Online voting: manipulation or transparency?

Timur Kildigulov
October, 2018
The traditional system of voting has been polished and refined by years of practice. In case of state or municipal elections, voters arrive at the polling station, while in case of professional or other structures they attend board meetings for voting.

So what are the downsides of this system?

  1. In order to cast their votes, the constituents should be present "here and now". Documental verification of identity is required. In case of failure to present an ID document, the voter will not be allowed to take part in the election process.
  2. Thus, the requirement of physical presence places restrictions for entire categories of population. Elderly people are often unable to go to the polling station due to health conditions. Mothers with young children and people who work late hours do not find the time to attend polling stations before they are closed. Young people hate waiting in lines, as well as the procedures of verification, paper filling, etc., though the last mentioned category of people are keen on online surveys.
  3. Every citizen is registered at a certain polling station, so that voting from a different location is simply impossible. To be able to cast a vote one should obtain a special ballot, which should be then sent by mail. Such complicated procedures discourage people from participating in the elections even if they initially planned to. As a result, voter turnout rate is nowhere close to 100%. While in Australia turnout rates reach 95% (though a method of calculation indeed matters), in the U.S. it hovers around 50%. This eventually creates a situation when the opinions of a significant number of people are not reflected in the elections, thus compromising the objectivity thereof.
  4. Online voting is vulnerable both from the point of view of manipulations with vote count and election fraud. One can remember recent scandals around the elections in the U.S. when many people doubted the transparency of vote count or the active discussions of the press covering fake votes and constituent manipulations in developing countries. So what is the solution?
Technologies keep advancing and just like the fact that horses can hardly be considered as a means of public transport, morally and socially outdated system of offline voting will also eventually be supplemented or completely replaced by more forward-looking and transparent systems of online elections.

The first systems of digital elections appeared in the 1960s. Everything started with electronic methods of counting votes with the use of punched cards. Once they were introduced it became obvious that this method of counting votes proved to be safer and faster than the traditional system.

If we exclude "combined" methods, when the capabilities of digitalized systems are applied in traditional elections (for example, automated counting of votes with the help of optical scanning), we can point out 3 types of electronic elections:

  • Electronic voting systems (EVS), otherwise referred to as sensor devices for voting. Voting is thus performed without a paper medium, votes are accumulated on one electronic device, where they are automatically counted and calculated;
  • Interactive voting with the use of special equipment (fingertip control). These systems are intended for various kinds of shows, quizzes, etc.;
  • Online voting from any internet connected device (the most universal option, used both in elections and online surveys).

Electronic voting — obvious advantages

Unlike other decision making processes internet based electronic systems of voting feature a number of undeniable advantages.

  1. The growth of the voter turnout rate. In Estonia, where online voting is actively practiced, there's a significant growth in the rates of turnout in high-income voters and such with an academic background.
  2. The absence of paper hassle, associated with the verification of documents and filling ballots.
  3. Possibility to cover all categories of a population: anyone who has access to the internet can take part in the online voting.
  4. Minimization of the role of geographical factor: with access to the internet the voters can participate in the elections from any place on the earth. At that, there's no need to fill out absentee voter certificates or otherwise to report your intention of taking part in the voting in advance.
  5. Involving the youth. Young people are less interested in elections than other age groups. However, they are keen on using new technologies, and internet based ones specifically.
  6. Increased speed of counting votes.
  7. No need for manual data processing. This completely eliminates the human factor in the process of counting the votes.
  8. Cost cutting: In the case of electronic voting there's no need to equip the polling stations, hire employees and install devices for counting votes. The important thing is ensuring access to the system, through which online voting will be taking place.

What downsides are attributed to online voting systems?

Skeptics would understandably ask: "If it is indeed so perfect, efficient and cheap, why haven't all countries switched to online voting?" Most probably they will list the following reasons:

  1. Impossibility to control the process: No one can assure that the casted vote belongs to a person, who has been verified in the system. The problem is partially solved through integration with the state system of identification (e.g.the U.S. system of state services login.gov or BankID in Sweden).
  2. Hacker attacks. No single system, which uses servers for data storage with internet access cannot ensure protection from hacker activities: attacks and data spoofing. There's still a threat of DDOS attacks, which are quite common and easy hacker techniques.
  3. Technical failures. Though storing of data on remote servers is considered to be rather safe, this method of storing still does not ensure utmost safety from hacker attacks so that in case of poor system administration the data can be lost or damaged.
  4. Due to a system malfunction, it will be rather challenging to prove the fact of falsification or manipulations in counting votes, since the evidence is supposed to be obvious and physically verifiable - odd ballots, "dead" votes, etc. The server, on the contrary, stores only zeroes and ones, which can actually be changed by the organizers, while the entire process cannot be tracked.

