Expert: E-voting no way to run a democracy

Special to Western NewsSoftware Engineering professor Aleksander Essex runs the Whisper Lab – the Western Information Security and Privacy Research laboratory – and wants to remind you, even before you head to the polls Oct. 22, that October is Cyber Security Awareness Month.

Take it from an engineer. You don’t want technology to fulfill a need other than the need you’re building that technology for – especially if democracy is at stake.

Later this month, roughly half of Ontario’s cities will employ some form of electronic voting in their municipal elections. According to Aleksander Essex, a Software Engineering professor and cybersecurity expert at Western, this is not a sign of progress.

“It’s an important story for Ontario – and for the country as a whole – but there’s a huge lack of awareness about this issue. Cybersecurity researchers are concerned about electronic voting for a number of reasons, but one of the major ones is a general lack of transparency surrounding how the votes are counted,” said Essex, who recently appeared on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin to discuss hazards of electronic voting.

While some cities will offer electronic voting as an option in addition to paper ballots, most are moving towards electronic-only ballot collection.

The online interface and process for casting a vote resemble something like making an online purchase or a money transfer: You log on. You get a ballot. You click ‘submit’ and receive some sort of confirmation that you submitted a ballot.

“If you do online banking, you get feedback that the money is deposited into your account. You can check that. If there is a problem, you can complain to the bank and have it investigated,” Essex explained. “When you buy something online and the package doesn’t show up, you can contact the seller and say, ‘Where’s my package?’

“Bank fraud happens and packages don’t arrive so having these processes to detect and deal with the problem is essential. We don’t even think about it because we know where to go.”

But imagine the vote as a transaction in an online setting: You cast your ballot with a ‘submit’ button; you receive confirmation you’ve done so but there is no evidence after the fact that your vote – or every submitted ballot – is included in the final count.

“We’re not saying hackers will definitely hack an election. We’re not saying we don’t trust the city to be faithful in its execution of an election. That’s not the issue. The issue is, they are required to run a transparent election. Without transparency and an ability to trust the system, things will not bode well for our confidence in the democratic system.”

Simply stated, there is no way to optimize electronic voting, Essex stressed. You cannot overcome voting as a cybersecurity concern.

So what’s the solution? You don’t offer it as an option to voters, he said. Why fix something that’s not broken?

People are often surprised when tech-savvy individuals voice concerns over electronic voting but they are the ones who know the drawbacks best.

Problems with any technological advancement arise when you use something new to fix problems that aren’t there. He likens electronic voting to having a TV built into your fridge.

The fridge is there to cool your food. If you add a television into it, what are you accomplishing? It’s ‘simple solutionism,’ he noted, and oftentimes, you either end up making a simple thing complicated or you create new problems. What if the TV breaks? Now you have a broken TV in your fridge – and this problem has nothing to do with why you have a fridge.

“People have this notion that hand-counted paper ballots are simple in a naïve way, when in fact, they are simple in an elegant way, in the optimal way. We don’t know how to do it better and still get the same kind of guarantee,” Essex went on.

“Stalin used to say, ‘Those who count the votes decide everything.’ It’s really important that a government gets legitimacy from a democratic election. In order to have that, people have to be confident in the electoral system. The way you provide that is through transparency.”

Switching to e-voting is not necessarily a bad idea. The reasons are legitimate, he explained. Whether it is an effort to improve accessibility or boost voter turnout or an effort to reduce cost and human resources, e-voting ultimately doesn’t deliver any result towards these “noble pursuits,” he added.

“What does it mean to increase participation if the system itself isn’t trustworthy? Better voter turnout is meaningless if you’re not confident in the process. I can make up a number and say every vote counted – but how do you know that? With a paper ballot, you can have a recount. (Those working the poll) all watch the count all have to agree on a total,” he explained.

“It’s not that paper ballots are perfect and completely un-hackable but the guarantees they provide are so much greater than the online system. It seems kind of crazy to want to give all that up just so we can have some convenience. You can’t give up the transparency of a democratic election, otherwise what the heck are we doing an election for?”