Democracy — Digitally and in real-time

If you’re in New Zealand right now you can’t help but notice that we’re in the middle of an election. Well, technically we’re well past the middle as the results have been announced but because of the complexity of the situation when no single party has enough votes to form government on their own it’s still not over. Elections are of course at the heart of democracy, the point when we the public get the chance to choose something. In fact, outside of a referendum which happens pretty infrequently, it’s the only chance we get to choose anything on a national scale.

This year I’ve been more involved than ever before because my wife (the wonderful Kim Young if you ever need the best HR manager ever — though I could be considered mildly biased here) has been the HR manager for our electorate here. To go with that I also worked on the Election Day, trying to count votes as far as my ten stubby little fingers would allow and then later manning phone lines to record the votes from other voting centres. The whole thing added up to a really interesting experience in seeing how the back-end of our most democratic process works. It was also extremely worrying for me as someone who really embraces technology and the digital era we’re living in. It actually should be worrying for everyone, not least of all the governments we end up electing through this manual, paper-ridden, human-error vulnerable system that our entire society seems built upon.

You’re almost certainly there ahead of me now in thinking we should go digital when it comes to voting. I’ve had some great philosophical discussions with Kim about this and the problems with the way this is conceived by public and politicians alike. One of the main concerns it seems is that a digital voting system is more open to abuse than the current system. Which is actually pretty funny when you stop and consider what we now trust online (and of course what we once wouldn’t). In New Zealand these days the preferred currency is PayWave. That’s when you use your credit card and hover over a device that instantly reads and authorises it. If not we use Eftpos (traditional credit card or debit card reading pin) or as a last resort cash. When was the last time you used a cheque? In fact many places don’t even accept cheques at all. The main reason for that is the same reason they were once considered the premium choice; they’re not very secure. It’s also far harder for a retailer to confirm a bank-note is genuine than it is for someone to scan their card or phone (or finger print or retina — for these are surely coming).

In a single word the reason for our paper-based obsession in voting is security. We’re so concerned over the potential security threat of the digital world that we’re able to accept an inefficient and vastly more risk-ridden paper based alternative. Funny thing is that the vast majority of us bank online, pay our bills online, have our taxes sorted online, shop online, even socialise and date online. We’re happy to trust the ‘cloud’ with all our person details, in fact it goes further, we rely on those same services to help us run our lives. The Inland Revenue Department (IRD) here is happy to sort out our taxes and do that all online. Banks trust these systems to move vast amounts of ‘money’. But the truth is we still don’t fully trust in it 100% and I think the reason is slightly ironic. For lots of people I think it’s a fear of the unknown, just how does this cloud thingy and computers combine to keep all this stuff safe and yet accessible. Then there’s a fear of the fact that there are geeky hackers out there that know enough to be able to alter things like our social media or our banks. But the biggest fear for lots of us is that there’s no human involvement to trust. That’s the irony, it’s the human part where most of the errors and corruption can be found.

Before we go deeper into the technology let’s have a little look at what happens in voting currently here (and from what I can tell in most democracies). There’s a big run up to elections where we’re sent various information according to an electoral roll. The electoral roll that is largely incorrect because people move and don’t tend to bother informing the electoral commission until they suddenly realise they haven’t received the bits and pieces they should have. So a couple of rounds of paper later (all at our taxes expense of course) we get to a roll that’s more accurate. It’s still a long way off right and I can say this with some confidence given the number of ‘special votes’ that I’ve seen from people not registered in their own electorates. So we ramp up towards the day. A great concept this year in NZ has been the advanced voting which basically opens the polls a couple of weeks before the Election Day. Although what that means logistically is having some of the polling centres open and manned for those two weeks. And the training! The sessions required to train everyone to do a job that’s only required for a couple of weeks every three years, not to mention the background checks, the interviews etc etc. So get to the voting itself. You walk in to vote to a centre and you either have an ‘easy vote card’. Which basically has your name and some details to make it easy for the person to give you your voting paper, or you give your name and they look you up on the big paper sheets. They ask you your address then they cross you off the list and give you your paper to go make your choice in a little booth. Brilliant. Nice and human in interaction and decision making. But completely insecure of course. If you know anyone’s name and address you can effectively go and vote for them. Surely there’s checks in place you say? There are kind of, but they only happen in retrospect. So if someone goes and impersonates you at the voting center you can still vote yourself, but afterwards at the count when they cross-reference they should find that ‘you’ have voted twice. Then the only thing that they can do with those votes is to discount them. So if someone chooses to vote for someone else illegally, the biggest risk is that the vote gets discounted. Unfortunately so does the legal vote. If the other person doesn’t bother voting themselves (another blog another time) then the imposter’s vote is the one that counts and no-one will ever know differently.

