Computing Applications Inside risks

Modernizing the Danish Democratic Process

Examining the socio-technological issues involved in Denmark's decision to pursue the legalization of electronic elections.
  1. Introduction
  2. European E-Voting Initiatives
  3. Denmark
  4. Defining a Metric for Success
  5. Conclusion
  6. Author
  7. Figures
Copenhagen election workers empty a ballot box
Copenhagen election workers empty a ballot box containing votes cast during the June 7, 2009 election for the European Parliament.

On March 3, 2009 the German Supreme Court decided that the use of electronic voting machines in parliamentary elections is unconstitutional as long as it is not possible for citizens to exercise their right to inspect and verify the essential steps of the election. The verdict did not rule voting machines unconstitutional, but the particular election law that legitimized their use during the 2005 election. Electronic elections, like any traditional election, must be under public control. And as this has not been achieved yet, the Supreme Court decision effectively outlawed the use of e-voting machines for German parliamentary elections, at least for now.

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European E-Voting Initiatives

One might think that events as such would have slowed down the efforts of other European nations to push e-voting technology into polling stations or even homes. This, however, is not the case. Many European countries are newly invigorated, running experiments with voter registration, vote casting, and vote tallying. Switzerland, a direct democracy, legalized Internet elections in 2009. Norway used a newly developed online voting system for its parliamentary elections on September 12, 2011. In 2005, Estonians were the first permitted to vote from their homes, using their national ID cards and off-the-shelf smartcard readers connected to their computers to authenticate themselves.

The evolution of the democratic process must not come to a standstill just because serious challenges lie ahead.

But why would governments advocate this kind of technology, risking decades of democratic achievements, in what seemingly contradicts common sense? There is more to this discussion than meets the eye. Governments and administrations currently revisit former decisions on how to implement the voting process and view them in the new light of information technology. Modern mobile devices such as smartphones, for example, interact and tinker with the very assumptions that secret and free elections are built upon. Off-the-shelf scanning technology can be used to identify individual sheets of paper simply by the composition of their fibers. It is also easy to take and transmit a photo or even a live video of the vote-casting process. European nations are pushing forward with the adoption of electronic and even Internet voting architectures, because their governments feel the risks of staying with the status quo outweigh the risks associated with modernizing the democratic process. I believe these European initiatives are healthy, necessary, and natural. The evolution of the democratic process must not come to a standstill just because serious challenges lie ahead.

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There are only very few countries in Europe that have resisted (so far) the urge to jump on the e-voting bandwagon—among those is Denmark, a small country of slightly more than 5.5 million people. Denmark has a long history of democracy in Europe and is top-ranked according to the information society index (ISI)—an index often quoted for comparing countries according to their ability to access and absorb information and information technology. E-voting is not banned by law, no trials have been conducted on the national level to date, citizens generally respect and trust their government and politicians, and there is an educated electorate with a pervasive desire for fairness, openness, and equality.

Earlier this year, the Danish Board of Technology, an advisory committee to the government, released a report recommending Denmark to take initial exploratory steps toward research in and experimentation with e-voting technology, with the goal to improve the implementation of constitutional law. One aspect of the recommendations includes requiring a secret and free vote for all—not just those who are able to see, read, write, or visit the polling station on Election Day. The report even went so far as to propose an experimental deployment of mobile networked voting vans, visiting the elderly and those with disabilities on Election Day. There is little to disagree with: information technology can make elections more inclusive, more lawful, and also more convenient for those who run them.

Denmark has a long tradition of public control in nationwide elections. On Election Day, volunteers assume the role of election observers who oversee the entire voting process from early morning to late at night. They meet, look over each others’ shoulders, tally and recount every vote as required by law, and by doing so, create much of the overall trust in the Danish voting process. Unfortunately, the numbers of volunteer election observers are dwindling, which is problematic as currently the demand exceeds supply. Denmark’s municipalities do not expect this trend to change soon, but hope instead for information technology to complement the smaller corps of election observers.

Therefore, Denmark will sooner or later follow its European partners and jump on the bandwagon—at least for casting votes. Since 1984, the final result of an election—the number of seats awarded to each party in Parliament—is calculated by a computer program that runs on a Unix workstation located at the Ministry of the Interior and Health. The results computed that way are legally binding. For casting the vote, on the other hand, Danish law needs to be changed, because in its current form, it is prohibitively restrictive. All details are regulated, including how to design a ballot form and how to distinguish valid from invalid votes.

