User-friendly technologies make people more prone to the activities that come with electronic, internet or online prefixes. Whether it’s online purchasing, e-banking or gaming, you can almost do everything online nowadays. There is no end in sight to the debate on the impact of new technologies on peoples’ lives. Many of us are using online and e-opportunities – without necessarily being tech-geeks or software engineers – because it makes life easier from time to time. At the same time it is influencing the way we interact with each other. But what about internet voting during elections? You know, that one day every few months/years when we are all entitled to exercise our voting rights as citizens of democratic societies. I’d feel more comfortable with buying stuff online than with casting my vote through the internet.
I will discuss three points as to why using online solutions and tools for voting does not seem that appealing at all, and advocate the concept of traditional voting. However, I will not raise concerns over some important features of online voting, such as transparency, security and freedom to vote. Instead, I will try to shed some light on the major worries that are concentrated on the machines – more specifically on how they work and if we can possibly trust them.
In the absence of a clear-cut definition, by internet voting I mean the activity of casting a ballot on a website, using an internet connection on a personal computer or another personal device, whereby votes are stored on the central server that collects and counts them. Acknowledging that there are variations, a distinct feature of internet voting is the so-called uncontrolled environment. In other words, you can vote from wherever you are as long as you are connected to the broadband or another network. Voting online seems like an attractive alternative, but there are still a few things we need to consider.
1) Clicking your vote away
There are many causes that ask for your support through “clicks”. Without being necessarily bad per se, it seems that the more you click the less you care. It is a very easy solution that saves time and it does not require any effort. When there is an inflation of clicks, a single one seems rather invaluable. How many times did you support an initiative online because you were doing somebody else a favour? And forgot about it as soon as you turned to another one?
Instead, going out, making an actual effort and investing time is a different and proactive approach. Elections may not be the greatest cause of all, but going out to the polling station, sharing expectations with your peers on the way back home or even meeting candidates from the constituency in person shows motivation for making a change. In a world full of noise – and there is plenty of that online – a person is easily distracted from what’s really important. It is a more intrinsic engagement, and ownership of such an engagement, that is needed in order to battle low election turnout, youth absenteeism or general election fatigue. Let’s start by using this elementary but incredibly important aspect of political engagement – going out into the real world and queueing in line in front of the polling station. Elections don’t happen that often, so there really is no excuse for not going out to cast your voice.
2) Voting is not enough
Internet voting is walking on the path of multiple dependencies. In order to cast your vote you need the software for online authentication and submitting your vote, which involves technology and innovation. In order for the technology to work, you will need a safe and stabile connection, which means an appropriate network infrastructure to support it, as well as control systems in case of sudden breakdowns. In order to ensure that this infrastructure is accessible to eligible voters, regional development policy should be at a satisfactory level, at least. Also, education should satisfy the minimum requirements of computer literacy. Not to mention that this also includes intergenerational discrepancies. And so on…
Truth be told, this is an achievable goal for urban, administrative and business hubs. But if internet voting is that dependent on high development standards, it is still far behind traditional voting in terms of general sustainability. At least for now.
3) What do we actually get?
This is perhaps the mother of all questions. What would actually be the real benefits of turning to internet voting? It does provide an alternative. But an alternative does not speak for itself, especially if we do not know what impact we are seeking to achieve.
For example, let’s say that we want to improve the efficiency of vote counting, or to cut the costs of the existing procedure that employs many people and takes up a lot of material resources. Before the introduction of such a voting system, we should be able to demonstrate that 1) the existing system is either ineffective or financially unsustainable and 2) the advantages of a newly introduced online system can easily overcome these shortcomings. It is a tremendous task that would require multiple analyses within several election cycles, in changing political circumstances, with who knows how many emerging issues. And the results still might have been vague. But it is the price of a credible decision-making process and a matter of assessing in advance, or at least trying to asses, the effectiveness of policy changes.
However, the advantages of internet voting are not to be taken for granted. Absent and expatriate voters, or voters with disabilities are among the common beneficiaries of internet voting, and they are certainly not the only ones. Nevertheless, as long as the major target groups are specific categories of voters, internet voting is not the real alternative but rather an alternative with experimental value. There are certain countries that are implementing nationwide internet elections; maybe a better insight into these examples would point out additional advantages of internet voting we are currently not aware of.
In 2012 the International Foundation for Electoral Studies (IFES) published a paper on international experiences in e-voting, read it here.