For advocates of online voting, like myself, there are many lessons to be learned from the 2020 US presidential election. One of them is that democracy is a fragile concept underpinned not just by security, but by trust. The nuts and bolts of the election worked as they were supposed to. Voters were able to cast ballots and those ballots were counted. As those of us who spent days after the election glued to American news channels will have learned, the US election process is complex, yet secure. The election, however, was a case study in how trust in an election process is far more important than the security of it. We should remind ourselves that many thousands, if not millions, of Americans will go through life believing the allegations that this election was stolen from them. This is likely to undermine faith not just in the 2020 election, but all future elections. If we are to pave a path towards online voting, policymakers and technologists must prioritise how they can design a system which engenders trust in the outcome.
As data from the You-Gov Cambridge Globalism Project survey (produced in collaboration with researchers from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change) demonstrate, there is significant worldwide interest in being able to vote online in elections. At least a quarter of people in each of the 22 countries surveyed indicated that online voting would be their method of choice if it were to be made available. This should not come as a surprise. Online voting would modernise elections, ensuring that they are more accessible and reflective of how we live the rest of our lives. For people with severe disabilities and vision impairments, who are forced to rely on proxy voting, it would enable access to their human right of an independent, secret ballot. Indeed, it was this argument which led to pilots of the technology in Australia and the US.
Voting preference in a national election from all countries surveyed
Question - Now imagine a possible time in the future, when the coronavirus pandemic has been tackled, and life has become more normal again. From that point onwards... How would you prefer to do each of the following activities? "Voting in a national election". Note: Answer "not applicable" excluded from the chart
The data indicate that this support may also be context specific. There is strong support in Australia (55 per cent) where voting is mandatory and where parts of the country have been voting online since 2011. There is strong support in Japan (59 per cent), a country which is widely regarded as one of the most technologically advanced nations on Earth. There is strong support in Nigeria (59 per cent), a nation which has been beset with decades of fraud allegations with in-person elections. It remains significant, however, that even in democracies accustomed to paper-based elections, support for online voting is strong. In France and Germany, 35 per cent and 36 per cent of respondents would prefer to vote online. In Canada and Great Britain, 41 per cent and 43 per cent would.
There are three key challenges which stand in the way of this idea becoming a reality. The first is political. As with all electoral reforms, there is little incentive for people in power to radically alter the system which got them there in the first place. The second is technological. How can we ensure that an online voting system is not tampered with by malicious actors at home and abroad? The third is psychological. How can we ensure that voters trust the outcome of an election carried out using opaque, black-box technology?
The political challenge can only be overcome when politicians recognise the value of a more accessible democracy, regardless of whether it favours them personally. Ideas for how to address the technological and psychological challenges can be found in WebRoots Democracy’s report, The Cratos Principles. These principles – 33 in total, designed after years of research with campaigners, election officials, cybersecurity experts and computer scientists – should underpin any future online voting system. At their core is the requirement for online voters to be granted transparency and autonomy. They should be given the ability to pseudonymously verify that their votes are recorded accurately within the final count. This would be a significant shift from how we approach traditional, paper-based elections, but it is the only way to ensure that elections can withstand unfounded attempts to cast doubt over the result.
All paths towards greater democracy have been long and winding, but they have always been worthwhile. The path towards online voting is no different. Its successful introduction will broaden access to all citizens and usher in a truly modern democracy. A country in which thousands of people struggle to vote because they have a disability, have caring responsibilities or work overseas is not a full democracy. Voting should not be a struggle. Another lesson we should take from the US presidential election – which saw the highest turnout in more than a century – is that if you make it easy for people to vote, they will vote. Democracies would do well to experiment with online voting; however, if these experiments fail to design for transparency, they will be easily subjected to claims of fraud. Voters, candidates, journalists and judges will want to know whether these claims are valid, and they must be given a mechanism to do so. This is the great challenge with online voting, but it is one which we should work to overcome.
Areeq Chowdhury is the founder of WebRoots Democracy and author of The Cratos Principles: An Essential Guide to Assessing Online Voting Systems for Use in Elections. Editor's Note: Some data in charts and text may vary slightly due to rounding. Participants for the survey were selected from an online panel, which should be taken into account in responses to questions about online activities, particularly in countries with low levels of internet access. More information about the research and results can be found here: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/yougov-cambridge/globalism-project