Will electronic voting machines cause digital exclusion?
The following essay was written as part of my Master’s degree at King’s College, London.
30 January 2013 Danish Minister for Economic and Interior Affairs, Margrethe Vestager introduced a bill permitting electronic elections in Denmark (Vestager, 2013a). The bill was rejected by parliament 13 March, to much surprise for the government (Kildebogaard, 2013a) (Bredsdorff, 2013), some prominent politicians, even mocking both IT experts and opposition using the hashtag #jordenerflad (the earth is flat), calling them technophobes, who live in the future.
What I found striking following the debate and reading the hearing statements was how technology was the main focus, government arguing how technology would help people with disabilities, while opponents mainly focused on, the lack of, IT security and stability.
The debate on who might risk being or feeling excluded by electronic elections and how this might effect democracy, was limited, nearly absent.
In this essay I will discuss the bill, hearing statements and the public debate (1) prior to the vote in relation to theories of digital exclusion and inclusion. I will use these theories to detect strength and weaknesses in the debate, discussing whether the bill should have been passed or was rightfully defeated.
As there is limited research on digital inclusion and exclusion in Danish conditions, I have chosen to use British and Dutch studies, though the results might differ if the same studies where done in Denmark. Especially because elections changes from country to country, depending on culture, electoral systems etc. (Vestager, 2013b, p.32). Keeping this in mind, I will discuss the bill on the theory that the main features would be the same under Danish circumstances.
What the bill encompasses
Following a short summary of the bill bringing out the main points relevant for this essay. The bill (Vestager, 2013a) would introduce digital voting machines (touch screens or the like), replacing pen and paper in the polling booth; voters would still have to show up physically to cast their vote. In an introduction period (not further defined), a receipt would be printed, accompanying the digital vote, making sure voters would be able to double check their ballot papers and in case of suspicion of fraud or errors in the system, these printed ballot could be counted. The bill accentuates an aim to maintain the same level of anonymity in the voting process, as known from analogue procedures, and security as a main focus in an upcoming bidding round, when searching for the right suppliers of the digital voting system. The bill does not supply information of expected expenses and only vaguely describes the need for further education for election officials. Both the bill and the introduction of the bill by the minister underlines how electronic voting will help voters with physical disabilities to vote independently (no further details of how many voters this will affect), as well as minimisation of invalid ballots (0,32% in the general election in 2011 (Vestager, 2013b, p.8)).
The bill would allow voting machines in general-, municipal-, regional- and European Parliament elections, making it an option from the municipal election in November 2013, but optional for the time being (not further defined).
Digital inclusion and exclusion
In the following I will discuss whether the bill, hearing statements and debate sufficiently covered potential exclusion of certain social groups in society and the potential risks this might constitute for the democratic system.
Examining the list of organizations and authorities the ministry called on for hearing statements (Vestager, 2013b) or who, by themselves, chose to submit statements, I find it worth noticing, how the majority represents technological expert knowledge, some represent the elderly, some knowledge of legislation and some physical disabled. Only two organizations, to some degree, represent people with different ethnic origin than Danish: The Danish Institute for Human rights and The Council for Ethnic Minorities (who did not submit a statement). None of the organizations called on mainly represents unemployed, low educated, receivers of social security etc.
According to Van Dijk and Hacker (Van Dijk and Hacker, 2000, p.1) public policy is often pre-occupied with material access, which is reflected in both hearing statements and the composition of the organizations and authorities mentioned above. The same tendency has been noticeable in the surrounding debate mainly concerning security, fraud, cracking and how this might lead to lack of trust in the democratic system (Bredsdorff, 2013) (Vestager, 2013b) (Kildebogaard, 2013b) (Kjærulff, 2013). Considering the scope of this essay I will not go into further detail with the concerns of security and privacy, barely point out that this has been the main discussion.
What is important in relation to this essay is, how a main focus on the technological aspects of the challenges concerning digital development in society risk leading to biased conclusions, according to Van Dijk and Hacker, as barriers causing digital exclusion are diverse and complicated (Van Dijk and Hacker, 2000, p.2).
To help nuancing the discussion of digital divides Van Dijk and Hacker have defined four barriers worth considering, when discussing inequality in relation to use of digital technology (Van Dijk and Hacker, 2000, p.1):
- Lack of experience, causing psychological/mental barriers.
- Lack of material access.
- Skills access.
- Lack of usage opportunities.