Denmark has evolved its voting laws over many decades. It became a constitutional democracy in 1849, ballots were made secret in 1901, women obtained the right to vote in 1915, ballots were allowed to be cast by letter since 1920, Danes living abroad obtained the right to vote in 1970, and in 1978 the legal voting age was set to 18. In 2009, the voting law was changed to require that any visually impaired voter must be accompanied by an election observer when casting a vote. The law will soon evolve to accommodate information technology, and this will happen in the spirit of the Danish tradition of participatory design. Decision makers, administrators, and (computer, social, and political) scientists, will work together in the best interest of democracy.

In this, I believe, Denmark stands apart from many other countries that are currently introducing new voting laws, new voting culture, and new voting technologies without listening to the voices of scientists and other specialists. Decisions are all too often made by politicians, administrators, and industry alone, without properly attempting to understand the nature of the technological challenges, their vulnerabilities, and their effects on the trust of the voters and society as a whole. Scientists carry a large socio-technological responsibility and must be heard. Given the opportunity, they will act on behalf of the public, play the role of the independent auditor, keep an eye on the innovation and improvements of the democratic process, and increase public trust.

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Defining a Metric for Success

Denmark’s decision to pursue the legalization of electronic elections will to a large part depend on the implementation of the recommendations outlined in the report of the Danish Board of Technology and the success of the suggested trials. A few key groups will keep a close eye on these trials: The Ministry of the Interior and Health, which is responsible for their constitutionality; municipalities, who are responsible for a lawful, smooth, and efficient implementation; suppliers, who are responsible for the quality of the voting solution; and scientists who are responsible for ensuring the deployed technology serves the best interest of the public. Therefore, decision makers will be confronted with conflicting opinions about whether or not a trial was successful. It is thus prudent that all groups get together ahead of time and define a coherent metric for measuring success.

A modernized voting system does not need to be perfect, but it should implement a process that is at least as trustworthy as the one we know today.

It might seem like an obvious task to tackle, but it is not at all clear how to define this metric. Abstract concepts, such as trust, belief, and perception are difficult to model logically or mathematically; however, they need to be brought together with the formal aspects of hardware, software, and engineering in a meaningful way. Elections are cyber-social systems.

The usual indicators (such as voter turnout or opinion polls) are inadequate to measure success. Voter turnout, which is consistently above 85% in Denmark, is too infrequent a measure to be useful. Opinion polls that may be conducted more frequently are usually too volatile to be indicative. In February 2011, a poll conducted by the Danish newspaper Børsen showed that 63% (sample size 1,053) of Danish citizens of all ages would happily vote electronically even if it meant they must authenticate using a personal digital signature.

Instead, the metric must mirror the scientific evaluation of technical and social observations collected during the trial. It must measure the functional correctness of the voting infrastructure: how well the final result matches the voters’ intent, how well privacy and secrecy are secured, and to what extend Danish voting culture is preserved. This is where the real challenge lies. Even for simple election schemes, such as winner-take-all, technological solutions consist of many complex and communicating components that interface in various ways with election officials and voters. Scientists need to convince themselves that the system will always perform according to specification, even under the most obscure and unlikely circumstances including software bugs, malicious hacker attacks, or power outages. Furthermore, they must be sure the collective trust of the population is not negatively affected and that there are clear and accessible mechanisms to exercise public control. Electronic elections in controlled environments have thus a much better chance for success than elections in uncontrolled environments, such as Internet-based (remote) elections, for which there are still more open problems than solved ones. A modernized voting system does not need to be perfect, but it should implement a process that is at least as trustworthy as the one we know today.

Finally, the metric must reflect the operational aspects of carrying out the electronic election. Election observers follow new protocols, initialize new machines and read out final results, handle unfamiliar physical evidence, and respond to unknown and unforeseen problems, ranging from hardware and software failures to denial-of-service attacks. For the trials, election observers must be adequately prepared, and their reactions and experiences must be carefully documented and evaluated.

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With the right metric in place, Denmark will be in an excellent position to begin a rigorous scientific analysis of various voting schemes, technologies, and platforms. Politicians, administrators, and even suppliers have already signaled their willingness to cooperate and have promised scientists access to all parts of the election. If we do things right, Denmark will not repeat past mistakes of other nations, but its solution may serve as a guide for how to define future democratic processes.

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UF1 Figure. Copenhagen election workers empty a ballot box containing votes cast during the June 7, 2009 election for the European Parliament.

UF2 Figure. A Danish child submits her parent’s paper ballot for the European Parliament election.

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