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10 reasons online voting is a crap idea

This week the Digital Democracy Commission, established by House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, made the case for allowing electors to vote online at the 2020 general election.

Here's 10 reasons why online voting is a crap idea.

Experts say the technology for safe online voting does not exist

The UK Computing Research Committee (UKCRC) reckons so. “Currently, our view is that we do not yet have the technology to achieve fully usable and sufficiently secure electronic voting systems… we recommend that with current technology, online voting should not be used for statutory political elections at this time”.

As the technology doesn’t exist, our elections would be open to manipulation by, well, anyone

Most personal computers and smartphones are wide open to compromise by malicious software, with around 5% of PCs being infected with malware at any one time. So says the Foundation for Information Policy Research. “Once machines are compromised, their owners have little control over what their devices are doing on their behalf. Bulk access to compromised machines is bought and sold on the black market by spammers, bank fraud gangs and other wrongdoers (including nation state actors) who could easily use such capabilities to change the outcome of a close-fought UK election (or referendum) by producing a swing of a few per cent in key marginal constituencies.”

There would be no proof of outside influence

A 2007 paper by the Open Rights Group flagged this up. “Manipulating bits in a computer is much easier than copying paper ballots, so there is potential for undetectable vote manipulation on a scale never seen before: a hacker could hide a tiny piece of code in the voting software that could invisibly, but significantly, modify an election’s results. But putting aside undetectable hackers, vote stealing and other manipulations, we must also remember that these systems are built by ordinary, fallible people.”

Comparisons with online banking and other sensitive transactions are false

If someone hacks your personal online bank account, the banks will work on your behalf to prevent further fraud and ensure you get your money back. If your vote is hacked in an election, you don’t get your vote back – once the Returning Officer announces the result, that’s it.

Online voting would leave voters “wide open” to intimidation and coercion…

The biggest danger in this case would be pressure from family members, or others in the household, for someone to vote a particular way. Many of the same concerns surround our current system of postal voting on demand, which Richard Mawrey QC (who has acted as Election Commissioner in the High Court on a number of electoral fraud trials) argues is a gaping hole in our electoral system. Online voting would therefore provide a digitally-driven increase in fraud.

… not to mention bribery

“Voting from a private device in an unsupervised environment potentially enables vote buying and selling and coercion of voters, and provides no guarantee that the vote is provided by the claimed voter" argues the UKCRC. With the security of a secret ballot removed, people wanting to buy votes can do so and be sure they get their money’s worth. Widespread e-voting will therefore encourage people to attempt bribery.

It will undermine faith in democracy (especially when unexpected results occur)

Call it old-fashioned if you want, but perception is reality; most people have more faith in bundles of ballot papers counted by human beings sitting on tables in front of election observers. They will have far less faith in a digital system that an ordinary member of the public cannot see, let alone challenge.

There’s no evidence it would improve turnout

While it’s true that there’s been little research into this issue, the studies that have been done in Norway and in the UK have not shown that online voting improves turnout. The Open Rights Group highlight that the outcome in Norway was that “Internet voting is mostly used as a tool of convenience for individuals who have already decided to vote”, while in the UK turnout actually declined in a 2003 pilot.

Online voting is one data breach away from an expensive disaster

Investment in the systems and secure software needed to run free and fair elections would not be cheap. At all. In Norway, the final nail in the coffin for online voting came in 2013 when a coding error resulted in the potential loss of vote privacy for approximately 29,000 voters (see Open Rights Group paper). Such a breach in the UK would undoubtedly result in intense political pressure to abandon online voting and return to traditional methods.

Online voting would be a triumph of ignorance over expertise

The really frustrating thing about Speaker Bercow’s Commission concluding that we should embrace online voting by the 2020 election is that ALL OF THE ABOVE was presented as evidence to that very Commission. Here’s how Ian Brown (Professor of Information Security and Privacy, Oxford) and Ross Anderson (Professor of Security Engineering, Cambridge) concluded their evidence to the Commission:

It is ignorance that leads people to suppose that e-voting is risk-free and desirable; and it is technical experts such as us (and our colleagues whose carefully-argued papers we have cited) who are cautioning against embracing e-voting for the foreseeable future.

Anyone who reads that from a bunch of security experts and still thinks online voting is a good idea needs their head checking.


