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Casting a vote in favour of digitising the electoral process in the UK

At the start of the year a former head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, warned against the use of electronic voting systems, citing fears of international cyber-attacks. The recent accusations coming from the US government, claiming Russia interfered in November’s presidential election by hacking into the emails of Democrats, seem to add further weight to these concerns.

While critics of digitising the process claim casting a ballot with pencil and paper is more secure, online voting can indeed be made safe, providing there are robust security mechanisms in place as well as strong identification and authentication processes.

In reality there are more instances of fraud amongst paper votes than electronic ones and there is no evidence to suggest online voting is more susceptible to hacking.

Indeed numerous countries around the world, including Australia, Canada and Estonia, have successfully conducted polls via electronic voting, yet the UK has resisted a rollout until now. However, this may soon change with John Bercow’s Commission on Digital Democracy calling for secure online voting to be an option for all voters by the 2020 UK general election.

In a world where ever increasing parts of our lives can be managed online, from shopping, to banking, to dating, why should we not be able to cast a vote over the internet as well?

The right security mechanisms and processes are crucial

As technology connects more people than ever before, developing a secure online voting system for the UK should be a priority. And it can be done provided that the right systems and processes are in place.

A successful digital voting method may involve the voter using a trusted electronic ID such as a digital credential in a secure mobile phone app or even an eVoting card, with the system securely authenticating the user and the voter then confirming their choice with a digital signature. One great example of successful online voting is in Estonia where all of its citizens have been able to vote online since 2007. Through the use of secure authentication technologies we helped develop the iVoting app which Estonian citizens use. Through iVote technology, an anonymous envelope encrypts an individual’s vote. When the voter signs into the system to cast their vote, their personal data (or outer envelope) is added to the initial encrypted vote. To ensure a voter’s true will is reflected in their vote they can vote again electronically during advance polls (without duplicating a vote).

Crucially the encrypted vote and digital signature, (or anonymous and outer envelopes), are kept apart, meaning it would be difficult to identify a voter and link them with a particular choice, adding an extra layer of privacy. Moreover, the system can only open the votes for counting if they are not connected to personal data. In other words, electronic voting can make election tampering extremely difficult.

It’s also important to note that the electoral register database itself must be kept safe and protected from unauthorised access, using appropriate tools like data encryption and strong authentication.

Finally, identity re-validation is crucial. Currently, criminals and fraudsters have numerous aliases and bogus identities accepted as valid by the authorities. These might not even be detected by federated identity models, as the same bogus identity data may be held by various parties in a scheme. These fraudulent credentials can be transferred to digital forms, unless some form of re-validation is performed. Ideally, when granting access to any new service, like online voting, an individual should be issued with a new strong authentication digital credential rather than relying predominantly on a username/password.

A digital platform for the digital generation

In addition, there are numerous benefits to rolling out a digital platform. While travelling to a polling station and putting pencil to paper is a treasured institution in the UK, going back hundreds of years, for a new generation it seems incredibly outdated.

In the mobile age why should voting be confined to polling stations? Why should the elderly or disabled need to travel to cast a vote? In the 21st century shouldn’t they be able to vote from the comfort of their own homes? Electronic voting can reduce constraints of both time and geography on a citizen and the electoral process becomes more flexible and convenient for everyone.

There’s evidence to suggest electronic voting increases voter participation too. In the Estonian parliamentary elections of 2015 total participation increased to 64.2% from 61.9% in 2007. Plus, the percentage of iVoters increased from 5.5% in 2007 to 30.5% in 2015.

Electronic voting can also reduce the administrative burden and costs involved in counting and collecting votes, while increasing confidence in the electoral system. It helps to speed up the vote count and decrease the cost of paying staff to count. Voter registration, identification and authentication can be rendered quick and simple with an electronic voting system.

Scrutiny over election results is only likely to increase in light of recent events. Naturally there are challenges to overcome in order to digitise the electoral process but, with the right infrastructure in place, there is no reason why the UK can’t follow the lead of the likes of Estonia. In the 21st Century there’s no reason to be left behind.

Stephen Wright is region manager of eGovernment and digital security expert Gemalto