Nigerian Tribune, 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 this.

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 control.

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 output.

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 elections.

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 computerized.

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.