Three areas UKIP’s growing pains may hurt the most during the election

Watching the rapid growth of UKIP over the last two years has been fascinating.

Electoral gains have been followed by attempts at “professionalising” parts of the party’s operations, which have helped fuel further advances; rising membership, new councillors and even its first elected Members of Parliament.

Expansion at such breakneck speed has its drawbacks. The growing pains the party is now experiencing will only be exacerbated by the general election campaign. How it copes will undoubtedly be of huge interest to politicos – but the big question is how it may affect perceptions among voters. Here are three areas UKIP’s growing pains may hurt the most during the election.

1. Party organisation

Evidence of these aches and pains have been on show this week regarding its manifesto. In January last year, party leader Nigel Farage declared their 2010 manifesto was “drivel”, “junk” and “500 pages too long”. This time around, things don’t seem to be going much smoother. Tim Aker has been dropped from his role as policy chief for failing to finish the 2015 manifesto on time. One main reason for this must be Mr Aker’s other commitments; he was elected as an MEP last year and is also the parliamentary candidate in Thurrock, a top target for UKIP. It’s a danger for any small party with big aspirations; its core group end up being stretched further and further. In fact, Aker’s replacement is another parliamentary candidate, Suzanne Evans. The election campaign will place even greater demands on their top team – a number of whom have dual roles – each playing a part that is vital to smooth operations and election performance. Mark Wallace has an in-depth look at them on ConHome.

2. Consistent messaging to attract new voters

I’ve blogged recently about why we can expect repetitive messaging from parties during the campaign. The press hate this and as a result will, more than ever, look for stories about inconsistencies between senior figures in the same party. There was never really a danger of this before because UKIP only had one senior figure, Nigel Farage. Now, by-election winners Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless have joined Comms-chief-turned-MEP Patrick O’Flynn in providing UKIP with capable spokesmen for journos to go to. Carswell in particular seems a good bet – he’s already gone “off message” with an interview in the Mail on Sunday which has been picked up on as unhelpful to Farage by Guido  and Nick Wood. UKIP will downplay the differences but Carswell seems determined to go his own way. In December Farage defended the use of the word “chinky” to describe Chinese people. The following week Carswell wrote an article for the Mail saying, “Far from being a party that tolerates pejorative comments about people’s heritage and background, Ukip has to show that we have serious internationalist agenda”.

Let’s be clear – UKIP’s core supporters will not give a toss if Carswell says something different to Farage or vice versa. But if UKIP want to be more than a protest party and want to win parliamentary seats in May, they need to appeal to a wider range of voters. For this, being seen as a credible party is crucial. Disagreements about policy, or the outlook and direction of the party, will harm this.

3. Targeting most winnable seats

With the rise in the party’s fortunes has come a rise in expectations. The by-election victories were of huge significance, dominating the news agenda for weeks and weeks. Securing its first elected MPs, while a real breakthrough, nonetheless means failure to hold onto these seats would be a massive blow. So too if they come up short in South Thanet (for Farage) and don’t manage to capture any of their other 11 target seats. Vital to winning any of their target seats will be, well, targeting.

The other three main parties plough vast proportions of their resources into a carefully chosen number of seats, leaving others to run relatively token campaigns in less winnable constituencies. UKIP’s transition from a protest party shouting from the sidelines to being serious players at the table will depend on their ability to control election efforts from the centre: marshalling manpower and money to where it has the greatest chance of yielding results. At the moment it appears the party is failing this challenge. By seeking to put up candidates against even Eurosceptic Conservative MPs (81 defied the whip in October 2011 to vote in favour of an EU referendum), UKIP will be spending £40,500 on deposits it will only get back after 7 May. Even a basic campaign in such seats will cost in the region of £3,000 per constituency, so that’s £283,500 that won’t be spent trying to win in its target seats.

Looking further afield, will the party be happy with gaining 15% of the national vote – but winning no seats – by putting up a candidate all 650 seats at a cost of £2million? Or would it rather spend that £2million more efficiently and see a gang of UKIP MPs enter the House of Commons ready to make alliances with Eurosceptic MPs from other parties? It appears to be veering strongly towards the former. This may of course be either by accident (because of a lack of control from the centre) or by design (amateurish decsion making at the centre), but either way no credible party goes into a general election campaign without a genuine target seats operation.