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ELECTION 2020: time to dust off electronic voting?

Ian Apperley, Guest Post. 05 October 2020, 4:12 pm
ELECTION 2020: time to dust off electronic voting?

Imagine if Sir Edmund Hillary had got to the bottom of Mt Everest, looked at it, decided it was way too hard, gone home, and told everyone else who was considering the climb it was impossible. In New Zealand, that's what we've done with electronic voting. We've given up without even trying and told everyone it is impossible. 

There are dozens of reasons why we are told EVoting won't work. It's insecure, it can be manipulated, it has privacy issues, it doesn't get the uptake we think it will, things could be calculated incorrectly, and so on. 

All of that may be true, but it shouldn't stop us from trying to make it happen anyway. For some strange reason, EVoting has become the modern technology version of Everest. We've been to the moon, we're working on heading to Mars, we're developing neural interfaces, wrangling AI in more and more exciting ways, making giant leaps and bounds across all kinds of technology but EVoting is IMPOSSIBLE. 

I don't believe it, and I think that a lot of the argument is based on FUD rather than good risk management. We often hear of the risks of EVoting, but these are never balanced against the risks of the current system, for example. 

We gave away privacy years ago and anyone who uses social media should have zero complaints about their privacy being invaded and exploited. I'm not saying we shouldn't protect our privacy, of course, we should, and there are methods to do that. I'm saying there is a double standard. 

Again, there are many layers of security that could be applied based on the standard 1,400 or more various international controls. There is no doubt that we could lock down EVoting to the same level of security as the NSA or other super-secret organisations. 

In terms of interference with an EVoting system, either to cause it to fail or to manipulate a result, again, there are safeguards that could be put in place. 

Perhaps worst of all is a common belief that it has no benefit. This is based on "other countries trying it" and not getting the uptake they expect. This is perhaps the most annoying aspect as a) I am not sure any comprehensive research has been done on whether people would use it more than a manual system or b) not taking into account that all countries have different cultures so how do we not know that Kiwis would take it up more than others have? 

A working EVoting system could also be leveraged by the Government as a tool for citizens to engage more frequently and provide richer data to decision-makers. It could also provide a path to younger voters who often feel isolated by the manual process of today.

For the country or company that produces the first rock-solid EVoting system, there will be a monetary reward. It could be sold to other countries and governments. 

With a technology industry that embraces New Zealand's innovative nature and number-8 wire culture, I believe we can create safe EVoting, certainly safer than the current system. 

In 1953 Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mt Everest. They both had a dream, a plan, and a will to knock off what was considered to be an impossible task at the time, instead of complaining about how dangerous and difficult it was from the comfort of a chair beside a warm fire. 

Better to try and fail, than not try at all, and right now, we are not trying.  

Ian is a long time technologist and industry commentator who is finding to reflect as he looks for his next engagement. He lives on a farm in the Wairarapa and when not working in technology writes, grows chillies, and trains horses with his partner.


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Gary Benner 09 October 2020, 4:52 pm

As an avid technologist, eVoting seems an exciting opportunity. However, the issue I have is nothing to do with technological security, data encryption, etc, or even who runs it. The fundamental issue is about being able to securely replicate the isolation and independence of the individual while in the public voting booth.

Until the sanctity of the location, and the process of casting your vote in a way that cannot be coerced, can be reproduced, then any technical solution for the rest of the process is worthless.

Paul Caldwell 09 October 2020, 5:20 pm

I'm guessing the will to scale Everest in this case has little to do with the technology and more to do with the politicians not wanting a stampede of tech savvy non voters. In the case of E-voting the desired outcome of encouraging more people to vote may in fact be the reason this has not been pursued. Wait until we see a party in power that can see an advantage in getting those current non votes.

David Thompson 10 October 2020, 12:17 pm

Okay, so you want to try electronic voting, even if there's a good chance it will fail.

What does a failed election look like to you, exactly? What do you think would be the implications for the country we had one of those?

Please be specific.

Mark Foster 11 October 2020, 11:44 pm

The InternetNZ community discussed online voting at length a year or two ago. You might like to check it out if you're a member, there were plenty of concerns about it and they weren't resolved enough to see us progress this anytime soon.

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