The Practice and the Potential of Electronic Voting.

Mikolaj Kocikowski


In context of Western democracies’ current crisis, electronic voting (voting in which votes are cast using Electronic Voting Machines, or EVMs) has become a very popular topic of discussion in academic and technical circles. I propose a paper in which I will use real-world data from EVM applications in non-western countries to propose a shift in focus of the so far abstract discussion in the West, away from would-be dangers to the possibilities of real, much-needed improvement of the democratic system which electronic voting procedures might enable.

While Western countries (Western Europe and the USA) have been reluctant or slow to introduce EVMs into the electoral process, many non-western countries have had success in applying the technology. Most notably, both for their size and history of electoral problems, Brazil and India have been using the technology in their parliamentary elections: Brazil already twice in nationwide elections, India so far in a pilot program, but with upcoming elections (Jan 2004) scheduled to be entirely “electronic”, deploying over a million terminals throughout the country.

While discussion in the West has largely been focused on issues of security and privacy, and particular threats that replacing paper ballots with machines brings to the process, little thought has been devoted to possible benefits of the technology – other than the obvious speedup in tabulation. As examples of Brazil and India seem to indicate, this focus might need to shift.

Overall, deployed EVMs turned out to be less susceptible to fraud than “traditional” voting setups. While poor engineering (as in recent Virginia/Diebold case) can facilitate security breaches, so is the case with “paper” votes (poor engineering of the Florida/Bush/Gore ballot). In the field, documented exploits of deployed EVMs were mostly carry-overs from the traditional voting procedures, and were technology- independent (the most common example being buying of votes), end did not raise from EVM-specific technical issues. In the area of privacy, EVMs surprisingly offered some advantages over traditional voting methods: for example, machines equipped with speech synthesizers allowed blind voters to cast their votes, for the first time, in a truly private manner. Moreover, EVMs’ ability to present illiterate voters with not only text, but also with image and audio data, helped to eliminate a lot of social-engineering based fraud.

Successful EVM deployments can serve as a basis for a more focused, and more practical discussion of the issue of electronic voting. Case studies from Brazil and India can help shape existing discussions in following areas: 1) design and implementation procedures – public vs proprietary; 2) security concerns – fraud, accountability, supervision; 3) privacy concerns – national IDs, identity theft; 4) accessibility – absentee ballots, accessibility for the elderly and the handicapped.

Case studies of successful implementations of nationwide EVM systems, however, not only bring substance to above mentioned discussions. They allow to look beyond the problem of replacing the current voting system with its more efficient substitute; they give a chance to ask if the new technologies, now proved to be effective, can be used to improve on the political system which they serve. The question here is: will EVMs be only more efficient, more accessible, and more fraud-resistant replacements of the paper ballot, or will they bring entirely new qualities into the electoral process? Being an advocate of new technologies not being merely replacements of their older siblings, I will at this point briefly present an idea for a system of “continuous participation” in a representative democracy. It is an idea which aims at combining the practical benefits of representative democracy with the ideal of direct democracy, a system which is impossible to implement without the use of EVMs. By presenting this specific idea (first presented during the World Philosophical Congress in Istambul, 2003) I hope to shift some of the focus of discussion over electronic voting away from issues which in part have been settled in practice, and towards finding new (revolutionary?) applications of technology which already has proved itself to be effective.