1. Business
  2. Politics and policy
October 15, 2019updated 16 Oct 2019 12:10pm

With voter ID plans criticised, what election technology alternatives are there?

By Ellen Daniel

Members of the public may soon be required to show a form of ID, such as a driving licence or passport before being able to vote in a UK general or local election.

Plans for the introduction of an “Electoral Integrity Bill”, originally reported in the Telegraph, were announced during the Queen’s speech at the State Opening of Parliament.

The bill is designed to address the issue of electoral fraud, however critics have said that it could leave many unable to vote, making it harder for the elderly or disadvantaged to participate in elections.

According to the Electoral Reform Society, of the 44.6 million votes cast in 2017 in the UK, just 0.000063% were alleged to be fraudulent. Therefore, the impact of even a small percentage of voters not bringing ID could be far greater than that of fraudulent votes.

The political pressure group has also said that 3.5 million UK citizens do not have access to photo ID and 11 million citizens do not have a passport or driving licence, meaning the proposed law may act as a “barrier to many people exercising their right to vote”.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan tweeted that the proposed law would “hit poorer and minority communities, just as it does in the US”.

With this in mind, how can election technology be harnessed to forgo the need for ID, while ensuring integrity?

Election technology

Some countries, including the US, have used electronic voting machines for some time now, but the security of such devices has been called into question due to “outdated, poorly designed or implemented technology”, according to Medium.

Last year at hacking conference Def Con, attendees demonstrated serious flaws in some of the hardware used in US elections, suggesting that electronic voting machines could be hacked. Therefore, it may be necessary to look to other forms of technology.

One such solution is having unique QR codes on each polling card, which voters would scan when they reached the polling station. Modern Democracy’s Modern Polling solution, a cloud-based platform that facilitates the use of QR codes in voting, has already been trialled in Watford Borough Council, part of the Government’s Voter ID Scheme.

This approach eliminates the need for voters to carry ID, while also providing a way of ensuring votes are only cast once. It also speeds up the voting process by replacing the manual checking of voters’ names and addresses.

A blockchain-based solution

The idea of using blockchain has also been explored as a potential way of enabling secure and encrypted voting, while allowing voters to cast their vote remotely. According to Tech Crunch, in 2018 Sierra Leone became the first country to use Blockchain in an election, with 70% of votes cast in the general election stored on Agora’s blockchain.

Each transaction made on a blockchain platform must be approved by a chain of computers, so once a vote becomes part of the blockchain it cannot be changed. This makes fraud less likely than other transaction systems, as it creates an encrypted link between the vote and the person who cast it, making it possible to verify that a vote has not been tampered with.

FollowMyVote has developed a platform that uses blockchain technology to ensure “greater election transparency” while its decentralised nature means it is harder for a hacker to enter the system.

However, not everyone is convinced of its merits. According to ZDNet, earlier this year security researchers recently found security vulnerabilities in the blockchain-based voting system due to be used in an election in Moscow, with the researchers discovering that the encryption system used could be easily cracked.

“An effective solution”

With the growing prevalence of biometrics, it is not surprising that some countries are now looking to the technology as a way of verifying voters’ identities.

In the 2017 general election in Kenya, cutting-edge technology was used to tackle the issue of voter fraud, with the use of biometric voter registration used to prevent duplicate votes. This year, Afghanistan also incorporated biometric technology into voting machines .

David Orme, SVP at IDEX Biometrics ASA believes that biometrics could offer an alternative to physical IDs:

“Following the Queen’s Speech, biometric authentication technology is perhaps the most effective solution to effectively address the need for the evolving voting process. With biometric voting cards able to provide a convenient, more secure identification method.

However, according to research by Paysafe Group, 53% of UK consumers surveyed have concerns over whether the use of biometrics could increase identity fraud, suggesting that it may not be an entirely welcome addition to the electoral process.

With the highly personal nature of biometric data bringing with it inevitable security concerns, he believes that its storage must be carefully considered:

“Before voting processes are allowed to be drastically changed on a mass-scale however, it’s important to remember that the key to the success of biometric authentication in Government ID lies in striking the balance between privacy and convenience. After all, following various high-profile data breaches and suspicions of Government infringements, we live in a society that is becoming increasingly sceptical about sharing personal information.

“Unlike facial recognition, fingerprint-recognition would only require the user’s information to be stored on the voting card itself, removing the attractiveness for cyber criminals on the lookout for a central database of fingerprint data. Fingerprints are also far less prone to change than facial features and irises that could be duped via contact lenses, so it is a more accurate form of authentication.

“Every country needs to build their own consensus”

However, if election technology relies of a level of technological literacy to be successful, it is possible that it may worsen one of the problems it is trying to address.

According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2018 there were 5.3 million adults in the UK who were “internet non-users”. With this in mind, ensuring that the incorporation of election technology into the democratic process does not act as a barrier for those with limited access to technology is vital.

Furthermore, although voting technology is an opportunity to re-think the election process, Ott Vatter, Managing Director, e-Residency believes that it must be carefully considered in light of the cultural and political context before it can be implemented:

“Estonia was the first country in the world to enable voting over internet already in 2005. The system has served Estonia well since then and nearly 30% of the voters cast their votes online in last parliamentary election in early 2019. That said, this system probably cannot be copied and pasted to another country. Every country needs to build their own consensus around such systems as voting is not only a technological issue but also one of trust.”

Read more: 93% of cybersecurity professionals are worried about election hacking.