Secondary menu

A Comparative Assessment of Electronic Voting


Part II: Benefits, Drawbacks and Risks Associated with Internet Voting

Benefits

Proponents of electronic voting, particularly Internet voting, make a number of arguments in favour of its implementation. These are related to technology, social issues and election administration. First, electronic voting has the potential to make the voting process easier and more accessible for electors. This is especially true for remote Internet voting and telephone voting given that ballots can be cast from any computer with an Internet connection or any working telephone. These latter methods substantially lower the cost of voting for many electors by creating many more access points from which they are able to vote. There is the potential to eliminate long line-ups at polling stations and better address accessibility issues for persons with disabilities, those suffering from illness, those serving in the military or living abroad, those away on personal travel, snowbirds and other groups of citizens such as single parents who may find it difficult to visit a traditional polling station. Additionally, remote methods of Internet voting, and in some cases kiosk Internet voting, afford electors the opportunity of being able to vote at any time, a feature that further enables electors' ability to cast a ballot.

With regard to special populations of electors, Internet (especially remote) and telephone voting may also be methods of engaging those voters who are considered the hardest to reach, particularly young people aged 18 to 30. These electors are most familiar with the technology, are the most frequent reported users and would likely benefit the most from the extension of remote types of electronic voting. Remote Internet and telephone voting seem to be especially useful ways of engaging young people away at university and who are not registered to vote in that particular constituency.

Second, Internet and telephone voting could allow greater secrecy for special populations of electors with disabilities (including visually or hearing impaired). By voting electronically and therefore unassisted, these electors are afforded a greater degree of anonymity when casting a ballot. Enabling secrecy for these groups enhances the equality of the vote.

Third, enhancing accessibility and creating more participatory opportunities for electors holds promise to positively impact voter turnout. Generally, the academic literature addressing electronic voting and turnout decline presents inconclusive results concerning whether the extension of on-line voting has a positive effect on electoral participation. In most cases where polling place voting machines that relied on the Internet for operation were used turnout did not increase. However, cases in which remote methods were implemented have produced mixed results. Though some areas, such as the UK, have not consistently noted increases, others, such as Estonia and Geneva as well as the Canadian municipalities, do report some instances of increased turnout. The length of time remote Internet voting options remain in place appears to be related to increases in both its use and in voter turnout.

Fourth, related to administration, Internet and telephone voting are claimed to produce faster and more accurate election results. Internet and telephone voting systems are said to deliver a faster official ballot tabulation process and are alleged to be more accurate than other types of machine counting (such as punching cards) which are sometimes criticized for error.

Fifth, over the long term all types of Internet voting have the potential to be less expensive to operate and execute than traditional paper ballots which require setting up and staffing polls. However, the start-up costs for machines or kiosks can be very high.

Finally, all types of Internet voting and telephone voting have the potential to improve the overall quality of ballots cast by reducing or eliminating ballot errors and by creating better informed electors. There can be no ballot errors, and, depending on the system, no spoiled ballots because the computer will not permit it. However, if the legal structure in a jurisdiction requires the option to spoil a ballot or allows for protest votes, a button can be added in some programs to give electors the option to cast a protest vote (or decline to vote). Furthermore, depending on the architecture of the Internet voting system, there is the possibility for additional information to be displayed regarding candidates and their policy positions in conjunction with the on-line vote. This would provide voters with basic information about the candidates and party platforms, and therefore better informing them to vote.

Back to top

Drawbacks and Risks

Those opposed to, or skeptical of, electronic voting point to several drawbacks and perceived risks that are associated with types of Internet voting and telephone voting methods. The most prominently cited risk relates to security. Threats of computer viruses or hacker-orchestrated 'denial of service' attacks are most commonly mentioned as problems that could compromise an election and public confidence in electronic voting. This concern is most prevalent with regard to the security of personal computers. In light of this, the maintenance of ballot secrecy is presented as an issue when using computers that are unprotected, located in public places, or which may be susceptible to virus attacks. Other potential technical problems or issues include power outages or malfunctions in Internet connectivity as well as the possibility of servers shutting down or crashing. The reliable recording and storage of votes is also an important consideration.

Second, problems with access are raised. The material on remote Internet voting discusses the potential for a "digital divide", which can occur in two ways. There is a digital divide between those who have home computers with Internet connections and those who do not. Second, there may be a digital divide between those who have faster access and those who have slower connections and hence lower quality access. People with higher incomes are more likely to be able to afford access. Furthermore, access is often less expensive and of higher quality in urban areas. Those with lower incomes and who live in rural areas are at a disadvantage. Therefore, the extension of Internet voting has the potential to create divides with respect to many socio-economic variables, namely income, education, gender, geography and race and ethnicity. These potential divides could be problematic for participation and representation.

