Democratic Principles and Online Voting

In New Zealand, we have the right to vote. I want to unpack what this means, to demonstrate one of the biggest problems with Online Voting and how it’s marketed today: it ignores, and risks subverting, the democratic principles on which our elections are based.

To begin, what does the right to vote mean? Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:

“Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives… The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

We consent to being governed. We freely choose who will govern us by having regular elections. The vote is universal, which means every adult can take part. In fact, it’s considered important that there are no major hurdles to prevent anyone who is eligible to vote from voting. The vote is also equal in that everyone only gets one vote. And our vote is secret, which means that everybody has the right to keep who they voted for to themselves.

It’s worth noting that these principles are not a dream in New Zealand. They’re simply assumed. We already have a system that is, by world standards, universal, free, equal and secret. Our paper ballot has some problems, particularly with access for certain classes of voter, but we don’t have a North Korean voting situation here.

When we hear people talking about Online Voting, the only one of these principles talked about is universality. It is often hoped that Online Voting will improve turnout. Sometimes, the proposers of such systems even talk about how it will be designed to be easier for blind or deaf voters than the current system, an aspect I applaud. But what worries me is that secrecy is always considered a tradeoff.

Consider the report by the Online Voting Working Group, set up by the government to look into Online Voting for our Local Body Elections. After a discussion on various voting principles, it says:

“While well designed systems can be acceptably secure and easy to use, elements of ease of use and security sometimes counter each other. For example, higher security will mean more checkpoints or barriers before people can get into the system. It is also the case that maintaining the secrecy of the vote will impact on the verifiability and transparency of the system. All the principles matter. However, design and implementation choices will need to strike a balance that preserves the opportunities of online voting while adhering to the principles as much as possible.”

Emphasis mine. Notice how the principle of secrecy somehow became something to acceptably trade off, in order to “preserve the opportunities” of Online Voting?

And what are these opportunities? They’re in Part 1 of the same report under the heading “Rationale”, I will summarise them here:

  • The potential to enhance participation
  • The potential to increase the accessibility of voting
  • A tool of convenience for individuals who have already decided to vote
  • Could educate and engage citizens
  • Could improve the speed and accuracy of results
  • Potential to reduce voter errors

Only one of these holds any weight with me.

Enhancing participation — means raising turnout. Spoiler: No online voting system anywhere in the world has ever raised turnout, other than a “novelty blip” the first time it was used. There is no research on whether New Zealand would somehow buck the trend in this regard — if there is, it’s not cited in the Working Group’s report. In fact, it’s interesting to me that every time Online Voting is talked about, people say that it’s “hoped” that it will increase turnout, or that it “has the potential” to. The Working Group report is no different in this regard.

Besides, raising turnout is a red herring. We want everyone who wants to vote to cast one. Making them want to is something politicians should do. There is a lot of talk about the “missing million” in New Zealand — the million people who reliably don’t vote. They’re not all sitting at home saying “if only I could do it by internet I might”. They weren’t doing that in 2002, when most people barely knew what the internet was. So where are they? Statistics New Zealand keeps information on why people don’t vote. The main one? Disengagement.

A tool of convenience — does this sound like a good reason to risk the integrity of our elections to you?

People who want to vote generally can — and do — already. I don’t see why we should care about making it easier for them, especially given the tradeoffs.

Could educate and engage citizens — sure, it could. So could civics education. So could a website listing all the parties’ policies in an easily-comparable grid. So could lots of things that are less expensive than Online Voting.

Could improve the speed and accuracy of results — as noted in the report, this benefit will take years to realise, as any Online system would have to run in parallel with the existing system.

Potential to reduce voter errors — again, that hedging. “Potential”. What is the error rate among people likely to choose to vote online? We don’t know, nobody knows, but we are happy to throw money at this?

In fact, the only potential benefit I see being genuinely beneficial, is the one that truly honours democratic principles: increasing the accessibility of voting.

Some people want to vote, but are unable to. They may be blind, deaf, or incapable of getting to a polling booth. If we cannot modify the existing paper ballot system to accommodate them, then it might be appropriate to introduce some risk in order to accommodate them.

We can pre-emptively learn a lesson from Australia here. Victoria and Queensland both have online voting systems designed to increase accessibility. While they’re different in implementation, they both share an important principle: they’re only for voters with trouble with the paper ballot — mainly blind voters.

This has a critical advantage over a generalised Online Voting system: the attack value is greatly diminished. If an attacker managed to compromise either system, they could only manipulate a small subset of all votes, meaning it would be much less likely that the result of the election could be reliably decided by the attacker. This reduces the motivation to launch such an attack in the first place.

As such, I propose the following guideline when discussing Online Voting:

“Only consider adding in the risks and complications of Online Voting if the purpose is to enable the equal democratic participation of some subset of the population.”

From which follows a corollary: “Any proposed Online Voting system should only be available to those whose whose participation it is meant to enable”.

Beware of being sold Online Voting for any other reason. Discussions around Online Voting have to start with the question “how does this impact on our democratic right to vote?”. If we do not, we could easily undermine the principles underpinning our right.