As the material is provided in the poling booth, the main focus must be, whether voters are used to using digital technology in their everyday life, having experience, material access, skills and usage opportunities, as voters unaccustomed to technology might avoid participating in the elections. The four barriers are often “(…) neglected or viewed as a temporary phenomenon only touching old people, some categories of housewives, illiterates, and unemployed. The problem of inadequate digital skills is reduced to the skills of operation, managing hardware and software” (Van Dijk and Hacker, 2000, p.2). This seems to be reflected in the hearing statements, as the elderly is represented, but other (digitally) vulnerable social groups lack representation and the bill only scanty meets this as an economic concern by stating: “minor readjustment charges concerning voters, who is not accustomed to IT” (Vestager, 2013a, p.13).
The lack of discussion concerning the mental barriers could indicate a general misunderstanding raised by Van Dijk and Hacker (Van Dijk and Hacker, 2000, p.10) that digital exclusion will disappear the more we as a society get used to using computer, internet and other digital appliances. Where as research shows the gap between experienced users and inexperienced users follows an s curve and stays the same, causing a risk of inexperienced user always feeling left behind maintaining the mental barrier, though they gain experience, and those having a technological advantage will not lean back and stop learning, where as the knowledge and “lack of comfort” gap remains (Norris, 2001, p.31) (Helsper, 2013, p.8) (Van Dijk and Hacker, 2000, p.16). Though some voters with high education and material wealth might have chosen not to use technology, the important group in relation to this essay is those lacking knowledge because of low education, unemployment or because they are socially marginalization in society (Helsper, 2013, p.17) as they would be the once affected by the four barriers as mentioned in the above.
As the bill aims to secure high voter turnouts in the future, underlining how this is important in the democratic system, it does not mention the importance of voter turnouts being equally distributed among electorates, though democracy will lack legitimacy, if certain groups in society abstain from voting (Elklit et al., 2004, p.74).
Who are the voters?
The intention of the bill was to introduce electronic voting at the municipal elections in November 2013. Research shows that the Danish municipal elections usually have a 70 percent turnout (Elklit et al., 2004, p.75), where as voters who are unmarried, on social security or incapacity benefits and living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods have a turnout below 30 percent in the capitol, Copenhagen (Elklit et al., 2004, p.76). Data also shows how ethnic minorities are more likely to vote the more integrated they are in the Danish society, with the result, that less integrated social groups lack representation in the democracy (Elklit et al., 2004, p.76).
Looking at the bill, hearing statements and the debate no one plead their cause, recognising the possible under-representation – neither those in favour of the bill nor those opposed to it.
As there is a convergence between those lacking digital experience and those not voting in the municipal elections, it might influence the elections leading people of limited means etc. less representation in the democracy, causing it to a lack legitimacy.
Contradicting the public nature of elections
Ellen Helsper argues the importance of keeping in mind “(How) Can we prevent the replication of existing patterns of social exclusion in the use of digital media?” (Helsper, 2013, p.3) As discussed in the above electronic voting might magnify the patterns of exclusion, though there are advantages for psychically disabled, according to both bill and interest groups (Vestager, 2013b, p.6) (Vestager, 2013a, p.6), there is a lack of facts showing how many might benefit, and no debate at all on who might be excluded, by alienating them either in the polling booth or reinforcing the barriers causing socially excluded groups not to show up at all.
The digital technologies suggested in the bill might seem like a minor change to the voting procedure, as it is aims to maintain well-known procedures only replacing pen and paper with touchscreens or the like. Nevertheless the minister introducing the bill, Margrethe Vestager, added in an interview, that a consequence of electronic voting would be limiting election officials, in the long run, emphasising it as a small sacrifice for the advantages (Lange, 2013), the statement confirming concerns from the opposition (Kjærulff, 2013).
Though it is difficult to compare elections across borders, as mentioned in the introduction, similar changes to voting procedures have cost, substantial protest in other countries, e.g. Ireland, The Netherlands and Germany. In 2009 the German protests led to a court ruling in the Federal Constitutional Court prohibiting the use of voting machines arguing “that the use of the electronic machines contradicts the public nature of elections” (European Digital Rights, 2009), causing voting procedures to return to pen and paper, despite voting machines being in use for 10 years without evidence of errors or fraud. In both Ireland and Germany the main arguments have been, procedures seeming opaque, drawing the conclusion, if there was the least risk of alienating marginalized social groups in the democratic system or causing mistrust in the democratic process, it would not be worth the potential advantages (Vestager, 2013b) (Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, 2009).
Electronic elections in the future
Margrethe Vestager, the minister responsible for the bill, predicts there will be experiments with electronic voting machines in near future, despite the vote down (Kildebogaard, 2013c).
In these trails, it will be important to research, not only usability easing physically use of the machines, but also if the digital changes risk turning voters into non-voters, and whether this will affect the democratic composition of the turnout in general. The non-existing debate concerning this area, seem to indicate a lack of knowledge and facts. As described the debate has been pre-occupied with technology, neglecting the possible alienation and lack of transparency causing Germany and Ireland to return to pen and paper.
