the postal system how do
    we ensure that they aren’t stolen or just looked at somewhere along the line? In shared homes, care homes and blocks of flats post is very vulnerable
    to being picked up by visitors or other people in the building – there are already documented cases of this occurring during postal ballots.

    To make passwords/PIN codes usable (short enough to type in without making mistakes) they can’t be too long, but this makes them
    vulnerable to dictionary and brute force attacks: This is when a computer guesses every combination of letters and numbers until it finds the pass-
    code which works. Computers can do this very quickly… making short work of a large number of voters in no time.

  • Smartcards
    Smartcards also suffer from vulnerability in the post. How do you get them to every single voter and make sure the right card goes to
    the right person? It’s no mean task.

    While they are certainly an improvment on pass-codes, smartcards are a costly technology (estimates based on the Entitlement/ID
    Card consultations envisage a £2-6 billion first year cost followed by £1-3 billion each subsequent year) and to be used voters need to have a
    compatible smart card reader attached to their computer. Not only is this an additional cost but it creates a vast complexity as readers need to be
    sourced that work with every imaginable computer, operating systems and so on.

    Finally smartcards don’t authenticate voters, they only prove the card is plugged into the computer – effectively they just authenticate
    the computer. Anyone could have put the card in. If combined with a PIN code it’s a little more secure but PIN codes are simple to break with minimal

  • Biometrics
    Biometrics consist of digital representations of unique physical aspects of the human anatomy such as retina, finger or voice prints.
    The problem is how do we (for a reasonable cost to taxpayers) populate a database with all the fingerprints (or retina scans etc.) and accurately
    associate them with the right personal information, such as address and voting ward? There will be major privacy issues raised, but the most likely
    solution to such fears would be guaranteeing the database’s use only for elections – massively increasing its cost and reducing its utility.

    To be used in an election we would also need to get readers with all the right drivers and cables, as for smartcards, to all the voters.
    An extremely expensive proposition. The readers are also often quite easy to fool… This example shows how gelatine fooled fingerprint scanners.

    Even if we can deal with populating the database and getting readers out to voters without excluding any particular community of
    computer users we face a more fundamental problem. Unlike passwords you can’t issue new fingerprints or eyeballs. So if there is any hint that the
    database of biometric prints has been compromised it becomes useless – no new fingers can be issued. An expensive waste of time would be all that
    was left.

So if there are any problems or vulnerabilities with the authentication system voters could vote multiple times undetected or on the other hand
people could be prevented from casting their legitimate vote. Security is about risk management, nothing can ever be made 100% secure, but the
current state of technology means the costs involved in achieving an acceptable level of risk would be massive.

The current electoral system isn’t immune to fraud and we are likely to make many improvements in the security by
using modern technology. If we can bank online why can’t we vote online?

For more on this issue see the following views in the press:
Society Guardian,
International Herald Tribune,
Guardian Online,
SFGate.com and more in
our Links section.

Increased Scale of Potential Fraud

With traditional voting systems the reality is that committing a large scale fraud is made difficult purely by the amount of logistics involved in
dealing with paper ballots, voter registration forms and so on. There is only so much a fraudster or team of fraudsters can do within the short space
of the election timetable. With electronic voting systems, like with music in MP3 files, it makes no difference if you copy a vote once or a million
times. The logistical problems associated with large scale fraud are massively reduced by e-voting. The result is that a fraud of a large enough scale
to actually throw the results of an election becomes much more likely during an electronic election.

We have no proof that any large scale fraud is being attempted, we can’t build systems to defend against every single
threat – we need to balance the risks, the costs and find a reasonable balance. Furthermore there are technologies which might make activities time
consuming enough to negate the benefits to large-scale fraudsters when compared with paper-based fraud.

