Things I think I’m wrong about – part 1 – Online Voting

by @edent | # | 6 comments | Read ~128 times.

I’m right about everything. My opinions are wholly rational and a product of logical analysis. Your opinions are scattered thoughts and half-remembered fairy-tales. That’s how most of us think, right? The only way we can get through the day is by thinking we’re correct.

I want to examine some of the things I think I’m right about – but secretly worry I’m wrong about. Let’s start with a gentle one – online voting.

I truly and fundamentally know that online voting is a terrible idea. Every analysis of online voting code – or even electronic voting machines – have shown them to be laughable insecure.

Voters need to be able to audit their votes. Polls have to be hard to corrupt at scale. Yes, voting should be made more convenient. Yes, disabled voters are badly let down by the current system. Yes, it is expensive to run a nation-wide vote but, no, I don’t think online voting would be any cheaper.

And yet… When I chat to the bright-young-things pushing for it, they are utterly sincere.

I remember talking that way back in the late 1990s about the promise of the World Wide Web. I’d explain how online shopping would revolutionise everything – and some old fart would dismiss me. They’d say it was insecure, hard to understand, impossible to guarantee what you were buying, the cost of delivery would wipe out any savings.

So when I talk to voting evangelists, I only have one thought in my head…


I just don’t get it, do I? The old-fashioned spectacle of fogeys lining up to scribble on a bit of paper, and then queue up again to count them is just ridiculous. I acknowledge that.

In my head, all the reasons for disliking online voting are sound. But I worry that I’m wrong.

I’ve written before about the zealots promoting BlockChain Backed Electronic Voting despite its obvious flaws. But they keep coming back, undetterred by reality. Perhaps I need to accept the inevitable?

Is voting too important to A/B test?

The only way we can discover who is right is to run tests. Pick a “minor” election – say West Argleton Town Council – and run a trial of online voting.

Subject it to all the same scrutiny as a major election. Give security experts free-reign to analyse the systems.

Announce success criteria in advance – does it increase participation? How much downtime was there? Were there security issues?

If it works, build it up for a larger election.

If it doesn’t, find out what failed and whether that’s a showstopper.


I’m not wrong

In my heart, and my head, I think secure and reliable online voting at scale is an impossible problem to solve.

I want to be proved wrong.

6 thoughts on “Things I think I’m wrong about – part 1 – Online Voting

  1. It’s way more complex than it appears to the casual eye. I talked to academics in the know last summer for the book and also wrote this recently – some of the links may interest you.…

  2. Frank Wales says:

    The comparison with online shopping doesn’t work. There were clear economic, operational and consumer advantages to online shopping, even before all the technical infrastructure for security and payments were in place; those advantages just weren’t as clear for incumbents, or for those stuck in the brick-and-mortar retail way of thinking.

    Online voting isn’t primarily an economic concern, though, it’s a democratic one, so the stakes are very different. This means the customers that can be served by voting tech companies is tiny, and very insular, compared with the consumer marketplace, which means there isn’t enough pressure on them to excel at their jobs.

    I’m very comfortable in saying “hell, no” to pretty much all voting tech beyond paper, because none of it is anywhere near good enough to justify a switch from something that works well enough.

  3. Mike says:

    I recently listened to (on BBC Sounds but I can’t see it there now) which includes a story about electronic voting. Short version is one candidate got an impossibly high number of votes and conclusion of investigation was that a cosmic ray had flipped a bit causing the votes for that candidate to be increased by (IIRC) 4096. What if the cosmic ray had flipped a different bit, adding or removing just enough votes to make a difference to who won, but not enough so as to make the results obviously wrong?

  4. I like this piece (naturally!) and have always appreciated your open mindedness towards online voting, if from a sceptic point of view, so I don’t see you as an old fart! You may be interested in reading this new @WebRootsUK report (published yday)….

  5. “Let’s start with a gentle one – online voting.”

    Part 2 should be interesting!

  6. rob says:

    To me the challenge is slightly different. With online shopping, you get hundreds, thousands, millions of tries to get it right. If someone’s new socks dont turn up, learn why not and try again i.e. fail fast. How many tries do you get with online voting given it happens once every one to four years? So ideally, it needs to start somewhere even less relevant – school elections, clubs, professional bodies, etc. and slowly work its way up. But even then it’s unlikely that you’ll find all the problems until you go for it at scale, at which point it’s too hard to try again.

    As for A/B testing – why not get people to fill in a paper ballot and an electronic one at the same time? Or use the electronic machine to print a “receipt” (i.e. a completed paper ballot) which is then counted as a paper one would be?

    finally, what about other things like objections e.g. actively spoiled ballots, consciously submitted blank papers etc?

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