Saturday, August 2, 2014

Did Poor PR Kill Internet Voting in Norway?

Norway’s government ministry in charge of Internet voting has announced that future trials of the technology will be discontinued for the time being.  Irresponsible news sources, most prominently the BBC, have had a field day inventing reasons as to why Parliament and the Ministry of Modernization made this decision. Unheard through the din of Chicken Little histrionics, the Ministry has posted a “corrective statement” especially for the BBC on its website.  Also, Norway’s Institute for Social Research (ISR) has evaluated the 2013 experiment.  Here’s what the Norwegians say:

Contrary to the BBC report, turnout was not a factor in Norway’s decision. The Ministry states that “Internet voting was never intended or expected to raise voter turnout. The main goal of the pilots was to increase accessibility for marginal groups, such as disabled or expatriate voters.”

These goals were achieved.  The ISR found that among those overseas Norwegians who were registered in the 12 trial towns, turnout was 9% higher than for those abroad who were not registered in participating municipalities. (p136) And, a whopping 66% of overseas voters who were eligible to do so voted online. (p137)

Back home, the use of Internet voting increased by nearly 10%.  In the 2011 trials, 26% of the votes were cast online; but in 2013 that number went up to 35%. (p135)

Folks who were non-voters in the past may have been drawn to vote by the new technology. “19 percent of the non-voters in 2011 cast their ballots online in 2013,” and among these, younger voters voted online more than other groups. (p136)

The ease of voting online was the major reason given by online voters. This was especially true for “people with special needs.”

With a low regard for veracity, the BBC reported that “the fact that the trials did not boost turnout also led to the experiment ending.” Small wonder why the BBC article would say this. Online voting has recently been suggested by Jenny Watson, the head of Britain’s Electoral Commission, as a way to boost turnout among young people.  The BBC editors oppose online voting, and twisted the truth about Norway to suit their own agenda.

The BBC article is entitled, “E-voting experiments end in Norway amid security fears.”  Norway’s correction: “Quite to the contrary, [an] evaluation report shows very high levels of voter trust in Internet voting – as much as 94% of Internet voters report trust in Internet voting.”  In fact, as to the technology itself, “There have been no significant security concerns raised in the trials.”

The BBC writes that some unnamed “Software experts” had criticisms of the “encryption scheme” used by Norway. But these jibs did not come from any of the real experts who actually built the system. Indeed, the Ministry counters that its system has “received widespread international acclaim for the use of a verifiable cryptographic voting protocol, which allowed third parties to perform robust audits of the count.”

The ISR reports that most “of the internet voters cast their votes in private.”  But many of the online voters take a distinctly casual attitude towards privacy. A significant 27% of online voters “stated that they were not alone in the room when they voted,” and 7% reported that they willingly “let others [see] how they voted.” (p138)

Attitudes towards privacy vary between generations. Younger voters are somewhat less concerned with it than older voters. (p138)

Improper Conduct
Internet voting neither invited nor facilitated cheating. Only about 1% “stated that they experienced any pressure to vote for a specific party. Internet voters were not exposed to more pressure than others.” (p139)

Likewise, only about 1% “stated that others had tried to buy their vote, or that they knew about cases of vote-buying. There are no significant differences between internet voters and other voters in this respect.” (p139)

Coercion and Secrecy
A senior adviser on the Internet voting trials, Christian Bull, says that a closer look at the public opinion studies of voter concerns shows that “The ‘fear factor’ in Norway is all about secrecy of the ballot when ballots are cast outside of the polling stations. It has nothing to do with technology, and would apply equally to postal voting.”*

The Ministry admits on its website that there remains political controversy “over fears that the security mechanism of re-voting was insufficient, and that allowing votes to be cast outside of polling stations would diminish the sanctity of the vote.” By “re-voting,” the Ministry refers to the practice of allowing voters to vote multiple times, prior to Election Day voting, with the last vote cast canceling out all the prior votes. If a voter voted online, and then voted again on paper at the polling station, or vice versa, only the last vote would be counted. This option was meant to discourage coercion, violations of privacy, or buying/selling with online voting.

At least some of the voters in the 12 towns where the trials were conducted understood the re-voting process. Out of a quarter million eligible voters, “528 electronic votes were cancelled due to voters having cast a paper vote and 2281 electronic votes were cancelled because the voter had re-voted electronically.” These are the folks who knew how to use the technology, and trusted in it. In the Ministry, and among election observers, there “is no suspicion that any voters successfully voted both electronically and on paper.” The BBC suggestion that some voters cast two votes, both of which were counted, is just plain wrong.

