Disadvantages of electronic voting

Jun 4, 2011

Why do we want to introduce e-voting in next general elections in Bangladesh? Will this ensure free and fair election under the current political environment in our country? The answer undoubtedly will be in the negative, writes

Shama Obaed

Recently, there has been a debate going on regarding electronic voting, after the Election Commission mentioned a possible plan to introduce electronic voting system in the next general elections.  Our prime minister and other ministers of the present government sided with EC’s decision and have spoken in favour of electronic voting. The main opposition party BNP has opposed the idea of e-voting. Although, in the process and ‘excitement’ of building ‘Digital Bangladesh’, it might seem a befitting idea to establish electronic voting system in our country, but  I truly think, all the responsible persons of the government and at the EC should seriously analyse the  severe disadvantages of e-voting, even before thinking about it as an option for our voting system. They should also seriously investigate why one of the largest democracies, like India and the US, have strongly given valid arguments against electronic voting.

What is actually electronic voting, also known as, e-voting?  E-voting is a term encompassing several different types of voting, embracing both electronic means of casting a vote, storing the voting record in some database, and electronic means of counting votes. According to ‘E-voting: International developments and lessons learnt’ written by T Buchsbaum, there are two main types of e-voting that can be identified.  One is e-voting, which is physically supervised by representatives of governmental or independent electoral authorities (for example electronic voting machines located at polling stations); and the other one is remote e-voting where voting is performed within the voter’s sole influence, and is not physically supervised by representatives of governmental authorities (e.g. voting from one’s personal computer, mobile phone, television via the internet (i-voting). The latter option is hardly possible in our country because of lack of accessibility to personal computers or televisions for every voter. The Election Commission may attempt to consider the first option, which is the electronic voting machines for voters, used for capturing the ballot. Electronic voting systems may use electronic ballots to store votes in the computer memory. Systems which use them exclusively are called DRE (direct recording electronic) voting systems. These systems record votes by means of a ballot display provided with mechanical or electro-optical components that can be activated by the voter, that processes data with computer software and that records voting data and ballot images in memory components. After the election, it produces a tabulation of the voting data stored in a removable memory component and as a printed copy. Please note that Electronic Voting machine, storage device and printers at the polling stations are a must for this type of system. These devices need power and power backups given the electricity and power condition of Bangladesh.  Also devices can fail and additional backups for the device have to be maintained. The security and hacking of the device and stored data are also serious concerns along with many others, which I will touch upon soon.

In a country like Bangladesh, where the literacy rate is 53 per cent and where computer literacy rate is even less, such electronic ballots are definitely unreasonable and illogical. Moreover, different international organisations have criticised the e-voting system, such as the UK-based Open Rights Group alleged that a lack of testing, inadequate audit procedures, and insufficient attention given to system or process design with electronic voting leaves elections open to error and fraud. In 2009, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany found that when using voting machines the ‘verification of the result must be possible by the citizen reliably and without any specialist knowledge of the subject.’ The DRE (direct recording electronic) computers used till then did not fulfil that requirement.

I have mentioned in my writing, few disadvantages or cons of the e-voting system that should be considered seriously by all concerned  before taking any kind of random decision on e-voting. These are:

1)    Vulnerability to hacking: According to the Congressional Research Service of Election Reform and Electronic Voting Systems, vendors and election jurisdictions generally state that they do not transmit election results from precincts via the internet, but they may transmit them via a direct modem connection or Virtual Private Network (VPN). However, even this approach may be subject to attack via the internet, especially if encryption and verification are not sufficient. That is because telephone transmission systems are themselves increasingly connected to the internet and computers to which the receiving server may be connected, such as through a local area network (LAN), may have internet connections. So, using internet would be out of the question in case of Bangladesh where we continuously have history of suspicion over electoral fraud.

2)    Voter verified paper audit trails: All fully-electronic (touch screen, DRE, internet) voting systems are subject to the limitations and risks of computer technology. This includes the inability to detect the presence of hardware and/or software that could be used, deliberately or inadvertently, to alter election outcomes. According to Rebecca Mercuri, PhD, president, Notable Software, democratic elections require independent verification that all balloting choices have been recorded as intended and vote totals have been reliably and indisputably created from the same material examined by the voters. A Voter Verified Paper Ballot (VVPB) provides an auditable way to assure voters that their ballots will be available to be counted. Without VVPB there is no way to independently audit the election results.

3)    Susceptibility to fraud: Voting fraud is not either present everywhere or absent everywhere. Especially in our country, there have always been allegations of fraud by all the losing political parties. Fraud comes in degrees and increments. A malicious voting system created and distributed by one vendor to hundreds of thousands of polling booths, can systematically falsify millions of votes. Although some may believe that tampering with an electronic voting machine is extremely hard to do, computer scientists have tampered with machines to prove that it is quite easily done.  However, if people have access to the machines, and know how to work them, they can take the memory card out of the machine, which stores the votes, and in place they put their own memory card with a virus that can tamper with the votes. It is a fraud on a large scale and wholesale level.  Stuffing a ballot box, in contrast, works at a retail level. A tamperer, however malicious and skilled, can stuff only as many ballots as might plausibly be cast at the polling place, but a faulty and corrupted voting system (malicious DRE software) could affect far more votes.

