Remoting Voting?

Have discovered, at short notice, that I need to be in Germany on the 5th May, which means I won’t be able to vote in the AV referendum: the first vote for quite some time that I do actually care about.

I could have opted to vote by post or by proxy, but only if I knew well in advance that I would be away. There’s nothing I can do now. So my question is this:

Why can’t I vote online?

Other countries manage it, and in general I think the UK does a good job of online governmental services. I can submit my tax return, fill in the census, complete a VAT return, pay the TV licence and buy my car road tax from the comfort of my web browser. The government web services are reliable, easy to use, and do their job well.

So why not voting?

There are challenges, yes, in making a secure system, but if memory serves, the process of voting in person simply involves walking into the polling station and saying that you’re me and you live at my house. So we can’t claim to be as concerned about security in our democratic processes as we are in, say, getting a mobile phone contract, though I imagine casting someone else’s vote is probably a criminal offence.

Still, anyone keen enough to register my vote for the YES campaign that they’d like to pop into my polling station and be me for a day?

Think of it as an alternative voting system.


This would be why I now have a permanent postal vote. Nonetheless, it’s not a perfect solution, as it means I have to make my mind up in advance…

The Electoral Reform Society published a substantial report on e-voting in 2002, and there were formal trials of various methods in the Local Government elections of May 2003. These trials were widely criticised as exposing flaws in the approaches and the government put all further attempts at e-voting on ice. Maybe the technologies have moved on a little since then (personally I doubt they have moved on enough). Certainly the Electoral Reform Society still seems to think that e-voting’s time isn’t yet here.

Sure, it’s easy enough for me to impersonate you and wander in to your polling station on the day. Especially now you’ve said you’ll be away and I needn’t fear you getting to the polls before me, so that the polling station staff won’t have already checked off the name and get all suspicious at the second chap of the day wandering in claiming to be Quentin Stafford-Fraser. But this doesn’t scale.

To do in-person voting fraud is very time-consuming. It’s going to take me at least five minutes per impersonation: I have to give the fake name and address, get the voting slip, go to the booth, and pop it back in the box – and then I have to get to the next polling station. I could try disguises, but good ones take time to put on. If polling is open from 7am to 10pm and I take no breaks and plan an efficient route and identities in advance, I’m not going to manage to cast more than 180 fraudulent votes on the day. Which is hardly ever enough to make a difference, except in small local elections where there will be fewer than 180 polling stations anyway. The uttermost limit on what I can do as a single person is the number of polling stations in the country, which is of the order of 50,000: not enough votes in the national picture to register at all. It’s also risky – I’m in immediate trouble if any of my targets have already voted.

If I can do it all by post in advance, it’s a lot easier: I can apply for and send in many more. The minimum time per fraudulent vote is smaller, and I can spend more time on the effort than the mere 15 hours the polls are open, since I can spread it over the entire period that postal votes are available. I can cast more than one fraudulent vote per polling station, too. The risk is lower, since I don’t have to be physically present.

If I can do it electronically, all bets are off. So long as I can hack the system (admittedly not a given, especially given my personal skill level), I can basically write whatever result I like. And even a small loophole that falls short of full vulnerability – say a parallel of the in-person issue – is open to automated exploitation. I don’t even have to be in the same country.

The security track record of actually-existing electronic voting in elections (as opposed to within a smaller, defined group) is also pretty rubbish, as documented by Bruce Schneier, Ed Felton, etc.

There’s also fundamental problems which are also posed by the widespread availability of postal ballots, and are even worse with online voting. For one, it breaks ballot secrecy. With in-person voting, nobody can see how I voted. Polling station staff are generally relaxed about letting children in to the polling booth with their parent, but not about anyone else, and even less at you flashing your vote around between the booth and the box. With postal or online voting, I can pay – or intimidate – people to vote the way I want them to and ensure compliance. I could, of course, bribe or threaten someone to vote for my favoured candidate, but with secret ballots they can take the cash/evade the cosh but vote the way they want anyway. This isn’t a theoretical problem – it emerged as a serious issue at the general election before last and stutters on.

For the avoidance of doubt, I do not plan to and have never carried out voting fraud at any level or scale. My worst abuse of democratic processes was running a ‘custard vote’ as a schoolchild, where you paid 5p per vote (to charity) for the teacher you wanted to see have a bucket of custard tipped over their head. I quickly realised on the day that the teachers had more cash than the kids, and more at stake, and so ruthlessly fed misinformation to them on voting patterns periodically, to solicit extra money. And then awarded buckets to the first, second and third placed candidates – who’d been spending liberally on each other all day – on the grounds that voting had been so brisk. (They were very good sports about it.)

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