Unfortunately, polling in the participating towns revealed that less than half the respondents understood the re-voting option. Apparently, those folks, and a great many of the voters outside the trial areas, didn’t understand that this re-voting measure could protect the “sanctity” of the vote, and they retained fears about the possibility of coercion, loss of privacy, and buying/selling of votes

While attitudes towards voting online among the quarter million eligible voters in the trial areas were very positive, Norway has a population of over five million, and it is among these folks that resistance to Internet voting is highest.

Has there been a failure of public education outside the trial areas which has allowed a consensus based on uninformed fear to emerge in the country, and to influence Parliament?

“Due to the lack of broad political will to introduce Internet voting,” writes the Ministry (and under pressure from Parliament), it has “decided not to continue expending public resources on continuing the pilots.”  

Could the problem here be that the system technicians hyper-focused on getting the technology right, but neglected the human dimension; i.e., public relations? If so, then they need to re-focus their efforts if Internet voting is to ever take hold in Norway.

*Personal communication on Linkedin, also the source of the “1%” figure used.

William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
Political Scientist, author, speaker,
CEO for The Internet Voting Research and Education Fund
Twitter: wjkno1

Author of Internet Voting Now! 
Kindle edition:


Monte Letourneau said...

"While attitudes towards voting online among the quarter million eligible voters in the trial areas were very positive, Norway has a population of over five million, and it is among these folks that resistance to Internet voting is highest." seems like something is missing here, among which folks, don't they all belong to the 5 million?

William J. Kelleher, Ph.D. said...

There were 12 trial areas. Those people generally had positive opinions about voting online. But the great mass of people outside those areas were not sufficiently educated about Internet voting, and expressed fear and doubt to Parliament.

Tom Courbat said...


Internet Voting CANNOT be utilized safely for one simple reason – at least in the U.S., the expectation is that all votes are private – there is no way to conduct a recount when all one has is ones and zeros in the ether. Also, with companies like Google, the Pentagon, etc. regularly hacked by the Chinese, Iranians, Russians, etc., why would anyone be so niave as to believe an election, conducted over the Internet, could not be easily hacked by someone with about a 6th grade education?

This convenience thing is just a pile of crap. If voting is so unimportant to someone that they can’t get off their ass and go vote once or twice in a year or two, then I guess the right to vote doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot to them. And adjustments are already provided for disabled voters in the U.S., so there is no need to introduce the most insecure method of voting possible into the equation. I am a 100% service-connected disabled veteran, and I can vote just fine every election without the Internet.

Just because you can purchase online does NOT mean you can vote online. If you purchase online and there is a problem with the product, you have your receipt and can file for a replacement or a refund. With Internet voting, you CANNOT be provided with a copy of how you voted, as it violates privacy requirements – you could “sell” your vote by providing proof of the fact that you voted and who you voted for. Sorry, but that is exactly what regimes like Stalin and Hitler love – they WILL check how you voted and if you voted wrong, well, you know…. That’s why there are no receipts in elections, and that’s why Internet voting can’t be trusted.

And the statement that “… [the system]has “received widespread international acclaim for the use of a verifiable cryptographic voting protocol, which allowed third parties to perform robust audits of the count.” So are we saying a third party can somehow go in and see how I voted? They’d better NOT be able to do that! An audit of an election is not a RECOUNT of an election. No one has been able to explain how an actual RECOUNT of an Internet election could take place? Nor has anyone been able to show that a “robust audit” would reveal electronic loading of dozens or hundreds or thousands of additional votes (or deletion thereof), depending upon the size of the jurisdiction. Hackers can cover their tracks without a problem, so no one would ever know if/when/how additional votes showed up and all of a sudden Candidate X wins when Candidate Y was winning right up until the very end.

Lastly, just because you don’t know something is missing (like 50votes)doesn’t mean 50 votes are not missing. It just means YOU don’t know one way or the other. The best hackers can manipulate code so discretely that absolutely NO ONE would ever know what damage has been done.

So why put machines and the Internet in between our voters and our ballots? Just go to your local precinct and cast your vote on a paper ballot. Volunteer to count the paper ballots cast AT THE POLLS once the polls close. It can all be done at very little cost or waste, and with 100% transparency, where anyone and everyone can observe the counting of the votes in real time. Remember, it’s not who votes that counts, it’s who counts the votes. Make the counting public and transparent – not via a black box!

Anonymous said...

I understand the objections from Mr Courbat but in Norway, all those issues were solved because the cryprographic protocols were extremely secure and hackers can not break them. Privacy, and security were guaranteed end-to-end along the voting process. Voters could have a unique private and secure receipt of their vote. Noone, including system administrators could ever break into the digital ballot box and change, delete or add votes.