Auckland Council is investigating online voting

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Auckland Council wishes to conduct a trial of online voting at next year’s local government elections and the local boards are being asked to comment.

People that know me will be aware that I am a somewhat self confessed technophile. I have owned a computer for 30 years now and my MacBook Pro is rarely not by my side.

But I must admit having misgivings about the proposal to test run electronic voting and wonder if this will be too soon.

The report that the Waitakere Ranges Local Board is to consider this week says this:

The internet has become an integral part of everyday life. Many of the transactions that used to be carried out by post have long been replaced by online options, to the extent that people expect online facilities for their day-to-day activities. Online voting is therefore a natural progression and constitutes an opportunity to modernise the operation of local democracy in New Zealand.

The current postal voting method relies entirely on New Zealand Post providing an effective and reliable service. It is a reality that the postal service is declining. Fewer New Zealanders choose to communicate via post, particularly first time and younger voters, many of whom have never posted a letter. The frequency of delivery is decreasing and the cost of sending mail is surging. The postal cost for the 2019 Auckland local elections will increase by an estimated 77 per cent compared with 2016, because of a postage price increase of almost 60 per cent and an increase in the number of electors of approximately 70,000.

It will become increasingly difficult to deliver postal voting effectively and affordably. Therefore, it is crucial to have a viable alternative to postal voting in place, and online voting is the obvious choice.

While complaints about the mail system are appropriate this should not of itself be a reason to change systems.  And there is a cost in making democracy function properly.  If you want an example of a local election with problems the recent election for the Auckland Consumer Energy Trust is a prime example with turnout less than 13%.  It did not help that the independent electoral officer was banned from promoting the election.

After the recent US elections and the multitude of complaints arising from the conduct of different elections particularly in Texas, Georgia and Florida I believe that some caution is warranted.

The complaints from those elections are numerous, voting machines that preferred Cruz to Beto even though voters had selected the all Democrat option, voting machines locked away, voters purged from voting lists because of slightly mismatched signatures, one candidate for Governor also being the chief electoral officer, and voting resources favouring wealthy over poor areas.

And the Internet does not have a good reputation when it comes to the enforcement of democratic norms, as shown by the various complaints over Facebook, the spread of fake news and possible Russian interference in the US election show. It has even been shown that there is a sustainable business model involving the spread of fake news, and it seems the faker the news the more profitable the spread.

I appreciate that many of these examples are not relevant for the proposed electronic voting model but they can show what happens when things get skewered.

Stanford Computer Professor David Dill has provided these reasons for not trusting computers with online voting:

  • There’s no way with any reasonable amount of resources that you can guarantee that the software and hardware are bug-free and that they haven’t been maliciously attacked.
  • There exists the opportunity for phishing emails being answered for the unwary and for those credentials to then be used to vote in a way contrary to the intent of the voter. Although given the size and scale of local elections the prospects would appear to be remote there is still the possibility that this could occur.
  • The benefit of a paper based voting system is that there is a fully reviewable chain of evidence that can be checked to make sure that the intent of the electorate has been properly ascertained.
  • The perception of election trustworthiness is important. A result needs to be generally accepted as being accurate and credible.  And breach of security around internet voting could irretrievably taint an election result.

And he said this about the use of paper ballots:

Paper has some fundamental properties as a technology that make it the right thing to use for voting. You have more-or-less indelible marks on the thing. You have physical objects you can control. And everyone understands it. If you’re in a polling place and somebody disappears with a ballot box into a locked room and emerges with a smirk, maybe you know that there is a problem. We’ve had a long time to work out the procedures with paper ballots and need to think twice before we try to throw a new technology at the problem. People take paper ballots for granted and don’t understand how carefully thought through they are.

Auckland Council’s proposal is for there to be a variety of voting techniques and I agree this is important.  Having digital to the exclusion of others would discriminate against those for who the internet is a somewhat foreign place, including the elderly and the poor.

The report itself says this about security:

No information technology (IT) or voting system is 100 per cent secure, but the Online Voting Working Party is committed to developing an online voting solution that will guarantee a similar or higher level of security than currently offered by postal voting.

I am not sure this will be enough.  Reputation wise any breach of an electronic system could be disastrous.

I am interested in feedback on this issue.  Hit me with your thoughts.

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Comments

  1. Dave Lane (@lightweight@mastodon.nzoss.nz) says:

    Your skepticism is well warranted. Online voting is a horrible idea – speaking as a career software developer with an interest in digital security and privacy, I know the technology – and the human factors (people’s ability to manage and secure their own technology) – ensures that this will be a disaster. What’s more, the NZ gov’t (national and local) has an abysmal track record with any kind of software project (whether in-house or outsourced), and I would have zero confidence in them being able to build even a credible system, never mind best-of-breed.

  2. Helga Arlington says:

    Greg, the paper-based system is also insecure- which people seem to ignore. I have voted for my absent children- at their direction, of course – and any walk around the suburbs will have shown you many wet voting papers no one is intending to use.

    There are many countries we are never hearing from I’m sure – Scandinavia ? – where electronic voting happens straightforwardly and everyone is happy? The need for an electronic system is so obvious and we all know democracy is in a mess in the US – why look there?

    1. Dave Lane (@lightweight@mastodon.nzoss.nz) says:

      Helga, I’m afraid you’re quite mistaken. There are countries who, despite their IT security communities urging them not to (you’re thinking of Estonia, by the way), persist with online voting. They are unable to verify the validity of their elections. Their entire democratic institutions are having their trust undermined (read about the Russian pressures on the Estonian gov’t – only a naive bumpkin would think that their elections haven’t been affected – plus, Estonia’s having plenty of other tech problems, like this: https://www.engadget.com/2017/11/04/estonia-freezes-resident-id-cards-security-flaw/). Sadly, politicians are making the decision there – and here in NZ – based on faith-based arguments, and listening primarily to non-experts with a “gut feel” that it’s the right thing to do (but zero actual knowledge about what’s involved) and people (i.e. lobbyists) who have *online voting systems to sell*. That is not the way to make this work. Most of the voting policy makers don’t even properly understand the existing voting process – they think (wrongly) that people doing online banking somehow means that online voting is both viable and inevitable.

      If you want to understand why online voting is such a horrible idea, simply watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abQCqIbBBeM or read this: https://medium.com/s/story/i-am-a-computer-scientist-and-i-am-here-to-tell-you-to-never-trust-a-computer-with-anything-5a506c470d64

      1. Gareth says:

        On Estonia, there’s a relevant website https://estoniaevoting.org/ which was created by University of Michigan researchers who basically concluded “For the love of God no! Stop voting online Estonia!”

        1. Greg Presland says:

          Thanks Gareth. Very interesting …

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