Lack of Scrutiny

Because electronic votes are just electrons whizzing along wires and bouncing through microchips it is impossible for candidates and
independent observers to check the electoral process. With the paper-based vote every aspect can be checked to make sure no attempted fraud is
being perpetrated and no mistakes are being made. With the opacity of technology there’s no way we can check what is happening – we have to take
the authenticity of the result on trust. Suppliers could offer to reveal the complete workings and source code of their voting systems (not that they
have offered so far) so that anyone could verify how they work – the problem is that the number of people capable and willing to verify the systems
would be miniscule and it’s impossible to verify that the system inspected is the one actually used. What happens if a last minute bug fix or update is
needed? Technically the whole system needs to be re-verified but time pressures would prevent this and a compromise could be allowed to occur.

Scrutiny is important within the current system because of the many opportunities for errors and intentional bias. The
beauty of an electronic system is that it will be scientific, quick and reliable – massively reducing the need for scrutiny. Even so suppliers could open
their systems for inspection to reassure candidates and voters.

Free and Secret Ballot threatened

Voting is unique in that it needs to be secure (nobody can alter the vote cast), reliable (the vote cast must be counted), verifiable (it must be
provable that eligible voters have only voted once and that each vote counted is authentic) and anonymous (it should be impossible to derive who
cast which ballot and so discover who a voter supports). This is a very unique situation completely unlike other electronic applications such as online
banking or e-commerce. In those situations a user abandons anonymity so that the bank or shop can minimise fraud. In other words by knowing
who you are they are happy to perform financial transactions. To try and make sure that you are who you say you are they extract as much
information as possible: Telephone numbers, email addresses, postal addresses, birthday, credit card issue numbers and so on. This can all be
cross-checked for consistency and verified against credit agency databases. None of these techniques should be usable in an electronic vote if it is to
meet the basic requirements of a free and fair vote as enshrined in international treaties.

The limitations of current technology make it impossible to have a practical system that is secure, reliable, private and verifiable. It’s just the
nature of databases, computer hard disks and so on that it is easy to track what people are doing. Even if a hypothetically secure and anonymous
server could be constructed there is no guarantee about the security and privacy of a person’s own computer if they are voting from home.

The UK currently doesn’t have truly anonymous votes anyway, with a court order officials can discover how persons
have voted. But we need to be reasonable – suppliers say they can deliver votes which meet the requirements to all intents and purposes. Nothing’s
perfect, including the current system, using technology will only improve on it.

Can we trust electronic voting supppliers? The site and accompanying book,
Black Box Voting certainly doesn’t think so. See
Salon.com’s take on her views.

A famously controversial suffragette image (Corbis)

Vendor Lock-in

All the systems currently being examined for use by governments are from commercial suppliers. The systems are proprietary to those suppliers
and some are even covered by patents. The suppliers are obviously unwilling to divulge the workings or detailed construction of their hardware and
software. The result is that if authorities buy these commercial systems they will be forced to continue paying the suppliers for support, maintenance
and replacement parts. In effect they are trapped into the chosen supplier’s offering, in other words a monopoly is brought into existence. The result
is that prices rise and taxpayer’s money is spent on enriching the supplier instead of on the public good.

Governments are careful to go through detailed tender processes to make sure the best value supplier is chosen.
Furthermore several standards processes are underway, the most prominent being the OASIS Election and Voter Services Technical Committee, which
will allow several suppliers to provide services interoperating through the open standard thereby preventing lock-in to a single firm.


Not only are many of the voting companies
showing that they aren’t that great at security technology, but also that they struggle with usability. Many
of their voting systems use non-standard interfaces with confusing terminology, difficult interfaces and incoherent instructions. Basic tenets of
Human-Computer Interface best practice are ignored and even the audio interfaces, championed as a benefit of e-voting by allowing people with
disabilities to vote in private, have been heavily criticised for their poor usability.

Limited screen sizes mean that some candidates are not shown without someone having to scroll, severely reducing the likelihood of their
receiving votes, especially when scrolling is awkward with nonstand interfaces and keyboards.