As described in the introduction, the changes in voting procedures, according to the bill, would have been relatively small, one of the main features being a printed receipt, making recounting votes possible, and thereby supporting a notion of transparency. But still, when prominent politicians, e.g. Minister for research, innovation and higher education, Morten Østergaard, taunts the opposition calling them technophobes (Østergaard, 2013), and Trine Bramsen, IT spokes person for the social democrats argues, that Denmark need voting machines, because “we are a digital nation” (Kjærulff, 2013), combined with the bill and the hearing statements, it seems to indicate a lopsided discussion preoccupied with technological progress, neglecting those risking digital exclusion.
Bredsdorff, M. (2013) Leder: Tåbeligt at overhøre it-specialisternes advarsler mod elektroniske valg [online]. Available from: http://ing.dk/artikel/leder-taabeligt-overhoere-it-specialisternes-advarsler-mod-elektroniske-valg-157106 (Accessed 10 April 2013).
Van Dijk, J. & Hacker, K. (2000) ‘The digital divide as a complex and dynamic phenomenon‘, in 1 June 2000 Paper presented at the 50th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, Acapulco, 1-5 June 2000.
Elklit, J. et al. (2004) Hvem stemmer – og hvem stemmer ikke? (who is voting – and who isn’t?). Aarhus University Press. [online]. Available from: http://www.unipress.dk/media/2909707/87-7934-843-2_hvem_stemmer.pdf.
European Digital Rights (2009) No E-Voting In Germany. 11 March. [online]. Available from: http://www.edri.org/edri-gram/number7.5/no-evoting-germany (Accessed 11 April 2013).
Federal Constitutional Court of Germany (2009) Use of voting computers in 2005 Bundestag election unconstitutional – press release. [online]. Available from: http://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/pressemitteilungen/bvg09-019en.html (Accessed 9 April 2013). [online].
Helsper, E. (2013) Digital Inclusion and Exclusion, presentation at King’s College 18 March 2013.
Kildebogaard, J. (2013a) Analyse: Hvad kan vi lære af e-valgsdebatten? [online]. Available from: http://www.version2.dk/artikel/analyse-hvad-kan-vi-laere-af-e-valgsdebatten-51285 (Accessed 8 April 2013).
Kildebogaard, J. (2013b) Danmarks førende e-valgsforsker: Forkast lovforslag om e-valg (Denmarks leading elections reserach scientist: reject the e-election bill) [online]. Available from: http://www.version2.dk/artikel/danmarks-foerende-e-valgsforsker-forkast-lovforslag-om-e-valg-50245 (Accessed 8 April 2013).
Kildebogaard, J. (2013c) Vestager efter e-valgs-nederlag: ’Jeg er dybt forundret’ [online]. Available from: http://www.version2.dk/artikel/vestager-efter-e-valgs-nederlag-jeg-er-dybt-forundret-51217 (Accessed 11 April 2013).
Kjærulff, A. (2013) Aflyttet (eng.: Tapped). 6 February. [online]. Available from: http://arkiv.radio24syv.dk/video/7733217/aflyttet-uge-6-2013.
Lange, L. (2013) Elektroniske valg kommer trods kritik (E-elections will come despite criticism). 13 February. [online]. Available from: http://www.altinget.dk/artikel/elektroniske-valg-kommer-trods-kritik (Accessed 13 April 2013).
Norris, P. (2001) Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty, and the Internet Worldwide. Cambridge University Press.
Vestager, M. (2013a) Forslag til lov om ændring af lov om valg til Folketinget, lov om valg af danske medlemmer til Europa-Parlamentet og lov om kommunale og regionale valg (Bill altering the former bill of elections (parliament, municipal, regional and European Parliament elections introducing digital voting and counting of votes). [online]. Available from: http://www.ft.dk/samling/20121/lovforslag/L132/som_fremsat.htm#dok (Accessed 9 April 2013). p.34. [online].
Vestager, M. (2013b) Hearing statements including repliesDanish Minister for Economic and Interior Affairs, Margrethe Vestager (final) Høringsnotat – 240113 – endelig [DOK51072]. [online]. Available from: http://www.ft.dk/samling/20121/lovforslag/l132/bilag/1/1209860.pdf [online].
Østergaard, M. (2013) Tweet from Minister for Research, Innovation and Higher Education in Denmark mocking the oppostition using the hashtag #jordenerflad (the earth is flat). [online]. Available from: https://twitter.com/oestergaard/statuses/314746267009949697. [online].
(1) I have read through all online articles on the subject from the Danish newspaper with the largest circulation www.politiken.dk, www.version2.dk a dominant news site for it professionals and engineers and relevant radio programmes from Radio 24syv, one of two public service media stations in Denmark.