4)    Accuracy in capturing voters’ intent:  If a touch screen is used in the elections, the sensors in touch screen devices can be knocked out of alignment by shock and vibration that may occur during transport. Unless these sensors are realigned at the polling place prior to the start of voting, touch screen machines can misinterpret a voter’s intent. For example, a voter might touch the part of the screen identified with candidate X, but candidate Y’s would light up instead.

5)    Political ties of manufacturers: The present government’s decision not to keep the provision of caretaker government and to hold next general election under a political government and the election commission, has made the attempt of using  e-voting system more unreasonable and unfair. Our election commission itself were also subject to considerable amount of criticism because of its controversial comments and actions during the emergency period after January 11 takeover, and also during the last 2008 general elections. Considering our political culture, it is undeniably a fact that any manufacturer or company hired for the e-voting system will tailor the e-voting machines according to the ‘needs’ of the current political party in power. So these machines will be subject to scrutiny, distrust and inquiry from all the other political parties in the country.

6)    Malicious software programming: Any computer software is basically generated from software programming and coding. And all these softwares could be tampered with by a computer programmer who knows the source code. Testing electronic voting systems for security problems, especially if they were intentionally introduced and concealed, is basically impossible. If malicious coding is inserted by programmers into commercial software that are triggered by obscure combinations of commands and keystrokes via the computer keyboard, then election results can change completely.

7)    Physical security of machines: Regarding physical hardware controls, many of the DRE (direct recording electronic voting machine) models under examination contained weaknesses in controls designed to protect the system. According to the USA Government Accountability office, all the locks on a particular DRE model were easily picked, and were all controlled by the same keys. Also a particular model of DRE was linked together with others to form a rudimentary network. If one of these machines were accidentally or intentionally unplugged from the others, voting functions on the other machines in the network would be disrupted. In addition, reviewers found that switches used to turn a DRE system on or off, as well as those used to close the polls on a particular DRE terminal, were not protected.

8)    Secure storage of cast votes: The votes that are cast using the electronic voting machines, are stored in a safe storage or space in the computer machine memory. But, Doug Jones, PhD, Professor of Computer Science at University of Iowa explained in his book, Secure Electronic Voting, ‘For over a decade, all direct recording electronic machines have been required to contain redundant storage, but this redundant storage is not an independent record of the votes, because it is created by the same software that created the original record. As a result, the multiple files are of limited use to check the correctness of the software.’

The disadvantages mentioned above are a few among many other possible technical, manual and intentional errors in any kind of e-voting system. There are numerous examples of faulty systems in actual elections all over the world where the results or the elections were postponed. On October 30, 2006 the Dutch Minister of the Interior withdrew the license of 1187 voting machines from manufacturer Sdu NV, about 10 per cent of the total number to be used, because it was proven by the General Intelligence and Security Service that one could eavesdrop on voting from up to 40 meters using Van Eck phreaking (process of eavesdropping). The decision was forced by the Dutch grass roots organisation who demanded ‘We do not trust voting computers.’ During 2006 election of USA, in Miami, Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale, and Florida in October 2006, three votes intended to be recorded for Democratic candidates were displaying as cast for Republican. Election officials attributed it to calibration errors in the touch screen of the voting system. In Napa County, California, March 2, 2004, an improperly calibrated electronic scanner overlooked 6,692 absentee ballot votes. So, even the most advanced nations like United States of America where the infrastructure of power and computing is almost flawless had trouble using electronic voting machines and storage device. Can one imagine what happens when we try to use similar type of machines and devices in Bangladesh where having continuous power is a rare occasion and power failures are much more frequent with no supply of stable voltage!

So, why do we want to introduce e-voting in next general elections in Bangladesh? Will this ensure free and fair election under the current political environment in our country? The answer undoubtedly will be in the negative. The election commission can at best try these Electronic Voting Machines and supporting equipments and systems at a small scale in some affluent urban areas like Gulshan, in Dhaka first. But they are pushing for a grand scale adoption and trying to confuse journalists and the press with jargons like ‘e-voting’ vs ‘electronic’ voting. This article, hopefully, will clearly shed some light on the technicality of the issues involved in ‘e-voting’ machines and devices and the infrastructure required for the systems and its serious pitfalls, as well as, why the most advanced nations have tried and failed in using such systems.

Electoral fraud is illegal in any form or sense, but the disturbing part is electoral fraud injected in e-voting systems are often almost impossible to detect. That, along with other concerns outlined in this article, make the e-voting machines much more questionable. First and foremost, such political environment has to be created in our country where the general elections can be held under a caretaker government and all political parties can have faith on the Election Commission, before we think about bringing any kind of change in the conventional voting method. Hopefully our election commission will realise this and not play with the fate of the nation.


Shama Obaed is a computer engineer who studied at the California


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