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Electronic voting: Not an improvement for democracy

Voters using an electronic voting system on 3 November 2015, in Columbus, Ohio
Voters using an electronic voting system on 3 November 2015, in Columbus, Ohio

AP Photo/John Minchillo

The following is a translation of a 22 December 2016 article originally published on derechosdigitales.org.

The implementation of electronic voting systems involves giving up a key aspect of democracy: citizen control over the electoral process. Owing to the inherent characteristics of the technologies used, citizen control is not possible since expert analysis is required in order to confirm whether an election has been carried out in a "clean and transparent" manner.

By Bastián Riveros

Proposals for improving aspects such as participation, transparency and representation are often brought forward after elections of public officials in countries where political systems lack legitimacy. In these situations, electronic voting is often presented by its supporters as a viable and secure alternative, compatible with the modernisation of our institutions.

Technology, however, is not neutral, and its relationship to diverse aspects of our social lives should be analysed taking into account our fundamental rights. As such, it is important to ask ourselves whether electronic voting systems constitute mechanisms that strengthen democratic guarantees during an election.

And on this point we must be emphatic: electronic voting is not secure, nor does it buttress democratic values, as purported by its proponents. Moreover, a voting system that utilizes a machine or program that is distanced from or foreign to the voter can hardly be considered to be a democratic mechanism.

In any given election, citizen participation does not end when the vote is cast, rather it continues on to the supervision and auditing of the election, which should take place in a public and transparent manner. As such, paper ballots have been characterised by their "horizontal" nature regarding participation. That is to say that, with some simple prior instruction and the use of basic arithmetic, a large percentage of the population can participate in the process of counting and supervising the results of an election.

Electronic voting systems necessarily involve the inclusion of software and hardware as some stage in the electoral process. This leads to a system that is opaque to voters, with technical complexities that impede citizen control over the process, relegating this aspect to a smaller sector of society: the experts. Regarding this issue, the German Federal Constitutional Court ruled that its electronic voting system was unconstitutional since electoral processes should be comprehensible by all citizens, without requirements for specific technical knowledge.

In addition, it is virtually impossible to confirm that a computer system is completely secure or free from outside intervention given the inherent characteristics of the infrastructure used. Furthermore, for computer technologists to arrive at a conclusion that a process has been carried out in a secure manner it is necessary to collect a large amount of information, which in and of itself puts vote secrecy at risk, which, as was previously mentioned, is a vital aspect of a healthy democracy.

Experiences in Latin America in recent years have been consistent with this position. In analysing the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires's Vot.Ar system, experts noted that the ballots could be individualised - they found that there was a possibility of having more than one vote associated with a ballot, and even that the vote could be read by a mobile telephone just by getting close to the ballot.

The magnitude of these issues was highlighted by that fact that two days before the election a Metropolitan Police report publicised news of a serious attack on the servers of MSA, the company in charge of the entire electoral process.

In Chile, in elections for both the national government workers' union (Agrupación Nacional de Empleados Fiscales, ANEF) and the Independent Democratic Union (Unión Demócrata Independiente, UDI) political party, problems were experienced with the security and stability of the voting systems, leading to discussions about the technical feasibility of the systems.

Everyone knows that technologies have contributed in a significant way to the development of our societies. However, if some of the advances offered by technology are detrimental to the democratic principles on which elections are based, their implementation should be rejected. Electronic voting breaks the "horizontal" nature of an election by leaving the power of determining whether a process has been carried out in a secure manner in the hands of a few experts, if one assumes that that determination is even possible in reality.

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