While clearly many of these problems are fixable, they haven’t been. Some of the vendors have been selling their electronic systems for many
years and yet we still see the same usability problems. These just don’t make it harder to vote (using a pencil and paper is pretty simple for most
able-bodied people) but can actually influence the result. There are several documented cases where confusing interfaces have resulted in certain
elections hardly receiving any votes or particular candidates gaining unfair advantages.

These problems can be resolved and they certainly don’t apply to all voting systems. All the interfaces are created in
discussion with the authority they are supplied to, usually in consultation with the candidates involved as well. But there is room for improvement, of
course, but only electronic systems allow us to vary the font size, language and provide audio interfaces that allow people with disabilities to vote in
privacy for the first time.

See what you think about the usability of some e-voting systems… Read the University of Maryland’s assessment of a Diebold system
here, read this

article by a usability professional and this background article on voting
usability (US-centric) here.

Murphy’s Law

“If there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in a catastrophe, then someone will do it.” – Murphy’s Law

“Anything that can go wrong, will” – Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives (common short version of Murphy’s Law)
[ source ]

Technology is complicated and elections are large logistical projects delivered to tight budgets with extreme time pressures. The chances are, as
Murphy’s law indicates, something will go wrong. In fact it’s highly likely that more than one thing will go wrong. The Sheffield e-voting pilots in May
2003 saw this in spades when the consortium running the pilots forgot to install the ISDN lines into several polling stations and failed to deliver the
laptops required for voter authentication to polling staff. There were also problems with the website for voting electronically from home. The result
was that polling stations had queues of people waiting to vote but unable to do so.

We all know how hard fixing technology can be – in fact identifying the problem can be a challenge in itself. Thus not only are the chances for
disrupting elections, and robbing citizens of their democratic right, very high even without thinking of what hackers might do but problems are the
perfect cover for fraudulent activities. Of course things can go wrong with the current system but between a box, some paper and a few pencils
there’s a lot less to go wrong and resolving those problems will be significantly easier.

Authorities take elections very seriously and they have plans in place for all eventualities so that even if technology
goes wrong alternatives will be in place to allow voting to continue. If we took the Murphy’s Law approach to everything we’d never make any
advances – we might as well stay in our caves!

Conclusion: Jason Kitcat’s position

The purpose of this page is to allow the interested reader to draw as much as possible their own conclusions about electronic voting in its
various guises. We’ve provided links to suppliers and experts all of whom feel strongly about the issue. You assess their views on your own terms.

Nevertheless I’m a campaigner so I’m always keen to make my view known and as clearly as possible. We are against electronic voting (and all
postal ballots too). We feel that technology is not capable of providing a sufficiently secure, reliable, private and verifiable basis for legally binding
elections. The opportunities for fraud and mistakes are too great. If a paper trail was provided with Electronic Voting Machines (that is a paper ballot
the voter approved before storing their vote) then we feel the system would be more trust-worthy. But if we are back to paper then we feel that the
cost and complications of introducing computers are simply not worth it – taxpayer money could be spent more effectively elsewhere either on
public works or improving democratic participation.

I urge readers to endorse the resolution calling for voter-verifiable e-voting. Also why not FaxYourMP to let them know how you feel about the headlong rush towards electronic voting?

What do you think? Email me your views and I’ll post a selection on this page. learn@free-
(Please say if you don’t want your email published)

If you feel we’ve missed a point, a link or have some other feedback on the content of this page then please email Jason Kitcat.


10/05/03 Version 1 released.

12/05/03 Added extra links and Paxman turnout argument.
17/05/03 Added phone voting to types of voting system.
20/05/03 Some corrections made thanks to Ian Brown, FIPR
16/07/03 Added sections on increased scale of fraud and voter authentication issues. Thanks to Joe Otten, Richard Allen and Bob Watt.
23/08/03 Added usability arguments to arguments against.
23/10/03 Added links to resolution.

30/03/04 Converted from free-project to j-dom format.