What did you think of the US election? I don’t mean the candidates and the outcome. What did you think of the election process? Should it be possible for national elections of this type to be done online? Last week the IET published a paper on internet voting in the UK, led by our good friend at the University of Surrey, Professor Steve Schneider. It’s well worth a read. As the paper explains, internet voting for statutory political elections is a uniquely challenging problem. Firstly voting systems have exacting requirements and secondly, the stakes are high with the threat of state level interference.
Electoral fraud isn’t a huge problem in the United Kingdom but it does happen, and it looks as if it’s been happening with increasing frequency in certain areas. So the government has decided to do something about it and they are going to introduce an “voter ID” scheme that will require people to provide some evidence of their identity when they go to vote, initially in local elections but presumably in general elections downstream.
The voter ID scheme will be trialed in 18 areas which have been identified by police and the Electoral Commission as being “vulnerable” to voting fraud, including Bradford, Birmingham.
And, as it happens, in my own dear Woking. But that is not the reason for my interest in the topic. My particular interest in electronic voting because it is one of the hard cases for digital identity. If we can figure out how digital identity can support something as complicated as electronic voting (complicated because of the requirements for secrecy, privacy, auditability) that shows it can be used for a wide variety of other applications. I’ve written before that I am in favour of electronic voting of some kind but I’m very much against remote voting, because I think that in a functioning democracy voting must remain a public act and if it is allowed in certain remote conditions then we cannot be sure that a voter’s ballot is either secret or uncoerced. While not the topic of this post, I think it is possible to imagine services where trusted third parties or electoral observers of some kind use mobile phones to go out and allow the infirm or otherwise housebound to vote.
We live in a Venmo world now, so if the under-30s want to vote using an app that tells their friends that they voted, or perhaps even how they voted, or perhaps allows them to add a funny picture or an acute comment, well so be it. But make it secure, and make them go down to the polling station to use it.
So it is not beyond the wit of man to come up with alternatives to the postal vote. But that’s not what is being proposed. The UK government is not currently proposing an app or any other kind of electronic voting here, it is merely proposing to add a basic test of entitlement at the ballot box. The entitlement is to be established using the proxy of the voters identity. How will this identity be established and the entitlement authenticated? Well…
Local authorities will be invited to apply to trial different types of identification, including forms of photo ID such as driving licences and passports, or formal correspondence such as a utilities bill
Wait, what? A utilities bill? I should explain here for any baffled overseas readers of this blog that the United Kingdom has no national identification scheme or identity card or any other such symbol of continental tyranny, so our gold standard identity document is the gas bill. I understand that these are notoriously difficult to forge and that the skilled artisans behind the North Korean $100 bill “supernote” threw down their tools in frustration when faced with the multiple layers of security that are part of the British Gas quarterly statement for residential users. The gas bill is a uniquely trusted document, and the obvious choice for a government concerned about fraud. By the way, if for some reason you do not have a gas bill to attest to your suitability for some purpose or other, you can buy one here (for theatrical or novelty use only).
Why is it that the government never ask me about this sort of thing? Since they don’t have an identity infrastructure, why don’t they use other people’s? I would have thought that for a great majority of the population, especially the more transient and younger portion of the electorate (e.g., my sons) social media would provide a far better means to manage this entitlement.
I judge it to be far harder to forge a plausible Facebook profile than a plausible gas bill, so if I turn up at the polling station and log in to the Facebook profile for David Birch (if there is a Facebook profile for a David Birch, incidentally, I can assure you it isn’t me) then they may as well let me vote.
None of this will help, of course, because the main source of electoral fraud in the UK is not personation at the polling station but fraudulently-completed postal ballots. Indeed, this is precisely what has been going on in my own dear Woking, where four people were jailed for electoral fraud last year. As far as I can understand it from reading the various reports, including the source reports on electoral fraud in the UK, the main problem is that postal votes are being completed by third parties, sometimes in bulk. No proof of identity is going to make any difference to this and so long as we allow people to continue voting by post I can’t see how the situation will improve. I notice that the minister in charge of voting was quoted on the BBC today:
Constitution minister Chris Skidmore said “…In many transactions you need a proof of ID.”
This is not, strictly speaking, true. In almost all transactions that we take part in on a daily basis we are not proving our identity, we are proving that we are authorised to do something whether it is to charge money to a line of credit in a shop, ride a bus or open the door to an office. In these cases we are using ID as a proxy because we don’t have a proper infrastructure in place for allowing us to keep our identities safely under lock and key while we go about our business. What you should really be presenting at the polling station is an anonymised entitlement to vote that you can authenticate your right to use. It is nobody at the polling station’s business who you are and, in common with many other circumstances, if you are required to present your identity to enable a transaction then we have created another place where identity can be stolen from.
The real solution is, of course, not using Railcards or football supporter’s cards, or indeed special-purpose election ID cards, but a general-purpose National Entitlement Scheme (NES).
If memory serves, I think this is what my colleagues at consult Hyperion and I first proposed in response to a government consultation paper on a national identity scheme around 15 years ago. Oh well.
There are renewed calls for online voting at a near-future general election in the UK, but as we discussed at the UnConference this year. Even if we knew what problem this is supposed to fix, I suspect it would still be the wrong answer.
Well, technology can make it easier to vote. But if there’s an app for that, we should still make people vote in public.