Could online electoral voting be the inclusive and democratic method we need?

We do our shopping online, entertainment online and can even pay our taxes online, so is it not about time that we are able to vote in elections online? The common thread connecting all these online activities is the convenience it affords us as citizens and perhaps it is time to give voters an added voting option that is in lockstep with how they lead their lives. Voting online is commonly referred to as “i-voting”, a system that allows voters to cast their ballots from any internet-connected computer or mobile device, anywhere in the world.

An inclusive, convenient and fair voting method

The global Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted many essential services that the government provides to its citizens. Perhaps no service is more essential than that of facilitating free, fair, and efficient elections. With many rightly concerned about physically casting a vote at a polling station due to their own vulnerability or that of a loved one, the argument for safe internet voting in the comfort and safety of one’s home may be worth exploring. Since the pandemic hit globally in March 2020, some 70 or so national elections around the world were still to occur throughout the rest of the year, most notably that of the United States of America (USA) on November 3rd, 2020.

i-Voting could grant young people, people with disabilities and those not able to get off work on election days a more convenient way to vote.

The question of online voting for elections has several other compelling arguments beyond simply protecting citizens from any future public health crises. Firstly, i-voting can increase democratic participation in the cornerstone institution of voting. For instance, the USA suffers one of the lowest voter participation rates amongst developed nations, with approximately 55.7% of voter turnout in the 2016 Presidential elections according to Pew Research Centre. i-Voting could grant young people, people with disabilities and those not able to get off work on election days a more convenient way to vote.

Secondly, i-voting can entrench a faster and more reliable alternative to mass mail-in ballot voting. This very example is currently being played out in the US as well, where the efficient and expeditious way to send in and count votes is being raised due to mail-in voting. i-Voting could reduce the lag regarding election result announcements, hence also quelling voter anxiety about result credibility, or at least one aspect of it.

The internet as a tool for democracy

Pew Research Center

In order to vote online one needs the internet. According to the Pew Research Center as recently as of 2019, 90% of American adults use the internet who are of voting age (18 and above). In Europe, 85% of households had an internet connection in 2016 and internet user penetration in the United Kingdom is forecast to reach approximately 95% in 2021.

This shows that access to the core infrastructure of the internet is available. Nevertheless, one should not downplay the role of race, income, or infrastructure development when it comes to access to the internet.

i-Voting in the world so far

Several countries have experimented with i-voting, with Estonia leading the way in their 2005 local municipal elections. This attempt went so well that in 2007 they became the first country to use i-voting for their national Parliamentary elections and have continued to use the system ever since. In fact, in March 2019 approximately 44% of voters used internet voting in Estonia, demonstrating voter confidence in the system, essential for the credibility of democratic elections.

How did they do this? In its push for a more integrated e-governance system, Estonia’s government issued citizens with electronic cards containing unique citizen digital ID. In order to vote, citizens use this electronic card along with a card reader to connect to their electronic device to anonymously cast their i-vote securely through government software. Estonians can also download a mobile app called “Mobile ID” for the same function. 

The security risk

Despite the above examples and advantages of i-voting, there are still valid reasons as to why many major democracies have not pushed forward with i-voting, the most pertinent being security.

Cyberattacks could come in direct attempts to interfere with voter identification, anonymity, and vote tally by domestic or even foreign entities. Although cyberattacks may never be truly eradicated from i-voting, what is important is the investment by aspiring countries to build processes, designs and security that ensure transparency, privacy, and verification of votes and totals by third-party systems such as blockchain platforms. In fact, the enhanced security of blockchain technology enabled countries such as Australia and South Korea to announce future plans to introduce i-voting.

Although cyberattacks may never be truly eradicated from i-voting, what is important is the investment by aspiring countries to build processes, designs and security that ensure transparency, privacy, and verification of votes and totals

The need for innovation and trust

Ultimately, the idea of internet voting will very much hinge on trust. If the voting public does not trust an i-voting system, then there will be little to no political will to see it through. However, as current times dictate, governments should be taking the lead to innovate governance systems that encourage democratic participation and accountability. In such an effort, the smart development of i-voting systems is fundamental so as to not rush into the system with eyes wide shut; for democracy is sacred. For the longest time, democracies have conducted elections using paper ballots, electronic voting systems or even their fingerprints, perhaps it is time for our mobile devices and laptops.