Analogue Democracy in a Digital Era

In less than two months the Dutch will go to the polling booths to elect a new parliament. Every voting- entitled citizen will receive a paper invitation by mail in advance, with directions to go to a designated polling station on election day. There, after submitting the received personal invitation together with photo-id, voting-entitled citizens can cast their vote on a paper ballot. After the polls are closed, all ballots are manually counted by trained volunteers in thousands of districts. Since this is of course quite labour-intensive and there is always room for human error, the thought of digitising the entire voting process doesn’t seem strange at all. This is probably why in March 2016, the Dutch People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) proposed to use voting-machines for the oncoming city- council elections in March 2018.

The Dutch are quite accustomed to the use of technology in everyday life. For instance, they use RFID-cards to pay for public transport. Their national OV-Chipkaart was introduced in 2006 and after a hesitant start its use has gained significant momentum. Since 2014 more than two billion transactions are recorded annually according to operator Trans Link Systems. For communication with most government offices the Dutch use DigID, a federated two-factor login system which enables online access to various services such as public healthcare and –housing services and the tax office. The Dutch pay for their online shopping using iDeal, an integrated online payment platform connected to all large Dutch banks. Since its introduction in 2005 the iDeal-platform has processed over one billion transactions. On social media, the Dutch are also quite active compared to many nations. This may well be explained by the fact that bandwidth is almost unlimited, with fiber-to-the-home, cable, DSL and 4G readily available, even in most rural areas.
With lives that are seemingly infused with technology, it makes you wonder why the Dutch aren’t voting digitally already. Technology is ubiquitous and appears to greatly shape and enhance their lives. Up to a point, where analogue voting seems really old-fashioned and even rather silly, especially given the fact that electronic-voting technology has been available since 1993. Why on earth would you want to wait a full night for the election results when computers and high- speed communication networks are ready and able to instantly satisfy your ravenous hunger for accurate results?

Technology will always win and our healthy appetite for information-services will continue to create opportunities for innovation and application of available technology in new contexts. Availability is not the only important factor when applying technology in a new context, though. Just because one can doesn’t mean one should. Another important factor in the adoption of technology, especially in the case of a democratic process, is trust.

A fair and democratic election should be anonymous, verifiable and all entitled-voters should be fully convinced that they took part in a fair election process. In case these three conditions are not sufficiently met the results will be up for debate, to say the least. In The Netherlands, the use of voting- machines was quite common in the past. In the nineties, numerous Dutch cities procured electronic voting technology for use in the election of both local- and national authorities. In 2004, after a thorough security inspection the Irish discard the Nedap voting-machines manufactured and used by the Dutch, before using them even once. This event amongst others, motivated a small group of critics to start a media campaign, years before the omnipresence of social media like Facebook and Twitter. The group got quite a lot of attention from mainstream media nonetheless, especially after they demonstrated some of the vulnerabilities in a television show called Een Vandaag in 2006 by manipulating digital voting results on live TV. The group argued that as a consequence of their findings, the only verifiable way of having fair elections was by paper ballot. After a firm tug of war with the Dutch government which took a lot longer than anyone would have imagined, The Netherlands returned to voting by use of paper ballots. The true USP of democratic elections proved to be trust in a transparent and verifiable process, rather than the convenience of instant results.

Whenever society doesn’t sufficiently trust technology, innovation and its influence appear to come to a standstill. In a democracy, society is able to pull the emergency break at a moment when technology does not (yet) have the means to prevent society from doing so. It would appear therefore that society influences technology more than the other way around. However, Groves’ Law states that technology always wins. In other words, as soon as technology is able to provide an answer to society’s concerns and hesitation, it prevents society from pulling this emergency break and by building on trust it further increases the adoption of innovation.

Trust is a proven key factor in both the adoption of new technology and democratic processes. The paradox in this case is that a trustless-technology called blockchain may prove to be the solution to todays’ concerns and a future solution for a fair and transparent digital voting system. The Follow-My-Vote project has developed an online voting system based on the same technology that supports Bitcoin transactions. The system is supposed to work anonymous, fair, transparent and secure. It is my guess that this system won’t gain much traction on short term though, since most people wouldn’t dare exchange their Euros for Bitcoins today. The blockchain phenomenon isn’t common and widely trusted enough just yet. I am sure however that one day in the not so distant future, society will develop the technological means to facilitate fair, anonymous and verifiable digital elections.

Update Jan 31st: It appears that some of the counting is still done by (very insecure) technology, according to Dutch broadcaster RTL.

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