Nigerian Tribune  [Printer-friendly version]
October 24, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: "People having even the smallest doubt about
e-voting should apply the precautionary principle to elections and
demand the use of ballot papers."]

In more than two centuries, no western democracy had any serious
trouble arising from using ballot papers (by the way, what's wrong
with them?) and to date (2006) most democracies of the world (all
except Brazil, India, and USA) use ballot papers to elect their
Parliaments and Governments.

However, hardware and software vendors are pressing for the use of
electronic voting and governments often endorse it.

Most people see electronic voting as a mere technical evolution of
ballot paper voting and therefore, they are confidently waiting for
hardware and software that will make electronic elections as secure as
remote banking, for example. They probably think voting is a simple
transaction by which we add one to the electoral "balance" of our
candidate, just the way we add money to someone's bank balance when we
use our credit card.

Unfortunately voting is not like banking because votes and financial
data differ in the level of the secrecy they require and such
intrinsic difference is the very reason why electronic voting is unfit
for political elections in democracy and no technology can change

To see why electronic voting is not compatible with democracy we need
to go through a few basic concepts: In democracy, governmental power
is transferred by counting secret votes during elections. To accept
such transfer, people and parties must be 100 percent sure that
electoral results are fair and square: doubts about the legitimacy of
the winner can damage the political life of the country and even bring
riots and revolutions.

Votes must be forever secret from everybody because otherwise voters
could undergo illicit pressure to vote according to somebody else's
will. Criminals (and/or governments and/or politicians) have enough
power to compell people to vote in a certain way.

Electoral procedures are obviously setup and managed by large
organizations which span all over the country and give contracts to
private and public companies.

Many people and/or organizations are interested in falsifying
electoral results to maintain or to get the governmental power. They
can be highly motivated, well financed, sophisticated, and could be
outsiders as well as insiders with full knowledge of the election
system. These attackers could be political operatives, voters, vendor
personnel, polling place workers, election administrators, foreign
countries, international terrorist organizations, or just pranksters.

Sitting governments are in charge of guaranteeing the accuracy of
electoral results and the secrecy of votes, but the social groups and
the economical powers which are the base of any government have the
obvious interest in falsifying electoral results and violating the
secrecy of votes to preserve the power. They could also succeed thanks
to the complete control they have over the electoral process.

It may sound strange but electronic voting is unfit for elections in
democracy due to the above points. Infact, in consequence of them we
have that: Absolute vote secrecy (point b) can be accomplished only if
votes are collected and stored in such away that nobody can ever be
able to link each vote to its voter.

If votes are really anonymous then nobody can verify that any of them
is the one its (unknown!) voter actually cast. Verification of
electoral results can not be based only upon anonymous votes since
they could have been altered by fraud or errors and nobody could ever
know it.

The only way to guarantee fairness of elections is that electoral
procedures guarantee that each vote really represents its (unknown)
elector's will. From the above points, we know we can't blindly trust
any organization when dealing with elections, thus we, the people,
need to verify all to ourselves that electoral procedures really work
as they should!

Fairness of elections can be guaranteed only by electoral procedure
open to the active check of the people, the so called democratic

Now let's compare paper voting with electronic voting: Ballot paper
elections can undergo proper democratic control because humans can
check the handling of ballot papers, which are visible and tangible
objects. It's not by chance that all democracies always used ballot
papers! With them a few votes may get lost, but no foreign country,
terrorist group, economical or political power will ever be able to
alter the final result of our elections! That's why ballot paper
elections are suitable for democracy.

Electronic elections can't undergo proper democratic control because
computer procedures are not verifiable by humans as we are not
equipped for verifying operations occurring within an electronic
machine. Thus, for people who did not program them, computers act just
like black boxes and their operations can truly be verified only by
knowing the input and comparing the expected output with the actual

Unfortunately, due to the secrecy of votes, elections have no known
input nor any expected output with which to compare electoral results,
thus electronic electoral procedures cannot be verified by humans!
This applies to electronic elections independently of any technical
solution that could ever be implemented.

