With new electronic voting systems becoming available, questions are being raised regarding security and reliability aspects. But wherever these systems are used, one basic requirement is that the voters actually need to trust the system.

Meeting the trust factor in electronic voting

For its State elections taking place in early December, the Australian state of Victoria made use of a new system of electronic voting. The system was based on the Prêt-à-voter (‘Ready to Vote’) programme created ten years ago by Peter Ryan, a British mathematician and cryptography expert who is a professor at the University of Luxembourg. Victoria’s electoral commission worked with the University of Surrey in the UK and the University of Melbourne in Australia to create an advanced electronic form of the paper-based ‘Pret-à-voter’ system. Australian voters were able to vote using touchscreens which offered both greater security and ease of access to people who needed help to cast their vote. This drive for easier access was already the main focus of the Intuitive Voting project. However, it remains a fact that dematerialised ballot systems do not always inspire trust, and so voting system developers are always looking for new ways of reassuring voters and governments.

Anonymous receipts help to engender trust

A key aspect of Peter Ryan’s ‘Prêt-à-voter’ system is the receipt. Quite simply, once his/her vote has been recorded, the voter gets a receipt which provides material proof that his/her vote has been recorded, a move intended as a means of boosting the trust of citizens who might be wary of a dematerialised process. Moreover, the receipt is encrypted so that the vote cast remains a secret. The way the new Victoria system works is that the candidates are listed in a random order which varies from ballot to ballot. The voter marks his/her choice and obtains a receipt showing where s/he has placed his/her vote on the ballot, together with a code which enables him/her to find the list of candidates s/he had in front of him/her.  In fact the actual receipt contains no information on either the voter or his/her selection(s), thus helping to meet the second requirement for public trust in electronic voting: voter anonymity.

Questions remain to be settled

The latest electronic voting tools are now making widespread use of encryption tools, with the consistent aim of establishing and maintaining citizens’ trust.  Nevertheless a number of questions still remain unanswered. “Computer experts are capable of making electronic voting highly secure, but of course they will never be able to reduce the risk to zero,” admits Peter Ryan, explaining: “All electronic systems can be hacked but with intelligent encryption the risk of manipulation or loss of voting secrecy can be minimised.” Clearly the challenge going forward will be to persuade public authorities to use this electronic system which, according to the University of Luxembourg professor, carries fewer risks than paper voting.  Nevertheless, while the time-honoured practice of urn-stuffing requires little in the way of technique whereas ‘rigging’ an electronic election calls for more highly advanced skills, such practices are not beyond skilled computer experts. System developers are therefore clear about the need for verifiability and trust.  In fact, amid increasing voter apathy in some countries, many institutions see digital channels as a vital tool for encouraging citizen participation, an indication that trust in such methods might be starting to take hold.

By Guillaume Scifo