Scotland’s democracy deserves better than broken electronic voting trials

Democratic processes need to be understood by more than a handful of advanced cryptographic experts.  

Matthew Rice
9 March 2018
scotland polling.jpg

Image: Andrew Milligan/PA Images

Across the world, democracy is facing a crisis in trust and participation. With this crisis comes calls to revolutionise and modernise some of the practices underpinning democracy. Electronic voting in national elections is always one of the first proposals in that discussion for reform.

The argument, blind to the realities of e-voting’s affect and its vulnerabilities, goes: “The way we vote hasn’t changed in years, while everything else about our society has, so why not introduce electronic voting to reflect these modern times? You’ll reinvigorate democratic participation and attract new voters!!”

The Scottish Government is having this conversation right now. There is a public consultation on electoral reform which includes proposals to trial electronic voting, open until 12 March 2018 (Editors note - this has now been extended to 29th March).

Open Rights Group have been following the development of electronic voting for a number of years. We acted as technical observers of e-voting trials in England in 2007. We were also involved in independent technical observation of the Estonian online voting system during the 2014 general election.

We are not convinced that introducing electronic voting has any positive effect on democratic participation. Where it has been trialled, electronic voting has failed to introduce a new generation to voting. Instead, e-voting introduces security and political vulnerabilities that risks undermining trust in the democratic process.

That is why Open Rights Group are urging individuals to respond to the consultation calling for trials of electronic voting to be abandoned, and encouraging everyone to get in touch with their MSPs to attend the Member’s Debate and say no to electronic voting. Scotland’s democracy deserves better than this technological non-fix.

E-voting - false logic on turnout

One of the core arguments in support of electronic voting, and the focus of the consultation from the Scottish Government, is to increase democratic participation. This is a noble pursuit and an aim that should be encouraged, but when e-voting has been trialled, it has not delivered that outcome.

Norway ran electronic voting trials in 2011. Research was conducted looking at the hard numbers of voter turnout in the trials areas, and also the experience of voters in those trials. Internet voting did not have a significant impact on turnout. The vast majority of those who voted online would have voted anyway. Analysis of Estonia’s eight elections since 2005 where electronic voting has been available show that electronic voting has not attracted a new demographic to vote.

Interestingly, the experience of individual’s voting in Norway, particularly younger voters, was recorded in interviews. While younger people had no problem with internet voting, they felt it was important to walk to the polling station, that it represented a symbolic and ceremonial act that indicated maturity. The question that really concerned the young interviewees was why young people should vote, not how they will vote.

Norway eventually dropped its electronic voting in 2014, after similar results in trials in 2013. The Norwegian Government cited both a failure to improve turnout and security concerns as reasons - more on security later.

The distinction - why people vote not how people vote - is what makes all the difference. It should be remembered that Scotland’s independence referendum had the highest turnout of any UK election or referendum since universal suffrage was reached. That wasn’t because there was a new kind of method to vote, it was everything else: the significance of the vote, the closeness of the vote, and the nature of the debate having a relevance to people across Scotland.

Electronic Voting - unsolvable problems

Elections have to satisfy three conditions, they must be:


  • Secure: Your vote has to be secure, steps must be taken to make sure that it can’t be tampered with; but also
  • Anonymous: Your vote can’t be traced back to you, protecting you against coercion; but also
  • Verifiable: It has to be shown that one person cast this one vote, and didn’t cast another to be counted, but also continue to be secure and anonymous.

All voting systems should be subjected to this test, whether pencil and paper, electronic kiosk or online voting. Balancing these three conditions is an incredibly difficult task.

What makes it even more difficult is the additional requirement that the methods used to achieve these conditions need to be reasonably understandable to the population.

Open Rights Group’s research in this area has shown how difficult it is for electronic voting to achieve this.

In 2007, Open Rights Group were technical observers for electronic voting trials in England. E-voting systems in some constituencies were found to be running software known to be vulnerable, risking the security and anonymity of the vote. What’s more, votes were downloaded and counted by the suppliers of e-voting systems, without any candidate, agent or observer able to examine the process, undermining verifiability of the process.

In 2014 Open Rights Group participated in a peer-reviewed independent report on the security of e-voting in Estonia. The research discovered two fundamental vulnerabilities, targeting individual’s machines and the servers used to count the votes, that would allow for votes to be changed at scale potentially affecting the outcome of the election.

Some may argue that these points on the secure systems are moot, that the opportunities provided by blockchain and advanced cryptographic solutions have set all of that aside. But those arguments fail to take into account the other necessary condition for a vote: the process must be reasonably understandable for the public.

Democratic processes need to be understood by more than a handful of advanced cryptographic experts. It must be trusted by all of us, and most important of all it needs to be indisputable in an understandable way for the most sceptical of us. If a solution can’t do this, it leaves us in a very precarious position.

The key to democracy is not in the winning and taking power, it is in the counting, the losing and the acceptance of that result.

The only solution for securing electronic voting against the conditions of security, anonymity, and verifiability appears to be through using advanced security and cryptographic tools. But the problem with that is by using advanced security and cryptographic tools, most people can’t understand the process.

That lack of understanding can be exploited leading voters to distrust the outcome of an election. And there it is: the unsolvable problem with electronic voting.

Democracy is difficult. Relying purely on technology is not going to make it any easier or, as we’ve seen, more attractive to new generations. For the Scottish Government to run a consultation asking for the public’s views on electoral reform is welcome and a great way to leverage technology to support engagement. But it doesn’t replace the hard stuff.

Electronic voting isn’t a solution to the problems in the consultation. In fact, it is likely to bring more profound problems.

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