Third, it is said that remote Internet and telephone voting present greater opportunity for fraud and coercion or vote-buying. Fraud occurs when someone votes on another's behalf without their permission, whereas coercion or vote-buying takes place when a voter is pressured by others to vote in a way that he or she would not have otherwise. Both present problems for ballot integrity since it is important that every vote cast be tallied as the voter intended. There is additional opportunity for fraud in electronic voting systems if voter notification cards, which contain unique passwords required to cast a ballot, are intercepted. In the case of ballots not cast in person it is more challenging to verify a voter's identity. Remote voter authentication can be a problem since it may be difficult to confirm that the person voting is actually who he or she claims to be. While digital signatures and passwords can help, they are not foolproof and could potentially be shared.

Fourth, the issue of voter education is cited as a concern. A lot of time and money must be invested to ensure that the public is aware that electronic voting is an option and that voters are able to understand and use the on-line system to cast a ballot. Without correct marketing and advertising it will be difficult to engage electors.

Fifth, privatization is a concern when electoral administrators cede control to a hired firm. Contracting elections out to private companies to run the electronic operations has negative implications for some people, and hence has the potential to negatively impact public confidence and trust in government and elections.

Finally, perhaps the most significant social concern is the threat of disintegration of social capital or civic life. The proliferation of electronic election services has the power, some say, to alter the nature of electoral participation by causing more electors to vote alone instead of at a polling place with others. This threatens to erode civic life, local social networks and groups related to elections (see Putnam, 2000).

While this provides a general treatment of the major advantages and drawbacks to Internet and telephone voting, there are pros and cons which are unique to each particular electronic method. These are presented in Table 1. It also includes instances where these methods have been trialled or implemented.

Back to top

Public Attitudes

Implementation of electronic voting would not be possible without a culture of support from citizens. It is important that the public retain a strong sense of confidence and trust in the electoral process and be generally supportive of the notion of electronic voting. In the jurisdictions to be described in the next part of the report, where types of electronic voting have been successfully trialled, developed and maintained as a component part of the vote in elections there has been no widespread opposition to its use. Any public concerns about it seem to have been addressed at the time. Although there is no directly comparable data for Canadians' public attitudes over time since the wording in survey questions differs slightly from year to year in Canadian election studies, it is possible to gain an understanding of general public attitudes toward Internet voting and whether electors would use the service if it were an option. Both acceptance of Internet voting and reported levels of use are important considerations in developing a model or trial of Internet voting. To assess whether the Canadian public would be supportive of the introduction of alternative voting methods in elections at the federal level the report draws upon data from Elections Canada survey data from 2000 to 2008.2

Elections Canada survey data offers important insights regarding the Canadian publics' expressed likelihood to vote by Internet. Overall, the data shows that there is a moderate increase in the proportion of respondents who report being likely to make use of Internet voting over time. While in 2000, for example, 47 percent of respondents report being likely to vote on-line, in 2008, interest rose to 54 percent of respondents. We also see that respondents' reported likelihood to use on-line voting either increases over time or remains consistent for all age groups. In fact, aside from those electors over the age of 54, a majority of respondents in all age groups indicate that they would be likely to make use of on-line voting if the service were available.

Except in 2008, where the numbers are virtually identical, non-voters responding to election surveys are more inclined than voters to say that they would be more likely to vote on-line in the future. In fact, a greater proportion of respondents aged 18 to 34 reports being likely to make use of on-line voting than having voted.3 This suggests that some non-voting electors may be encouraged to participate through Internet voting. Overall, the figures suggest that the extension of Internet voting may be a useful way of appealing to younger electors as well as encouraging some non-voters to participate in the electoral process.4 It also highlights that older electors are less likely to make use of on-line voting.

Another important consideration with respect to public attitudes is the rationale provided by electors for not voting. If the extension of Internet voting is to encourage participation then it should address one or more of the reasons respondents cite for not casting a ballot. Elections Canada survey data reveals that among the general population in all survey years time constraints or accessibility issues are mentioned most commonly to account for respondents not voting. For example, three of the top four reasons respondents provided as rationales for not voting in 2008 include being too busy (16 percent), traveling or holidays (16 percent) and their work or school schedule (11 percent). In 2006 by comparison, 27 percent of respondents reported not voting because their work or school-related obligations prevented them from casting a ballot. In 2004, two of the top four reasons mentioned for not voting were being too busy with work (12 percent), or personal and family life (11 percent). Twenty-seven percent of respondents rationalized not voting in the federal election in 2000 by citing a lack of time or work obligations. In addition, reasons for not voting, such as illness, absence from the country or constituency, and missing registration information (including poll location), could potentially be remedied with an available remote Internet voting option.5

