Online voting: The future of voting? Observations from Salt Lake City

By Mike Summers.

Ted Cruz, Donald Trump

For a country which seeks to lead the world in terms of technological innovation and has spent billions of dollars in modernising their election process, it seems puzzling that online voting hasn’t made more progress in terms of becoming part of the United States electoral process.

Maybe this is about to change. On Tuesday 22nd March, 2016, the Republican party of Utah (Utah GOP) offered online voting as an option to registered Republican voters seeking to cast a vote in their presidential preference race.

Caucuses and Primaries – How do they work?

Before elaborating on the specifics of how that system worked, it’s worth explaining how presidential candidates are nominated in the US. Essentially the process falls into one of two camps – primaries and caucuses.

Primaries are akin to the standard election process that most of us will be used to in which the voter gets the opportunity to cast their vote in private using a traditional paper ballot.

Caucuses are ‘gatherings’ or meetings which take place at designated locations called ‘precincts’. Party members assemble, debate amongst their friends and peers and attempt to garner support for their preferred candidate. At the end of the caucus meeting, the votes are cast using either papers ballots, a show of hands, or even standing in a certain corner of the meeting room to demonstrate support for your preferred candidate.

Clearly the notion of voter secrecy goes out of the window along with the principles of accuracy as anyone who saw footage of the Iowa caucuses will testify.

(If you didn’t see it, watch what Trevor Noah from The Daily Show thought about the Iowa caucus).

But what if you cannot attend your primary or caucus event? What if you are military personnel who is overseas? Your ability to participate is limited to casting an absentee or postal ballot, which as we know rarely make it back in time to be included in the final vote tally.

It seems inconceivable that in arguably the most democratic democracy in the world, that the key principles of accessibility, voter secrecy, accuracy and transparency do not count for more when it comes to nominating a presidential candidate.

Surely there’s a better way.

salt lake city
Salt Lake City, Utah.

Enfranchising Republicans in Utah

The online voting service provided by the Utah GOP, offered eligible Republicans the opportunity to vote online, on any internet enabled device, from any location worldwide.

To access the service, voters needed to first register and meet the criteria defined in the Utah GOP rules which permitted access to members of the Republican party. Registrants were checked with the central Republican National Congress, to see if they were eligible to vote. Eligible voters were sent a unique access PIN to their registered email address and mobile phone (via SMS).

On voting day, using this PIN along with their name and date of birth, voters could access the system and securely cast their ballot. Upon completion, voters were presented with a voting receipt containing a unique receipt code, which could be used to verify that their vote was correctly counted in the final tally.

(You can see how the process worked here)

Of those who registered to vote online – nearly 90% did so. That’s a pretty impressive turnout. Votes were cast from 48 states and from over 45 countries.

A post-voting survey was undertaken to get feedback from the voters in terms of their perception of the voting experience.

93.5% gave the online voting experience the thumbs up. Nearly 97% said they would consider voting online in the future and 82.4% thought online voting should be implemented nationwide.

So from the perspective of voters, online voting in Utah was a clear success. But if that’s the case, why are we not seeing more states and counties in the U.S. implement online voting?

Online voting – Why is it taking so long to implement?

The U.S. has flirted with online voting on several locations, but it has never managed to gain traction. Early attempts at online voting saw the deployment of rudimentary solutions which lacked the requisite security safeguards required to maintain security, voter secrecy and system integrity. Not a good start!

But that doesn’t mean that secure online voting systems cannot be built. They can and they are already in use.

Estonia has been voting online since 2005 and has conducted eight nationwide elections without any security breaches. The Estonian system uses the strongest levels of authentication and eligibility assurance to ensure that the system can only be accessed by eligible voters.  Strong, end-to-end encryption and digital signatures protect the privacy and integrity of the votes. The Estonian system also features a smartphone based voter verification process which allows voters to prove that their vote was received in the state that it was intended.

In this respect, online voting offers a significantly higher level of security and transparency than paper based voting.

Despite these safeguards, not everyone thinks online voting is a good idea.

A group of ‘independent’ security experts led by computer scientists from the University of Michigan published a report criticising the Estonian online voting system, apparently identifying a number of vulnerabilities when they recreated the system in a laboratory environment.

However, tests in a laboratory environment fail to take into consideration the procedural aspects of online voting security. In real elections the procedural protections make this impossible.

In fact, it’s worth reading what the Estonian Information Authority had to say about the report by this group of ‘independent’ security experts, here.

What is the future for online voting?

In the work that Smartmatic undertakes in helping governments modernise their elections, we are witnessing an acknowledgement from Election Management Bodies (EMB) that at some point in the future online voting will form part of their provisions to serve those voters who cannot access the polls.

With global citizens living more mobile lifestyles as well as accessing many public services from their smartphones and tablets, online voting will increasingly become an important mechanism for enfranchising ‘hard-to-reach’ voters who are unable to attend the polling station.

In Europe alone, Bulgaria and Lithuania are seeking to pass legislation to permit online voting for overseas voters. In the Netherlands, the Ministry of Interior and Kingdom Relations will run a pilot later in 2016 to test the viability of online voting.

In the U.S., at the recent SXSW festival, President Obama threw out the challenges to the tech community to develop secure online voting solutions.

Given these considerations, whilst online voting will never replace in person voting at polling stations, it offers the best method of enfranchising expat or overseas voters and voters who are unable to vote at the polling station. Without doubt, online voting offers far greater accessibility, transparency and security than postal voting.

Will the online voting naysayers ever go away? I doubt it. There will always be those that ignore the inconvenient truth. That said, many genuine security experts seem focused on constructive contribution to help design and build better solutions.

In addition, the emergence of integrity proving technologies such as the Blockchain and verifiable cryptography provide mechanisms to validate the security of online voting and further demonstrate the improvements in security, accessibility and transparency that online voting can offer over paper based voting.

Here in the UK, we are also a way off from seeing online voting in government elections with paper and pen still dominating. However, just like in the U.S., there are many voters for whom technology would play a critical role in enfranchising them.

For example, if we had internet voting in place it could enable many more voters to participate easily in the EU referendum vote this summer – from Brits living elsewhere in the EU, students away for the summer holiday or even those who will be at Glastonbury (hopefully) soaking up the sun.  The solutions exist – they’re simple and proven. We should use them and help strengthen democracy.

Mike Summers is Program Manager at Smartmatic.

Do you think the UK should introduce an online voting option for elections?  Take a moment to sign and share our e-petition.

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