Chronicle

When technology can make a difference

Some themes very relevant to election campaigns will not be brought into the debate just because it is - election campaign. The media space is so full of opinions that general democracy issues tend to disappear. But the lack of accessibility when it comes to voting is an important democratic question that we mustn’t forget.

Susanna Laurin

Title: Chief Research and Innovation Officer

Polling places that don’t work for people with physical disabilities. Ballot papers that don’t work for people with reading difficulties. Individual candidate voting that doesn’t work for the visually impaired. With a good digital electoral system, most of these problems could be eliminated, creating greater independence and higher level of inclusion.

Is the glass half empty or half full?

In Estonia, which is usually said to lead the e-election development, the security issues have been in focus. In Norway, where they’ve tried e-elections on a smaller scale at several levels, the government considers the problems too severe and has therefore come to the conclusion not to introduce the system. In Sweden we’ve investigated the matter without performing any practical tests. Technical difficulties, particularly when it comes to security tend to be the main argument against e-voting. The sceptics also fear that individuals more easily could be influenced or deceived. Another argument against e-voting occurring in the debate is that citizens would not trust or understand the system.

Of course there are problems. IT systems have a tendency to be buggy (or is it just me?), and we’ve probably all experienced how vulnerable important societal services are when some cable has been cut by mistake. At the same time, today’s analogue voting system hardly can be called perfect?

Every election period some ballots are misplaced or wrongly counted. There are reports of people missing from the electoral rolls. Eager party functionaries help out with the voting in nursing homes without fully ensuring the voluntariness. The ballot secrecy is revealed at several places because of carelessness or ignorance. People who want to change their early vote can visit numerous different polling places without meeting a functionary that actually knows how to help.

Still, we consider elections in our part of the world to be democratic and well executed. Although many people with disabilities can’t participate. For me, this doesn’t make sense.

Can we trust the systems?

Without pretending that I understand the safety issues in detail, I imagine that the risks of e-elections must be possible to get around. If we can handle our bank errands, send in our tax declarations and order medication online, we must also be able to vote via the web, right? Or, at least vote digitally in designated venues. The benefits for people with disabilities would be huge, and that argument should weigh heavily in the debate.

Funka has audited e-election systems from an accessibility point of view for several years. A lot has happened in that time and the opportunities to make something really good is not far away. I hope that visionary politicians who care about democracy look into solving the problems, and thereby taking a big leap towards increased accessibility in voting. It’s time to live up to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities speech regarding the right to participate in democratic processes.

Wikipedia sorts out some concepts of e-elections, opens in new window

Wikipedia examples of countries that have tried e-elections, opens in new window

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