For thousands of years, democracies have depended on voting to make fair, representative decisions. However, the way votes have been cast has changed considerably over time. Part of the reason for this has been due to evolving political values. For example, voter privacy wasn’t always considered important, leading to votes being cast orally and in public. However, the evolution of voting methods has also been heavily influenced by technological progress. For example, early developments in computer science led to punch-card ballots being invented. Could modern IT advances once more change how we vote? Some companies certainly think so. Start-ups such as Votem and Voatz are betting on online voting. Countries such as Australia, the UK and Estonia seem convinced about the idea’s potential, with Estonia even allowing anyone to cast digital ballots in national elections. Does this mean that online voting will become the new norm?
Traditional online voting systems offer several advantages. Citizens can cast their ballots from their homes or any place with an internet connection instead of needing to go to a physical polling station. This could potentially save some voters a significant amount of time spent waiting in line to cast a ballot. For example, in the 2012 American presidential elections, Florida voters waited for as long as 7 hours. Some voters also have to spend a significant amount of time travelling to the nearest polling station. Research suggests that this is not only inconvenient but can also decrease political participation, particularly among lower-income groups and ethnic minorities, who typically need to travel further and wait longer to vote. Meanwhile, online elections can decrease the cost of voting to almost nothing for any individual with an internet connection. Given these factors, some might argue that online voting can improve the voting experience, raise turnout, and decrease inequalities between groups of voters.
While voters who use it would clearly save time, the evidence that online systems could boost participation and reduce inequality is much more dubious. More than twenty countries in the world have trialled online voting systems at some point, but it’s difficult to get reliable data from their experiences. Studies on whether online voting actually improves turnout have had widely divergent results. Some have found fairly significant positive effects such as a 10% boost in turnout, while others have found weak effects, achieved null results, or even concluded that the overall effect was negative. A study on online voting in local elections in Ontario, Canada (which has the highest frequency of online voting globally) found that it boosted turnout by an average of 3.5%. While helpful, the increase in participation wasn’t massive.
The situation is similarly complicated when it comes to inequality in political participation. In traditional in-person voting, areas with poorer voters tend to receive fewer resources for elections, particularly if these areas also contain a high proportion of ethnic minority voters. This is what leads to longer commutes to polling booths and longer wait times once there. Online voting solves this problem by making casting a ballot almost zero cost for everyone. However, it could also create new inequalities. 37% of people worldwide have never accessed the internet before. An online voting system risks excluding these people, particularly if implemented in developing countries where the world’s offline population seems to be concentrated. Additionally, there’s a risk that online voting could negatively impact participation among people connected to the internet who nonetheless have low levels of digital literacy. This is particularly concerning as low-income people, who already have lower participation rates in some industrialised countries like the UK, have lower rates of connectivity and digital access.
However, typical online voting systems face numerous challenges. Security concerns top the list. Moving voting online creates the possibility of an entire election being hacked, and millions of votes being deleted or tampered with. This is especially the case because of how online voting systems are usually set up. Typically, users submit a vote to a central system, which then processes and tallies them before sending them on to the relevant authority. If the central system gets compromised, a hacker could get access to every single vote cast. Additionally, there’s always the possibility of insider threats. Somebody allowed to access the central system could theoretically also tamper with votes if they wanted to. Most basic online voting systems also make it difficult to audit elections, making such issues harder to detect. The lack of transparency and risk of hacking inherent in most online voting systems can erode public confidence in the results of elections, potentially leading to political turmoil even when no actual fraud has taken place.
It could be argued that these problems could be fixed with a little innovation. Currently, some start-ups and local governments are experimenting with using blockchain technology to make online elections more secure. The biggest advantage of this is that tampering with cast votes becomes virtually impossible. The blockchain data structure is a series of transactions, recorded as blocks, linked together in a chain. This is made possible by a mathematical function called a hash. This maps an input of any length into an output of a specific length, in a way that ensures that each input will always create the same unique output. At the same time, the hash makes it impossible to find the original input by reverse engineering the output. Each block contains a hash made by inputting data from the previous block. As a result, if a piece of data was altered, the hashes of all subsequent blocks would need to be calculated and changed too, making it easy to prove the immutability of the chain just by looking at the hash from the last block. Additionally, blockchain works through a decentralised network where every member has a complete copy of the information. This means that instead of having to hack a central system, a hacker would need to hack most of the nodes to be able to manipulate the election. Finally, the system is also auditable and transparent, without easily giving away the identity of voters.
However, blockchain-based systems create their own drawbacks. The most significant of these is scalability. All participants have to validate all transactions, which means that the more participants the network has, the longer the process will take. On top of that, the network has to be accurate while having some tolerance for errors. In other words, it must be able to validate transactions even when not every participant has reached the same conclusion about their validity. This is done through consensus mechanisms like proof of work which require complex calculations that can further slow down the system. It’s also worth noting that higher transaction volumes mean that more bandwidth will be needed to transmit data around the network. Additionally, since each participant has a complete copy of the blockchain, they all have to record new transactions. Data storage requirements can increase unmanageably as each participant is forced to store more and more of them. A study analysing modern blockchain-based online voting found that all existing systems were fraud-proof, transparent and worked well on a small scale, but none were scalable.
Online voting has a lot of potential to make voting much more convenient. However, while it would significantly lower the individual cost of casting a ballot, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it would boost voter turnout or increase accessibility. There’s muddled evidence about whether turnout would increase or not, and we can only expect small gains. Meanwhile, online voting could increase accessibility for some people, but should not be implemented as the default option any time soon. Doing so could potentially widen inequalities and decrease accessibility, given that a significant minority are not digitally literate. Finally, widespread implementation could be technically unfeasible. Online voting is too risky to implement on a wide scale without technologies like blockchain, but blockchain is notoriously difficult to scale. However, while national elections aren’t going to go online any time soon, the practice could become widespread at the local level, where it’s already starting to be implemented.
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