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Elections in the midst of a pandemic: should we be concerned about voting online?

  voting

Photo: Arnaud Jaegers @ajaegers / unsplash.com

06/07/2020
Juan Vil
A recent study has analysed the advantages and disadvantages of remote voting

The only country in the European Union that allows online voting is Estonia

The crisis sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our lives for years to come. Key concerns such as work, education and healthcare appointments have moved from the real world to online environments overnight. The same cannot be said for the autonomous elections that were due to take place in Galicia and the Basque Country on 5 April, now postponed until 12 July.

 

Delays and controversy

Francisco Lupiáñez Villanueva, a professor at the UOC's Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences and co-founder of Open Evidence, spearheaded a recently published study entitled Benefits and Drawbacks of Remote Voting, which was carried out by Open Evidence and RAND Europe for the European Commission. He explained: "In terms of healthcare, for example, if someone is unable to visit the doctor's office due to lockdown measures (for example, for an appointment or procedure), it could have serious consequences on the patient's health. When it comes to voting, the consequences of delaying an election wouldn't have such serious ramifications on individuals."

However, this decision is not always so easy to implement, as demonstrated by the case in Spain. Poland was also planning to hold its presidential elections on 10 May and several sectors were against them being rescheduled for a later date. They even considered opting for an 100% exclusive postal vote, but the Supreme Court decided to suspend the elections until 28 June.

 

News on the autonomous elections

In the coming Galician and Basque elections, voters will not be allowed to cast their vote electronically, but efforts are being made to facilitate postal voting. For the first time, voters can apply online and as soon as they receive the electoral documents, simply fill them out and hand them over to the postman or woman, making it possible to complete the entire process without leaving their home or travelling anywhere.

There has in fact been an increase in registrations with this voting method. Since the elections were moved from 19 May to 22 June, 84,581 people in the Basque Country registered to cast their vote, compared to 17,778 over the same time period in the previous elections. There are currently no official data from Galicia, but according to union sources consulted by La Voz de Galicia, postal voting increased by 50% in the first two weeks.

 

France says no to online voting

Faced with these figures and in the middle of the pandemic, would it not have been easier to allow online voting? Lupiáñez Villanueva explained: "In a situation such as the one we're currently experiencing, rushing to approve urgent measures might not be the best option. All trials on remote voting systems done so far have been implemented in phases, giving voters the chance to gain confidence in the system. Voting in person is now a viable option thanks to recent health and safety measures, which is safer than carrying out experiments whose results are unpredictable. Implementing online voting systems is no plug and play".

The doubts surrounding internet voting are not exclusively held by those living in Spain. In fact, Estonia is the only country in the European Union that uses this kind of system. Other states such as France carried out trials in some regions but eventually decided not to make the changes permanent. The same luck befell many other pilot projects that have been trialled in other countries over the past two decades. Voters experienced a similar tale: they showed a high level of satisfaction, but also concern for the risk of fraud and an invasion of privacy or exposure of their vote.

 

Difficulties with online voting

Out of various remote voting systems, the postal vote or online vote are the most suitable for a country suffering through a pandemic. Lupiáñez Villanueva analysed all these systems as part of the Open Evidence study for the European Commission. "Our research has demonstrated that no system is perfect. It's impossible to guarantee 100% security in any electoral system. Opponents of remote voting, especially online voting, question the transparency or the risk that the results could be manipulated, but they fail to see that other systems are never completely risk-free.

Among the other main drawbacks to online voting we find:

 

  • Voting takes place in an uncontrolled environment, which makes it hard to ensure the vote was cast freely.
  • The risk of cyberattacks, software malfunctions, malware, etc.
  • It is difficult to guarantee the voter's identity and the secrecy of their vote at the same time.
  • The identification codes needed to vote could be stolen or sold.
  • A possible dependency on large private technological platforms who are tasked with managing the entire process.

Benefits to online voting

Although, of course, there are also many advantages:

  • The risk of contagion is minimal and voters can respect isolation measures during the pandemic.
  • People who suffer from health or mobility issues will be able to vote, as well as those who are currently overseas or have been admitted to hospital. As such, at least in theory and for these groups, it could mean an increase in participation.
  • They would cost less than normal elections.
  • Voting does not depend on the postal service and does not suffer the consequences of lost voting slips for example, or late deliveries.
  • Counting the votes would be much easier.
  • It encourages greater investigation into certain topics, which is what happened in Switzerland, or as has been trialled in the city councils of Barcelona and Madrid.

 

Cultural factors

Lupiáñez Villanueva also highlighted the following: "Voting systems are linked to the idiosyncrasies of political participation in each country. The elections and the rituals involved are hugely symbolic to the collective imaginary." This means it is not always easy to effect changes and also explain the characteristics of each system in each country. Spain's preference for postal voting is not one of the most popular remote voting systems in the European Union and is only permitted in eight other states. However, it was introduced during Spain's post-dictatorship 'Transition' period due to the amount of Spanish nationals in other countries, and has remained in place ever since.

The debate over online voting and the different remote voting systems does not seem to have swayed public opinion during the pandemic. However, Lupiáñez Villanueva encourages us to reflect upon these matters and continue to study them due to the vast amount of possibilities they offer, both with a view to the future and to increasing participation among minorities who could benefit most from casting their vote.

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