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Denmark should avoid e-voting—paper-based election is the best solution

Illustration: TM Grafik

The content of this article is solely the authors' own opinion.

No later than 5 June 2023, we will have general elections in Denmark, and if the political signals in the Danish Parliament are to be believed, it may well already be here in the autumn of 2022. When it comes to new elections, the debate about paper-based elections versus e-voting/electronic elections usually gets brought back up. We hear many arguments on this topic in the Advisory Board for Information Security at Dansk IT. They range from “we are a thoroughly digitalised country, so we should also be able to handle e-voting” to “there is something nice about meeting in the local hall and voting with the neighbours.”

Before we take a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages of e-voting, it would be useful to take a step back and look at what the purpose of the act of voting is and what characteristics a possible digital solution would need to have.

The purpose is simple enough. It is to be able to vote for a person or a party or decide on a yes/no question in a referendum. Technologically speaking, it is a simple task—but what is actually integral to the act of voting?

  • Anonymity: It must not be possible to subsequently determine who voted for what.
  • One person, one vote: We must ensure that it is not possible to sell one’s vote or vote on behalf of others.
  • Robustness: The system itself must be robust and able to function even in the event of a power outage or some other disturbance.
  • Transparency: Transparency ensures the confidence in the fact that the election is going well and that the result of the election is correct.
  • Confidence in the electoral process: That everything will go as it should.

E-voting is a bad idea

The first two points can be solved with technology reasonably easily. It is possible to design a way to log in, e.g. with NemID or MitID, which ensures that it is only possible to vote once, and to issue an electronic proof which allows a ballot to be displayed without being able to track who casts the vote via NemID or MitID. Point three—robustness—can perhaps be solved with the possibility of paper-based voting as a backup option.

When it comes to the last two points—transparency and confidence in the electoral process—it is difficult to find a technological solution. Quite simply: Who is able to discern whether the aforementioned electronic proof has been issued correctly and whether the counting mechanism is working without errors? How can the election officials show and convince the voters that the election process is intact and fair?

Paper is the best choice for the task

All the above points are, on the other hand, secured with the current paper-based system.

Anonymity and one vote per person: When there is an election, we all go down to our polling station and hand in our polling card. We then get a ballot paper, which we fill out inside a voting booth. It is in no way possible to link polling cards and ballots and subsequently determine who voted for one or the other party.

At the same time, only the voter is allowed to enter the voting booth, and it is not even allowed to take a picture of one’s own ballot and post it on social media. Theoretically, we could steal the neighbours’ polling cards, but the election officials will surely notice if the same person shows up and wants to vote several times during the same day at the same polling station.

Robustness: You cannot hack a pencil, and you can actually conduct an election with the current system by candlelight or in tents set up temporarily in a field.

Transparency: From the start of the election, there is full transparency. The election officials (who are ordinary citizens) ask those present to check the ballot boxes, which are then closed and sealed. When the polling stations close, all the votes are counted.

Confidence: The whole process can be quickly explained to both children and adults and is easy to understand. Everyone can grasp it quickly. Try to explain to a non-IT savvy person how a computer works—it is no easy task.

Of course, we cannot deny that it is possible to manipulate a small percentage of the votes in an election in Denmark, but it is a negligibly small percentage. Since everything is decentralized, it is not possible to manipulate the election to a greater extent.

E-voting means additional costs

Last but not least, Denmark has a relatively cheap system. It has been calculated that carrying out an election costs around DKK 120 million. With the level of complexity an electronic election system may have, we find it difficult to imagine developing and subsequently operating an IT system at the same cost. In addition, even if it could be done, it would still not be a good solution to protect confidence in the electoral process.

Vulnerability and risk associated with an election have many faces. You do not even need to hack the election itself—it is enough if you can damage the confidence in the election itself and cast doubt on whether the election result is correct. Then the real damage is already done.

Confidence in the electoral process itself is the very basic foundation of our democracy. Without confidence, there is no democracy. The Advisory Board for Information Security at Dansk IT believes that confidence in the electoral process is far more important than a technological solution, and we therefore advocate for a continued analogue and transparent electoral process.

Back in 2017, Dansk IT published a debate paper on whether the electoral process should be digitalised. This debate paper is still relevant and can be read here (PDF).

Thomas Kristmar is a member of the Advisory Board for Information Security at Dansk IT. Thomas is currently working as a director at PwC and is, among other things, former head of policy at the Centre for Cyber Security. He is also a member of the Danish Cyber Security Council.

Tine Tuxen Løvstrand is a member of the Advisory Board for Information Security at Dansk IT. For a number of years, Tine has worked with IT security in various companies, including NNE and Tryg, and is today self-employed (Tinetuxen ApS).

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