Why online voting to fix South Africa’s election queues is a bad idea

With voters queuing for hours on Wednesday to cast their ballots in South Africa’s 2024 general election, there have been renewed calls for an online voting system in the country.

“The IEC should seriously consider implementing electronic online voting systems,” DJ and radio presenter Jack Lekgothoane said on X/Twitter.

“It’s time to move away from traditional paper-based voting processes. Online voting can eliminate the need for printing ballots and manual hand counting. Embracing digital voting is the future.”

Others were more succinct in their commentary.

“Online voting needs to be a thing. Coz this queuing business ain’t it,” printing and parcel service company Hobo Group said.

“We need an online voting system man,” another voter said on election day.

Very few countries have electronic voting. Fewer still offer an online option.

Estonia is a notable exception. However, while the country has hailed its e-voting system as a success, it has also faced significant criticism.

Many countries, including Finland, Germany, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Norway, and the Netherlands, have trialled such systems and abandoned them.

While developing a web application for South Africans to cast their vote sounds relatively simple, it is anything but.

Besides considering regular threats like vote tampering and network uptime, electronic voting system designers must also consider literal cosmic forces that can cause computer glitches.

Introducing electronic voting swaps the relatively simple problems of queue management and paper ballot distribution, security, and counting with a whole host of more complex problems.

Cybersecurity is one obvious major concern, but it is far from the only one.

Cryptographer and computer security expert Bruce Schneier has highlighted that adding computers into the mix increases the places mistakes and attacks can happen.

Everything from programming errors to malicious actors (i.e., “hacking”) must be considered when developing electronic voting systems.

Schneier also said that voting systems have four characteristics: accuracy, anonymity, scalability, and speed.

Electronic systems can help with scalability and speed — or, in South Africa’s case, queues — but computers introduce whole new classes of problems regarding ensuring accurate results and preserving people’s anonymity.

One famous example in computer science circles is Belgium’s 2003 federal elections, when a candidate received 4,096 extra votes due to a computer error.

An investigation determined that a bit flip caused the mistake — a single bit of memory was spontaneously flipped from 0 to 1, causing the error.

It was only detected because the glitch caused a mathematically impossible election result under Belgium’s system.

The prevailing theory is that this was a single-event upset caused by cosmic rays that hit the computer’s memory chip in precisely the right way, which the election system did not protect against.

Modern error correction code memory helps protect against glitches like this, but the Belgian example illustrates why computer security experts like Schneier advocate for paper backups.

Bruce Schneier, cryptographer and computer security expert

“Machines must have a voter-verifiable paper audit trails,” wrote Schneier.

“This is a paper ballot printed out by the voting machine, which the voter is allowed to look at and verify.”

Schneier said the voter could look at the paper printout behind a glass screen or collect it and put it into a ballot box as usual.

“The point of this is twofold: it allows the voter to confirm that his vote was recorded in the manner he intended, and it provides the mechanism for a recount if there are problems with the machine.”

Besides potentially reducing queues, electronic voting systems have the benefit of being fast.

Theoretically, voters could know the outcome of an election on the same day if votes are electronically cast and tallied.

However, in South Africa, we generally do not wait long to find out the results of an election.

The IEC has a week from election day to declare the result. It typically declares the election within three days.

Therefore, opting for electronic voting does not solve any accuracy or anonymity problems, and may actually introduce new ones.

South Africa also doesn’t currently have a speed problem.

However, the IEC did experience a scalability problem on Wednesday.

The question is whether this is severe enough to take on and mitigate the drawbacks of online elections.

Online voting can also make it easier for people with disabilities to participate.

However, there are much simpler ways to increase accessibility without introducing electronic systems.

In South Africa, the IEC offers various options for people who are vision-impaired or have low mobility.

This includes a special Universal Ballot Template, special voting days, and the ability to apply for a home or institution visit.

Blockchain technology is often touted as a possible solution, but Schneier has even harsher words here.

“It’s completely useless,” he said, adding that it could introduce risks to people’s anonymity.

A 2020 MIT paper has also described any move from Internet voting to blockchain voting as “going from bad to worse”.

Another factor to consider is the cost of implementing an online voting system relative to the problem it solves.

There are much cheaper solutions the IEC can consider to speed up queues on election day.

Schneier said it best: “If we’re going to spend money on new voting technology, it makes sense to spend it on technology that makes the problem easier instead of harder.”

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Why online voting to fix South Africa’s election queues is a bad idea