Have I mentioned the trees that are cut down to support this administrative nightmare? How about the number of people required to manually count, recount, check and double-check all of the counting? Let alone the people required to organise, manage and support this… in fact I’ve barely scratched the surface of how much goes into the work behind an election or the workforce that carries it out. How many people are available to work for a few weeks every few years? What do they do the rest of the time? You’ve largely got a workforce that’s inexperienced (at least not recently experienced given the nature and timing of elections), often at one end or the other of the employment spectrum (students and retired people are the most available) and working in a hugely manual system. It’s a recipe for disaster and I have to give great credit to the people who work in this system and work as well as they do. But we pay for it, both in terms of the money that goes into funding this beast, and in the time and accuracy of it all.

So the simple solution would be an online one of sorts. Yes it would need to be secure, but no more secure than our banks or our taxes surely? The fact is we’d all need to go through a secure system to get to the point where we simply log our vote. Cyber security has come a long way to get us there. Be that two-factor authentication or complex passwords or some digital encoder to be totally sure we could achieve this pretty easily. If they put me in charge (please don’t, I’m busy enough) I’d consider linking it to the IRD number that all residents have to have. Sure there’d be a few outliers and difficulties, but our IRD numbers are unique and our tax details confirm the basic details. We could piggy-back on the IRD online system or even through the banks for secure access (I’m guessing login with Facebook may be a step too far!), then vote in a couple of clicks (or swipes). Sorted. But what about those without a mobile device or computer? Okay that’s now a pretty low and increasingly decreasing number, but sure a valid point. We could still operate voting centres (though less of because most people wouldn’t need to walk in) and have terminals or better mobile devices available. The libraries already offer free internet access. We could implement a phone system where anyone could vote by calling and giving across number and passwords. Heck for the numbers involved we could send around people with mobile devices to their house to allow them to vote. Nursing homes, polytechnics and universities could utilise this type of service. The cost of this type of system would be a fraction of the manual paper-based system, but that’s not where the advantages end.

The count wouldn’t take hours, days and weeks (depending upon how close it actually is) and everyone’s vote would be counted. We’d know the second the polls close who had won. The day of the election would be the end. No need to worry about the collection of all the paper, the winding up of all the voting centres and the logistics of finishing the election. But wait, there’s more.

Real-time voting. What if we suddenly had access to a system where we could vote in real-time? Because of the digital world we could have this type of system so we could run a general election yes, but we wouldn’t be limited to running it once every three or four years once it was in place. Now I’m not suggesting that we want to run general elections more often (although we could of course), but we could hold referendums or start to move towards a more democratic democracy. What I mean is that essentially we could change away from a system of voting a government that makes all the decisions for three years, towards a system where the big decisions are put to vote. Or perhaps even a situation where we have neutral ‘government’ that gives us the opportunity to vote on the issues. Like Labour’s education policy but prefer National’s policy on immigration? Love the way the Green Party talks about the environment, but like NZ First approach to employment? Now I appreciate I’m oversimplifying the government of a nation to some extent and some political choices require pre-requisites for others — not to mention funding and taxes, but there’s surely a way to put some of those together with some algorithms that give us more choice beyond a generalist party vote? I may have gone too far! Perhaps just getting the voting online and accessible and instant is real-time enough, perhaps trusting the people with every major decision is more dangerous than leaving it to the politicians and checks we currently have in place. But the fact remains a digital election process throws open more opportunities for us to become a truly democratic society. Real-time voting, real-time democracy, the possibilities are exciting.

Am I wrong? Do people simply not trust digital systems with our government? Or is it time we move to a more efficient system that leverages technology? Real-time democracy is possibility, scary as that may seem.