These problems challenged the mass integration of online voting in important and sensitive industries.

So can they be eliminated? Absolutely! For that, a special thanks should be said to Satoshi Nakamoto and his bitcoin tokens, based on the blockchain technology or in scientific terms - replicated distributed databases.

Blockchain "unsencored"

The blockchain is actually a chain of blocks. In this specific case, the blocks are virtual, united in one huge computer network.

For simplicity, this technology can be presented in the form of a distributed database, where all information is stored on independent computers within a single network, rather than in a centralized way, i.e. on a single server. Anyone who has access to the network can see its content, but only those with special access are able to edit or add data in the blocks. While any new information that appears in the blockchain immediately becomes viewable for all users of the network and the version history is also publicly available.

Hackers must try really hard to attack such a system and to do that they will have to hack each computer on the network. Besides, the unauthorized access attempts are immediately tracked by the system and recorded to history.

Furthermore, all the entered data are cryptographically encrypted, which ultimately complicates the highly improbable possibility of hacking.

The blockchain system is built on a consensus system. In other words, it constantly checks itself for technical errors and failures. In case an error is detected in any of the blocks of the chain, millions of copies of previous transactions will help the system to fix them in a matter of seconds, without disturbing the entire process.

The absence of intermediaries is another advantage of the blockchain technology. Any participant of the chain can transfer to another one certain information, including confidential information, and have his/her mind at ease about data interception. This process is referred to as peer-to-peer solution and it ensures confidential workflow and assigning of proprietary rights.

How can blockchain be integrated with online voting?

At present online voting systems have not yet appeared in mass use especially on the state level, though there is a record of successful practice in many countries.

The U.S. has extensive practice with this format of voting, however, it is often criticized due to the absence of uniform standards for electronic voting on the territory of the country, as well as due to the risks of possible hacker attacks.

Switzerland has long ago successfully been using Internet voting in a number of cantons. This format of voting is highly relevant for Switzerland since the citizens take part in the elections 4 to 6 times a year.

Great Britain also doesn't steer clear of new information technologies. Integration of electronic voting in Great Britain was launched in 1997, with the first local elections based on online technologies held in 2000. Then again, online voting still has not been practiced on the high state level in Great Britain.

Meanwhile, the most interesting experience, for now, is the practice of Estonia. The country introduced online-voting on the state level and it works as follows:

Each citizen of Estonia, who is entitled to vote, receives a special ID card with a built-in chip - sort of a registration key. The voter can thus use it to log in from any computer or smartphone with internet access.

Voting takes place on a special voting website. After voting the person can immediately track the process of distribution of votes. What is especially important, one can always check the distribution of his/her vote, as well as the time of its registration.

Estonian system of online voting has been attracting criticism for possible vulnerable aspects, but Estonia found a solution - at the end of 2017, the government of Estonia announced the integration of blockchain technology into the voting system. This eliminated the risk of manipulating the results and increased the level of system protection.

Embracing the future

Totaling all the pluses, it should be said that the traditional system of offline voting is eventually being replaced by online voting based on blockchain technology. The new method has a number of advantages over the old one, including accessibility, speed of vote counting, elimination of geographical issues, associated with the physical presence and increased turnout rates in all categories of the population.

Voting applications based on the blockchain technology is in high demand with business structures and NGOs, which value speed, safety, and transparency in decision making. Blockchain-based voting has already been practiced on the inner-party level in Denmark, Australia and a number of states in America. In January 2018 American Stock Transfer & Trust Company, LLC (AST) declared about the launching of their service for online voting.

Quick and hassle-free voting, without the need of collecting everyone in one room or office, and immediate counting and announcement of results, that cannot be put in doubt for anyone: what else can the organizers dream about?

Polys.me allows holding online voting, based on the blockchain technology leaving out the time-consuming preparation stage, paperwork and manual counting of votes. Ultimately Polys does the responsible work for you so that you can actually focus on the election campaign. The procedure of online voting takes just a few minutes and does not require any special computer knowledge.

One can choose to wait until blockchain becomes widespread, but there's a better option: making a step forward into the future and taking advantage of all its competitive features.

Try out our free online voting system now!