ballot box
Dropping a marked card into a wooden box is archaic - so why can't we vote online?Getty

This article was first written on 17 April, 2015 and has been updated ahead of the 2017 general election taking place on 8 June.


When you go to the polling station on 8 June, take a moment to step back, look at your surroundings - the wooden floors of a village hall, the rusty hinges of the partition installed to stop anyone seeing your ballot paper; the very fact you queued for your entire lunch hour to drop a piece of paper into a box - and ask yourself why you can't vote online.

We can bank, shop, communicate, and order a new passport or driving license online, so why can't we use the internet to vote? It would prevent poor turnouts due to bad weather, provide a safety net for those who are on holiday and forgot to register for a postal vote, and boost the younger vote - and yet we continue to drop folded paper into wooden boxes.

The UK has run trials in the past. Liverpool and Sheffield city councils are among five to have run pilot online voting schemes in 2002, 2003 and 2007. Online turnout ranged from 11% to over 26% and afterwards the Electoral Commission said the online system "proved popular in improving access to voting" and that the technology had "worked well".

If Jeremy Corbyn secures the keys to Number 10, his Labour Party has plans to trial online voting in the 2020 election, while Commons Speaker John Bercow said ahead of the 2015 election that people should have the option to vote online by the start of the next decade.

Attracting young voters

Spearheading the move to online voting is WebRoots Democracy, a pressure group which campaigns for a digital system to be used for future general elections. It says online voting could increase the general election turnout by up to nine million to 79% of the population, a level not seen since 1959.

The impact on securing young votes would be even more profound. In 2015 just 43% of Britons aged between 18 and 24 voted (down from 44% in 2010), compared with 76% of those aged 65 and over; the national average was 66% in 2015 and 6% in 2010.

This gulf between young and old has doubled since 1970 and gives political parties less inclination to gear their policies towards the youth, who produce a low turnout due to, among other issues, increasingly living in short-term, rented accommodation, making them less likely to appear on the electoral register.

An online vote, WebRoots Democracy claims, would increase the turnout of 18 to 24-year-olds to 70%.

The group also claims online voting would save £12.8m ($19m, €17.7m) by reducing the cost of each vote by a third. They say 65% of the UK population support online voting and 68% would be more likely to vote if it saved them a trip to the polling stations.

Polling station
An online voting system would replace the need to spend the whole night counting votes by handReuters

Do other countries vote online?

Disables people and those living in rural communities can vote online and over telephone in New South Wales, Australia; some municipalities in Canada allow online voting for local elections, and such a system was tested in Norway in its 2011 and 2013 parliamentary elections, but political disagreement and voter concern ended those trials. Cyber security concerns ended a French system allowing citizens living abroad to vote online.

Estonia has been the most proactive in its adoption of online voting, which was first used nationally in its 2007 general election. Only 3.4% of the population used it then, but by the time of the 2015 parliamentary elections just over 30% voted online.

However, an independent report into how the system works found "alarming" technological problems and "staggering gaps in procedural and operational security...the architecture of the system leaves it open to cyber-attacks from foreign powers, such as Russia."

The threat of foreign interference in fresh in the mind following allegations of Russia's involvement in the election of US President Donald Trump, but this should not deter nations from working on ways to bring voting online. Keith Alexander, former head of the US National Security Agency, said in early June 2017 such fears should not get in the way of technological progress. Speaking on the same day Elections Canada asked for expert feedback on digital voting systems, he said: "You can create a system where people can authenticate and vote online. I think that's where we're going to go. People say there are so many issues with that. No. We should do this."

Shocking

In 2013, an international team of independent experts in electronic voting and computer security were gathered to examine the Estonian system. Jason Kitcat of the Open Rights Group said: "I was shocked at what I found. Processes and procedures changed on a daily basis...[there were] attempts to hide errors. CDs were being loaded into this system with no apparent audit trails, they were just being pulled in and out of backpacks."

The Estonian system was then recreated using the same source code to work out what attacks on both the system's servers and voters' home computers could be possible. Malware built by the team of IT researchers beat all safeguards used to supposedly make voting safe. The malware was able to override the citizen's actions and vote for a different candidate. Next, the team successfully installed undiscoverable malware on the servers used to count votes and changed which party received the most.

"We never thought we would see as many problems and vulnerabilities as we did and we felt duty bound to make the public aware of those problems", Kitcat added.

It's going to be decades, if ever, before security problems are solved

J. Alex Halderman, assistant professor of computer science & engineers at the University of Michigan, said: "In my assessment, no country in the world today can do internet voting safely and it's going to be a decade - if ever - before we're able to solve some of the central security problems".

Speaking to IBTimes UK ahead of the 2015 UK election, security expert Graham Cluley said: "Perhaps the biggest challenge is winning the public over that an online voting system can be trusted. I would expect the public to be skeptical, and although there are opportunities for abuse in the ballot-box system, it is one that we have had for hundreds of years and so is not controversial."

Speaking again before the 2017 polls opened, Cluley said: "The main pros of electronic voting are, counting the votes will be much faster [and we] won't have to employ so many manual vote counters."

Meanwhile, the negatives according to Cluley include: "Computers need more maintenance than a pencil and paper. Computers are more expensive than a pencil and paper. Software can contain bugs and vulnerabilities. Hacking threats."

Cluley also explained how online voting raises issues of privacy (who can see which candidate you have voted for?) and raises the scenario of a web voting system being flooded on polling day, either by everyone trying to vote at once, or by a malicious group using a DDoS attack, commonly used to knock websites offline by bombarding them with traffic.

Bitcoin and voting on the blockchain

Used to verify and keep a secure and transparent log of every bitcoin transaction ever made, the blockchain could be the online voting solution we're looking for. Transactions of bitcoins (or, hypothetically, general election votes) are sealed with a cryptographic hash, which is used to verify the contents of the coin or vote when checked at a later date - when counted, or recounted if needs be. This hash then forms part of the next vote's hash and cannot be hacked or modified.

Speaking to IBTimes UK, Jinyoung Lee Englund, former director of communications at the Bitcoin Foundation, said blockchain technology could be used by an online voting system.

Bitcoin round-up
The blockchain, used to publicly track all bitcoin transactions, could be used as a secure way of voting onlineIBTimes UK

"We are still a ways away, but some of the potential advantages of on-blockchain voting are increased transparency and the ability to uniquely identify each individual digitally. As more people experiment and invest in building out this application of the blockchain, it's conceivable that we could be voting our future leaders this way."

A US-based startup called Follow My Vote is keen to see blockchain technology used for a wide range of record-keeping, including voting. The firm states: "In order to ensure that election results are truly accurate, we are developing an online open source voting platform that provides transparency into election results by allowing voters to independently audit the ballot box. Using cutting edge technologies, such as blockchain technology and elliptic curve cryptography, we can actually accomplish this, all while protecting each voter's right to privacy."

Switching from archaic polling stations, paper slips and ballot boxes to voting with the click of a mouse is a step into a far more complex future than many realise. Back in 2015 the thought of online voting by 2020 seemed plausible, but in the wake of increased political cyberattacks and the massive Wannacry ransomware attack earlier this year, the threats posed by a digital vote are likely to outweigh the positives for some time to come.