Voting from your smartphone: The electronic future of democracy

In the EU Referendum, you will have voted by visiting your local polling station, noting your decision on a piece of card and then submitting it by posting it into a sealed box. But what if the whole process could be completed by using a smartphone?

Computer scientist Professor Mark Ryan passionately believes that electronic voting is the way forward, if the security problems could be solved. “You can do everything on your phone these days,” he explains. “Why shouldn’t you be able to vote?”

Electronic voting would be better for many reasons, Mark believes. The most obvious of these is that it would make voting incredibly easy, meaning that people would be more likely to vote. It would also cut down on cost, eliminating the need for polling stations and the various other stages in the voting process.

However, voting electronically comes with its own set of problems, as we cannot observe what is happening in the computer. “A computer gets hacked and people find out days or weeks later”, Mark explains. Therefore, there is no way of knowing whether a vote has been tampered with – by a virus or otherwise - once it has been cast.

Mark, alongside fellow University of Birmingham academic, Gurchetan Grewal, Liqun Chen of Hewlett Packard and Michael Clarkson of Cornell University, has created an electronic voting system called ‘Du-Vote’ to attempt to solve this problem.  Voters would be able to input their vote into a small hardware token similar to those used by banks. This token could not be controlled wirelessly, meaning that a third party could not change their vote. The smartphone would not contain information about the vote, so no one could find out who they had voted for, even if the phone were hacked.

However, this system is not currently useable in elections and referendums. For instance, Du-Vote requires you to type long codes into the token in order to be able to vote, meaning that the likelihood of voters making a mistake is rather high. Furthermore, if a mistake is made, the system does not allow the voter to re-input the code, meaning that they will be unable to vote.

Future research intends to look into another way of voting which would address these shortcomings, involving the use of codes. These codes would be similar to a discount code used on a clothing website or a gift card code for Amazon. Potential new voting systems could use these to represent the various candidates within an election and voters would vote for their chosen candidate via the corresponding code. This system would prevent another computer being used to change your vote, as the computer could not know which codes are valid and which are not.

Although there is still some way to go before electronic voting can be used in referendums or elections, it appears that there will be a time in the not too distant future where this will be the norm. “It’s inevitable that we will get electronic voting,” Mark argues. “The challenge is to make it good”.