Back to top

Table 1: Benefits and Drawbacks of Various Electronic
and Remote Voting Methods
System Type Benefits Drawbacks and Risks Where Method Has Been Used6
Remote Internet voting
  • Convenience and accessibility for electors who have computers with Internet access at home, at work, or abroad; and for certain groups of electors (persons with disabilities, the military, single parents, electors who are traveling, etc.)
  • Flexible voting time for electors
  • Flagging of ballot errors
  • Replication of ballot images without voter information for counting or audit purposes
  • Lower cost than traditional methods
  • Potential to increase voter turnout
  • Potential to enhance electoral efficiency
  • Faster and more accurate election results
  • Elimination of long line-ups
  • Instant absentee ballot
  • Font size and screen language can be modified
  • Limited access to Internet or limited understanding on part of some electors
  • Possibility of stolen voter packages or identification cards
  • Misuse of elector's ID card and personal information voting by others without the knowledge of the elector
  • Difficulty verifying voter ID
  • Possible pressure on electors to vote a certain way if in the presence of others
  • Hacks or viruses attacking the system and altering election results
  • Technical difficulties, programming errors or server malfunctions
  • Inaccuracies on the voters' list, resulting in one elector receiving a card intended for another elector
  • Australia (for military and persons with disabilities only and the project has since been cancelled), Austria, Canada, Estonia, Netherlands, Switzerland, USA (for military only project was abandoned), UK (project also cancelled)
Kiosk Internet voting
  • Placement in convenient high-traffic locations (e.g. malls and supermarkets)
  • Flexible voting time for electors
  • Flagging of ballot errors
  • Replication of ballot images without voter information for counting or audit purposes
  • Potential to help address the voting needs of certain groups of electors (persons with disabilities, single parents, etc.)
  • Potential to enhance electoral efficiency
  • Faster and more accurate election results
  • Elimination of long line-ups
  • Lack of paper trail to allow auditing and recounts
  • In the case of a power outage, no alternate method is available
  • Expenses of machines
  • Software can sometimes be unreliable
  • Electors may leave the voting screen before ballot is officially cast
  • Hacks or viruses attacking the system and altering election results
  • Electors may be pressured to vote a certain way if in the presence of others
  • Technical difficulties, programming errors or server malfunctions
  • Machine updating and cost
  • Candidate representative's scrutineer function may be diminished
  • Inaccuracies on the voters' list could result in one elector receiving a card intended for another elector
  • France
Polling place
Internet voting
  • Eliminates mismarked or spoiled ballots and other invalid results
  • Programmable machines to dispense ballots for any riding
  • Removal of authentication questions so voter identification is most similar to the traditional process
  • Assistive devices to improve accessibility for electors with disabilities
  • Faster and accurate election results
  • Font size and screen language can be modified
  • Auditing and recounts can be questioned if there is no paper trail
  • In the case of a machine failure (i.e. power outage) no alternate method is available
  • Machines are expensive
  • Software can sometimes be unreliable (many of these machines have a negative reputation based on failure in USA trials)
  • Electors may leave the voting screens before their ballot has been officially cast
  • Little advantage for electors in terms of convenience
  • Machine updating could also be an issue and costly
  • Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, UK, USA
Precinct Internet voting
  • Elimination of mismarked or spoiled ballots and other invalid results
  • Programmable machines to dispense ballots for any riding
  • Removal of authentication questions so voter identification is most similar to the traditional process
  • Assistive devices to improve accessibility for electors with disabilities
  • Faster and accurate election results
  • Font size and screen language can be modified
  • Auditing and recounts can be questioned if there is no paper trail
  • In the case of a machine failure (i.e. power outage) no alternate method is available
  • Machines are expensive
  • Software can sometimes be unreliable
  • Electors may leave the voting screens before their ballot has been officially cast
  • Little advantage for electors in terms of convenience
  • Machine updating could also be an issue, and be costly
 
Telephone voting
  • Convenience and accessibility for electors who have telephones; and for certain groups of electors (persons with disabilities, military, single parents, electors who are traveling, etc.)
  • Flexible voting time for electors
  • Flagging of ballot errors
  • Familiar technology, especially for those familiar with telephone banking
  • No ballot printing
  • Fewer election staff and poll locations
  • Less costly
  • Potential increase in voter turnout
  • Enhance electoral efficiency
  • Eliminate long line-ups
  • Traditional recount not possible because no paper trail
  • Possibility of stolen voter packages or identification cards
  • Difficulty verifying voter ID
  • Must ensure candidate representative's function is written into the program (e.g. Halifax candidate module)
  • Electors may be pressured to vote a certain way if in the presence of others
  • Possibility of telephone lines overloading or phone service interruption
  • Inaccuracies on the voters' list could result in one elector receiving a card intended for another elector
  • Netherlands, UK

Back to top


2 This comprises data from four federal elections in 2000, 2004, 2006 and 2008.
3 For instance, whereas 63 percent of youth aged 18 to 24 reported voting in 2008, 70 percent said they would be likely to vote on-line if it were an option. Among those electors aged 25 to 34, self-reported voter turnout was 62 percent, while 67 percent report being likely to make use of Internet voting.
4 However, since voter turnout is often over-reported in election surveys there is also the chance that likelihood of making use of on-line voting is being over-reported as well. Voting is typically over-reported for reasons relating to social desirability.
5 See Table 4, page 312 in Lawrence LeDuc and Jon H. Pammett, "Voter Turnout in 2006: More than Just the Weather", in Jon H. Pammett and Christopher Dornan, eds., The Canadian Federal Election of 2006 (Toronto: Dundurn, 2006).
6 Country information taken from www.tiresias.org.