Speaking to the Assembly of French Citizens Abroad recently, French President Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to offer electronic voting in the next consular elections, due to take place in 2020. He argued that French overseas voters, who did not have the option of casting an online vote, were notably absent in the 2017 election. In today's digital world it is little wonder that citizens living overseas, or indeed those with disabilities or sight impairment who find it difficult to attend a polling station, feel disenfranchised from the democratic process. When so many other aspects of people's lives have been digitalized, and we feel confident and comfortable with the level of security in place to support activities like online banking and payments, there is no good reason why online voting should not be in place for French citizens alongside more traditional methods.
A look across the Channel and efforts in the UK to implement online voting as part of a number of initiatives put forward by the Commission for Digital Democracy seemed to have slowed down significantly. As far back as 2015, a report came out of the Commission recommended that citizens should have the option of an online vote by 2020, following similar time-frames to France, but precisely what has been done to ensure these ambitions are realised remains unclear.
As we all know, the issue of security and fears of rigged elections come to the fore during any discussion around online voting and electoral reform. It is, of course, critical that any electoral process provides tried and tested security, including all paper-based methods. But with advanced security now available to support online voting systems, one could argue that postal voting is more insecure than voting online due to the individual voter having no way of knowing that their ballot paper has reached its destination and then been cast as intended by an unknown recipient. Similarly, voting by proxy takes the act of placing the vote away from the individual and leaves no way of achieving absolute surety that their vote has been cast in the way they intended.
Modern online voting systems offer the right to vote in private, without fear of intimidation or reliance on someone else to vote on your behalf. They enable voters to see in real time that their vote has been cast-as-intended, recorded-as-cast and counted-as-recorded; and users even have the ability to view and amend their vote until the ballot closes should they change their mind. Essentially, online voting offers an effective solution to the problem of enabling overseas and disabled voters to participate in elections more easily, and, many believe, is a necessary step change for governments who need to embrace new technology in a digital age and engage younger voters.
End-to-end security and full verifiability are crucial to all stages of the election process, not only to protect the security and privacy of the vote and voter, but also prevent internal and external manipulation and guarantee that the process is transparent and verifiable by outside parties. What many people do not realise is that the advanced security used by many online voting systems is more rigorous than the security they have in place for their online banking. For example, while online voting security protects voter privacy from election and poll worker staff, service managers for online bank accounts have complete access to a client's transactions and information. In other words, many people are happy to bank online, and to register their vote online, via online platforms which do not adhere to the same high security standards used by most online voting systems.
With just two years to meet their online voting deadlines, it will be interesting to see what steps are taken in 2018 by the UK and French governments to ensure citizens have the option of a secure online vote alongside other paper-based methods. One thing remains clear, we need to get beyond the security debate and look at the growing number of successful implementations of online voting systems around the world if we are going to persuade some people that online voting is a safe and viable option.