By Nell Mackenzie | Metro
General elections are expensive to run, often alienate young voters and haven’t changed much in method since 1950. Why can’t technology help elections more and why are we still using pencils and paper to vote in the age of the smartphone?
Around 40 years ago, long before he was a councillor for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, Peter Golds was travelling in America.
An aspiring politician, even then, he answered an ad in the New York Times to work as a poll monitor.
Golds was bussed out to an elementary school in Bergen, New Jersey, a town 40 minutes outside of Manhattan but still with a view of its skyline.
The 1980 election was impressive, he says. Local New Jersey politicians came out in force.
Registered voters poured into the school all day, showed their government-issued identification and chose their candidates on electronic screens which tallied votes automatically.
At 8pm sharp, the polls shut. Five minutes later, Golds called the national election service with the results. An official gave him five dollars, the payment for his oversight.
Ronald Regan won the presidential race by 60% and electronic voting was the way forward, he thought at the time.
Today, not so much.
That is because, in 2014, massive election fraud occurred in his borough, Tower Hamlets.
After the election, 164 allegations of electoral fraud and malpractice were alleged and the election was declared void.
Though no one was charged, Golds says his fellow councillors and the police were able to identify that one of the people submitting multiple votes was left-handed.
‘The police should have done something, all they did was shuffle the paper,’ says Golds.
Deep indentations on the upper right side rather than the left revealed how the man marked his crosses.
Had voting been electronic, Golds believes the evidence of voter fraud would have never surfaced.
‘Sure electronic is clean and quick, but paper creates a paper trail,’ he says.
Polls in the United Kingdom will open on 12 December for the second time in two years and voters have three ways to cast a ballot: in person, by post or by proxy.
All with physical documents being exchanged and none with much help from electronic devices.
Proxy voters have someone vote in their place because of military service, work travels or a medical condition but they must attend in person and put the cross in the box.
But some experts from countries with electronic voting say paper is best and warn the UK should stick to its roots.
‘Recently in South Carolina, we saw votes counted incorrectly or not at all,’ Duncan Buell a computer science professor at the University of South Carolina in the US, tells Metro.co.uk
‘We deserve better, the world deserves better and voters deserve better.’
Britain has run on the same voting system since 1950 (and the mechanics of elections have lasted much longer). And, it costs a lot of money to count votes that way.
In the 2015 general election, 3.5 million votes were cast in London and each one carried an average cost of £3.63. The last general election, in 2017, the bill for the UK totalled £140.9m.
This biggest expense of voting in the UK is its returning officers, the heads of councils who organise the vote in their area.
In 2017, with expenses added in, these public officials received a total of £98m.
Another debilitating cost of paper voting is the postal count. In 2017, this cost the UK government £42.5m.
So why do we not have electronic or online voting in this country?
Several others do: Brazil, the Philippines, India, Estonia, and the United States.
Online voting has been suggested as a solution to the high price tag associated with paper.
In Estonia, which Professor Duncan Buell characterises as the most computerised country in the world, 43.5% of residents cast ballots online.
There, the cost of voting has been cut by half.
Estonians log into their electoral system using a government ID card. Once a ballot is cast, the user’s identity is removed and cannot be traced back to them.
Buell says Estonia has part of what is needed for online voting worked out: government ID cards have updatable chips embedded in them so, whoever is casting the vote is probably the person they should be.
But the dilemma comes in how the vote is cast.
‘You have no idea what kind of malware could be living on someone’s desktop,’ Buell says.
Another potential hazard is phishing websites. In the past, hackers have captured the front page of a site and created a false landing page
It removes the certainty that the voting system people are using is real.
‘Estonia has a population of 1.3 million people and no nukes,’ says Buell suggesting if there were to be the testing ground for online voting, perhaps Estonia is a safe candidate.
Electronic voting, where residents travel to polling stations and pick their politicians on a screen that tallies everything, also costs a lot less than paper voting.
About the same amount of people live in the UK as the two US states of California and Texas combined.
Compared to the UK, the US government pays around a third as much.
But experts say that electronic voting carries security concerns, as well.
‘Our democracy is not a user testing exercise,’ says Pascal Crowe, data and democracy project officer at the Open Rights Group, a data privacy group.
Crowe says that electronic elections put voting into a black box.
While better systems might be developed, voting online or electronically with what technology is available today would damage transparency and threaten the security of voting, he says.
‘There is no evidence that it increases turnout,’ Crowe tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Arguing that young people will be more likely to vote if you make voting like a computer game is absurd.’
And troubles with electronic voting machines have been well documented.
A cyber-security researcher from Symantec bought a voting machine on eBay for $100 (£78) in a Wired article in 2018.
The hard drive, complete with voter details, had not been wiped.
Within hours, he says, he was able to hack the machine, change the candidates’ names to anything he wanted, and print out a rigged election result.
Several countries have experimented with electronic voting and decided against it.
Germany’s supreme court ruled after its 2005 elections that electronic voting was unconstitutional because there was not a way for the voter to trace their ballot.
Ireland ditched electronic voting in 2002, citing security concerns. In 2017, the Netherlands opted for paper over hacking worries.
Alleged voter fraud on a country level occurred in the 2019 Congo election after data leaked to the FT revealed results from electronic machines were different from those announced by the country’s electoral commission.
Smartmatic, the electronic voting system created in Venezuela, stopped selling to the country after allegations of massive voter fraud in 2018.
The company told Metro.co.uk, that when the government ‘falsified the results of the Constituent National Assembly Election, Smartmatic was one of the first to publicly denounce the actions of the government’.
But the machines are still used there, say Buell and Crowe.
Buell says that the data produced by electronic voting machines analysed from most recent local elections in South Carolina, ‘is a mess’.
South Carolina is one of the few states that publish the raw data from electronic voting machine results and Buell has spent the last decade analysing it.
Sometimes votes from pre-election tests are counted alongside actual votes.
‘In 10 years, we’re still making the same mistakes,’ says Buell who laments there are still double-counted votes and software bugs that he continues to find.
‘Electronic voting is complicated and opaque and you can verify what you’re going to get,’ says Buell.
Steve Schneider, a cybersecurity professor at the University of Surrey, has dedicated the last 15 years to trying to figure out a safe way for people in Britain to vote online.
To protect the identity of the voter and the information contained on the ballot requires some very complex encryption, he says.
Schnieder’s ultimate online vote would look like this:
A ballot would be cast, its information would be then covered in secret code, it would be delivered to a national election authority without any voter identity revealed and then, most importantly he says, the voter would be able to verify their ballot had been counted.
The experience of voting should work like online banking, he says.
There are receipts, a statement and the transaction has an audit trail.
But what makes online voting tricky, he says, is that simultaneously it needs to be cloaked but then verifiable if someone needs to check that no one has tampered with the ballot.
‘With the Estonian vote, they do have a voter authentication system down but there needs to be a way to check the tallying has been done correctly,’ says Schneider.
He says a back door that might allow a hacker to change the vote ‘can open at any stage’ in this process and there needs to be 100% confidence this can be avoided.
Phones are still open to cyber-attacks, says Schneider, another major hurdle.