John Sawers is correct to highlight security risks, but wrong to warn against online voting adoption

sir-john-sawersThe former head of MI6 has today warned against the adoption of online voting in elections citing fears of ‘international cyber warfare’.

Speaking to the BBC, Sir John Sawers said:

“The more things that go online, the more susceptible you are to cyber attacks. The only trouble is, the younger generation of people expect to be able to do things remotely and through electronic devices. Bizarrely the stubby pencil and piece of paper that you put your cross on in the ballot box is actually much more secure than anything which is electronic.”

The Institute for Digital Democracy, commonly known as WebRoots Democracy, has been leading the campaign for online voting in the UK. Their statement in response to Sir John’s comments is below:

“Sir John is correct to highlight the security risks associated with online voting. No proponent of this reform is unaware of the risks associated with modernising elections and tailoring them for the 21st century. He is wrong however to warn against its adoption.

The real threat is that people do not vote in elections and that we end up with decision-makers wielding highly questionable mandates. Estimates show that 95% of the UK’s 19,000 elected politicians were voted in on turnouts of less than 50%. This is simply unacceptable in a leading global democracy and undermines citizens’ faith in our institutions and leaders.

Sir John is correct to point out that the younger generation of voters expect to be able to do things online. Our research shows that an additional 1.2 million young voters would have participated in the EU referendum had online voting been available. However, it is not just young people that would benefit from this reform. Voters with disabilities, voters with vision impairments, and voters abroad would all immeasurably benefit from being able to vote online.  These groups are currently almost entirely locked out of the voting process.

There is no evidence to show that online voting is more susceptible to fraud than the paper alternative. There have been more instances of fraud across the world with paper votes than electronic ones, and the recent recounts of electronic votes in the US showed no evidence of hacking.

The Speaker’s Commission was right to recommend the introduction of online voting, as was the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee.

Strengthening cyber-security internationally is an effort we totally support, but with elections, the answer is to start building the systems to ensure that it is secure. Online voting has been used successfully in Australia, France, and Estonia. We need to begin pilots here in the UK. Sir John has highlighted the need for trans-national talks on a code of conduct for governments to follow with regards to the use of cyber technology and we support this suggestion.

The 2020 elections will see the first generation of new voters that were born in this millennium knowing nothing other than a world of Facebook, iPhones, and Twitter. Voter engagement will only falter and decline should we fail to begin future-proofing our democracy.”

WebRoots Democracy published a report examining the security risks surrounding online voting in January 2016. This can be read here.

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