Results of any electronic vote are, due to their nature, unverifiable
and no technical solution can overcome this fact. To accept electronic
electoral results, ordinary people need to have an absolute faith in
the accuracy, honesty and security of the whole electoral apparatus
(people, software, hardware and networks). This is not possible, thus
electronic voting is not compatible with democracy.

It is worthy of attention that the above statement is true whichever
technical implementation it's used for voting. In other words, e-vote
is unfit to democracy whichever hardware and software it's used.

In fact, let's imagine to have a perfect electronic voting system with
all the security, auditing, accountability, meaningful public
standards and public evaluations we like. Even in such a very
optimistic case, in the end, all the votes would be stored in
anonymous records and this unverifiable data, processed by
unverifiable electronic procedures, would decide the (unverifiable)
winner of the election.

Electronic voting is not a technical, but a SOCIAL PROBLEM!
Governments can't demonstrate that electronic voting results are
correct, but oppositions have no way to support any claim that fraud
or mistakes have occurred.

From another point of view, we can say that when ballot paper
elections are held under proper democratic control, the people tally
up real votes (ballot papers are hand written by electors and readable
by anyone). When ballot papers are publicly counted in the same place
as they were voted and when scrutineers are randomly selected citizens
(as done in Italy, for example), then who actually counts votes and
declares the result of each ballot station is the public, and the
central electoral service has the mere role of tallying such results.
Thousands of ordinary people across the whole nation guarantee and
certify the electoral result.

In e-voting, computers tally up information about the way electors
voted (which button they pressed or which part of the screen they
touched). Such information is collected and stored in the form of
anonymous intangible human-unreadable string of bytes. Votes are
"counted" and results declared solely by the "electoral service" which
is under the control of the government whose term of office is about
to expire. No democratic control is possible over electronic

In other words, for electoral results to be verifiable and votes
absolutely secret, votes must be anonymous, tangible, human-readable
objects. Nowadays, we face terrorism as one of the most dangerous
attack to our democracies. A good goal for terrorists could be the
alteration of our electoral processes because if they could
delegitimate the ruling power, they would have a great victory against
our democracy.

Ballot paper elections are very robust and have no single point of
failure: there is NOT a single place which abnormal functioning could
lead to the impossibility to declare the winner. Paper elections can
be held despite of black outs and interruptions of computer networks.
Infact, paper elections have properly worked also when electricity and
computer did not even exist.

Electronic elections are based on computer networks and computer
centres which are very good targets for terrorists. In fact, a
terrorist attack to the network infrastructure, to power distribution
lines, or to a computer center could lead to the impossibility to know
who is the winner of the election, leaving the country whithout a
legitimate Parliament or Government.

Elections may have the wrong winner not only because of fraud, but
also because of malfunctions of the technical apparatus involved in
the voting. In fact, during real electronic elections, malfunctions
occur very often, as you can see in and The above sites report thousands of malfunctions
occurred during the USA 2004 presidential election.

Electronic vote, carried out via computer and digital links represents
a poisoned chalice for technologically advanced countries; it is no
exaggeration to say that it threatens to eliminate democracy as we
know it today. It's an enticing chalice because it is surrounded by
good intentions and it is fascinating because it is technological and

However, the poison is certainly there because the system is beyond
every democratic check on the procedures and on the results obtained
by the vote. Even if we could be 100 percent sure there are no errors
nor fraud in the whole electoral system (humans & machines, inside our
country and abroad we should accept any result without any chance of
verifying it. Without such checks, it will be sitting governments to
declare the winners and the losers without any possibility of being
checked themselves or contradicted, and we can't forget that those who
own the computers can alter any data they contain. electronic vote can
be the end of democracy (as we know it now).

Not to be duped we, the people, must lift e-vote debate from the
technical arena up to the arena of basic principles we all understand,
the arena where we all are able to answer the question: "do we accept
to trust unverifiable electronic votes or do we prefer to use
verifiable ballot papers and public and repeatable procedures?"

We, the people, should reject electronic voting and pretend to use
ballot papers publicly hand-counted because this is the only way we
can verify that results are fair and square. People having even the
smallest doubt about e-voting should apply the precautionary principle
to elections and demand the use of ballot papers.

Copyright 2004 -- 2006 African Newspapers of Nigeria Plc.