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For online voting: Why we should trial E-Voting

Ian Apperley, Guest Blogger. 30 September 2015, 12:45 pm
For online voting: Why we should trial E-Voting

Ian Apperley is well known to many in the ICT industry as both participant and commentator. As part of a special feature on online voting, IITP asked Ian to put his thoughts together as to why online voting is a good thing and we should trial it in our upcoming local body elections.

Mark Zuckerberg once said "The biggest risk is not taking any risk… In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks." There are many similar quotes that basically summed up say that it is better to have tried, and failed, than to never have tried at all.

Those against E-Voting don't want us to even try it. A self-appointed, small group of individuals has managed to convince several Councils that E-Voting is so dangerous, that it should never be attempted. They have told us that they know best, even though they have never attempted to build an E-Voting system themselves, and that we, the lesser knowledgeable should not try. Sadly, they convinced several councils of this argument by scaring them with anecdotes about the Death Star.

I will not defend the safety record of E-Voting since its first use in 1964 save to say that there is no evidence that it has caused a government to be usurped or replaced, even in places like Estonia, which certain foreign powers would dearly like to take control of.

In the fifty years that E-Voting has been around, there have been mistakes. I am not defending the safety of any computer system. Nothing is infallible. If you follow the anti E-Voting lobbyist's theory, they would see all sensitive computer systems switched off. Those that manage our banking, transport, aircraft (now connected to the Cloud in real-time), hospitals, doctors, tax, company information, rates, and a hundred other sensitive services.

What we see here is "inequitable theoretical versus practical risk" (thanks to a reader for this). For example, paper voting records are sent to insecure mail boxes, sometimes by the hundreds, are easily stolen and tampered with. Yet we vote this way without a second thought because it is an acceptable risk. Paper voting at a Local Body level is incredibly open to abuse.

E-Voting has proven verification methods and machine learning along with human controls that can reduce that risk significantly. As this is a trial we are going into, additional controls can be built in to ensure that the vote is not tampered with. A control set of voters could do both, paper and electronic, to provide a test that votes were not interfered with. It is a problem to be solved.

New Zealand is a country that trials new things. In the last four decades this has included areas in finance, health, and government. We have tried and delivered services that lead the world.

But we are being told that we shouldn't trial EVoting. What I can't understand is why? The argument that we know better than you and have decided that it is not possible sounds familiar. It sounds like those IT organisations that are dying because they can't move to a can do, service oriented attitude, and just keep saying "no" to their business sponsors.

My motivation for EVoting is simple. I am a big fan of New Zealand technology and I want to see it succeed. I think we can succeed at this, and if we can't, then at least we tried. Maybe if we get this right, it is something we can export to the rest of the world. We shouldn't let others make a decision to fail before we've even tried.

What does the IT Profession as a whole think? We asked them - results here.


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Ron Segal 30 September 2015, 3:13 pm

Apart from supporting NZ innovation and digital leadership, the ability to vote quickly and cheaply has surely got to be a significant step forward for our democratic processes.

Mike Dennehy 01 October 2015, 10:29 am

I don't agree that a wish to see NZ technology succeed is in any way a compelling reason to trial e-Voting. Nor do I believe you have presented an argument in favour of e-Voting, other than by way of rebutting possible or actual arguments against it.

I'm in favour of trialling e-Voting for three reasons:

1. It will encourage greater participation in the democratic process.

2. It will produce the results much more quickly than the current method of counting ballots, and with a great deal less effort.

3. It will cost less than the manual processes currently in place.

Each of these is a good reason to trial it, and together they make a compelling case. Of course there are caveats, and security of the technology and ensuring as far as possible that no coercion is involved are the two obvious ones, but I believe that these issues are able to be solved - or at the very least they are no more a threat than under the current postal ballot system. This is a very low bar to achieve, as Ian points out.

The boost or kudos that NZ technology would get from solving these issues is a side benefit but not a reason by itself for intervening in the democratic process.

David Lane 11 July 2018, 12:12 pm

Hi Mike, I'm afraid you're incorrect in a couple of your assertions in support of e-Voting (aka online voting). First, to your point 3. the cost of online voting will be *in addition* to existing voting methods. It will only increase the cost of elections, not reduce them. That's because not everyone has internet access, so all existing systems need to be retained. And your point regarding "no more a threat than under the current postal ballot system" is patently false. Although I am not fan of postal voting (I see it open to exploitation on a small scale and the danger of coercion as you note), online voting creates a whole host of new and *global* attack risks (yes, from anywhere on the Internet) that don't exist with postal voting. Last, there's no evidence, anywhere online voting has been tried, that it increases turn out. None.

Given those factors, there is no point in even investing in investigating online voting (much less trialling it!) until major (as yet unknown) technological advances occur, combined with massive improvements in the public's technical literacy, which is currently the a huge risk factor.

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