e-Voting in Scotland

In Scotland electronic voting may soon replace traditional paper ballots and polling stations as the Scottish Government plans to roll-out a pilot scheme to test this new digital approach to the electoral system.

In response to a letter organised by Webroots Democracy and co-signed by 30 leading academics and charity bosses, Minister for Parliamentary Business Joe Fitzpatrick MSP has reaffirmed the Scottish Government’s commitment to the trialling of an electronic voting system.

The government outlined its commitment to improving its online services as part of the Digital Strategy for Scotland, this trial is part of that mission statement.

The governmental consultation on the trial of electronic voting or e-voting closed on the March 29th. According to the Scottish Government website it had been considering two methods in which to cast electronic votes. The first is electronic voting machines and the other internet or mobile phone voting.

A spokeswoman from the Scottish Government told DIGIT: “The responses to the consultation on electoral reform are being analysed. Once this is complete we will consider the scope and timing of electronic voting trials and where and when these trials will take place.”

Innovating the Voting System

The way in which people vote has remained relatively unchanged over the past 100 years, mainly in local polling stations using paper ballots. However, increasingly people are embracing technology to perform their daily transactions such as internet banking, aircraft boarding passes, touch screen supermarket checkouts and online shopping.

In response, the Scottish government has decided the time has come to revamp the current system. While e-voting would be new to Scotland it is already implemented and routinely used in countries such as India, the USA, Canada, Australia, Belgium and Estonia. The Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, France and Norway have trialled it or are considering doing so.

The Benefits of E-Voting

E-voting has the potential to significantly reduce not only the cost of elections but also the required human labour, carbon emissions and waste. For example, e-voting would reduce the cost of printing and transporting 4.5 million paper ballots and would require fewer staff to support local government elections especially at counting centres.

In the 2017 elections, 2% of votes were reject and thus not counted, the government believes that e-voting could lead to fewer rejected ballots. Despite the positives the government conceded that to use this method it would require new software, rigorous testing and would be costly in terms of time, money and other resources.

Fitzpatrick in a letter to Webroots said: “We see the pilots as an opportunity to explore how electronic voting can increase voter participation, provide voters with choice and flexibility over how they vote and assist groups of people who might find voting in elections challenging.”

Benefits as listed by the Scottish Government:

  • Increase voter participation
  • Provide voters with choice and flexibility over how they vote
  • Support the rotation of candidates’ names on ballot papers
  • Reduce the number of rejected ballot papers
  • People with visual impairments can utilise voice-activated interfaces, making it potentially easier to vote than on paper.
  • People whose first or preferred language is not English could choose to have voting instructions presented electronically in another language, including British Sign Language.
  • Armed forces personnel stationed abroad might find this a more practical way to vote than by postal or proxy vote.

Chief Executive at WebRoots DemocracyAreeq Chowdhury told DIGIT: “We are pleased that the Scottish Government has decided to explore this reform. Online voting will, in future, form an inevitable part of our democracy and it is right that we begin to understand how best this should work at the earliest opportunity.”

“An online voting option, alongside the existing methods of voting, has the potential to dismantle barriers to an independent and secret ballot for many voters with disabilities and vision impairments, as well as citizens overseas. For young people, online voting presents a method of voting that can meet the expectations of the digital age.”

Rigorous System Testing is Needed

Professor of Computing at Edinburgh Napier UniversityBill Buchanan told DIGIT: “My greatest worry here is that the system that is implemented has not been properly reviewed, as any failure in it could cause a complete lack of trust in the system, and will hold back future developments.”

“This system would have to be open to everyone to review from a technical point-of-view, and to thus make sure it did not have any weaknesses that could be exploited. A closed system often has problems, and secret information can be leaked.”

“Overall, if we can address the security concerns, I really want things to go forward.  The process of gathering paper from a polling station and then carting it in a van to a counting station, and then getting humans to count the votes, just seems archaic, especially as there are so many cases where the end result has changed due to human counting errors. My greatest worry here is that the system that is implemented has not been properly reviewed, as any failure in its could cause a complete lack of trust in the system, and will hold back future developments. Along with this many of our existing electronic methods have serious security weaknesses, and cannot be properly trusted. A voting system which uses electronic mail and SMS messaging would often be too risky, unless it was fully reviewed and tested. Along with this a system which just identified the citizen purely with a username and a password would always be risky.”

“A step towards a credible system which, at least, captured the vote in an electronic way from a polling station and then for this to be sent to be back-end counting system would see a logical step forward. This system, though, would have to be open to everyone to review from a technical point-of-view, and to thus make sure it did not have any weaknesses that could be exploited. A closed system often has problems, and secret information can be leaked.”

“The future, though, is likely to be a fully integrated voting system and which are robust and secure. This system should preserve the privacy rights of the citizen and a full anonymization of the voting procedure, and where trust can be applied at every part of the process. This is likely to involve blockchain infrastructure and advanced cryptography and would have to be completed reviewed for its operation. This is especially important for the access methods for the polling device, and how citizens identified themselves. If Scotland were to move to a sovereign identity system, as we see in Estonia, then we can build a more trustworthy infrastructure for citizen engagement.”

“Overall voting in an election is only one part of this infrastructure, and we thus need to increase the engagement that our public sector has with citizens and communities. Finland and Estonia are role models just now in the way that the public sector infrastructure can be transformed in order to engage with citizens in a digital way.”

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