Electronic Voting - A look at the Risks

The naive view of electronic voting is that it is simply the automation of the well-understood process of voting - namely people make choices and those choices are recorded, counted and processed to create a result. The introduction of electronic equipment, as advocates of e-voting see it, does not alter the process of voting aside from making it faster and more accurate. Unfortunately this view is flawed - pure electronic voting is not equivalent to traditional voting. Not only that, all electronic voting actually increases the risks of  errors and tampering . The risks can be controlled by the use of a voter-verified audit trail.

The material on this page examines the arguments in plain terms but offers links to fuller, more detailed documentation elsewhere.

The Traditional Ballot

With a traditional ballot, the voter is the person that makes the recording of their vote. This is typically a mark or marks on a ballot paper. These are physical marks that can be directly confirmed by the voter themselves, i.e. implicit in the traditional ballot is the process of voter verification. The voter can directly verify that the recording of their vote is in keeping with their intentions. The voter is also responsible for depositing the ballot paper into a ballot box - thus ensuring that the ballot is not read or interfered with before being deposited.

Electronic Voting - A Third Party

With a purely electronic voting system, the voter presses buttons (or their equivalent) corresponding to their voting choice and the electronic system records the vote. The voter cannot directly see the recording of the vote but is assured that the vote is recorded and stored accurately by the machine. This process is manifestly different to that of the traditional vote - a third party has been introduced in the form of the machine. The machine records the vote, assures the voter that the recording is accurate and notionally places it in the ballot box. We only have it on trust that this is done correctly.

Most voters would find being forced to hand over their traditional ballot paper to a third party as being unacceptable but yet this is what happens with electronic voting without voter-verification. Where previously there was nothing preventing the voter from directly verifying their vote, now they are forced to trust an intermediate.

The fact that the intermediate is a machine may assure some people however machines can fail and without direct verification there is always the risk that a failure will go unnoticed until it is too late. Moreover machines are made and tested by people who make mistakes and are corruptible. Someone has to vouch for the machines and it is they that are ultimately taking your vote and assuring you that it is safe in their hands. The voter has never been forced to blindly trust anyone before so why start now ?

Detecting Failure or Fraud

Without an independent, voter-verified audit trail it is impossible to judge if the outcome of an electronic ballot is accurate. Accuracy can only be measured in comparison to something and without knowing what the voter's intentions were one cannot say. Even if the system was tested originally with a trail in place, there has to be a mechanism for detecting subsequent failure or fraud or anything else that could affect the accuracy of the result.


Voter Verified Audit Trails
E-voting Errors, Fraud, Tampering etc.
Ireland & E-voting in 2004
Civil Rights & E-Voting