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Vote buying, intimidation of voters - the unintended consequences of electronic voting in Ireland

The Irish government has decided that electronic voting will be used in the European and local elections in June 2004. Against the wishes of all the opposition parties, the government is planning to use an electronic system which makes it impossible to verify that the result is correct. While most attention has rightly focussed on the unverifiable, undemocratic nature of the Irish electronic voting system, there are other consequences of electronic voting that also should be considered.

Electronic voting will have serious implications for the secrecy of the ballot. The ballots cast (allegedly) in the 3 constituencies that used electronic voting in 2002 can be downloaded from the internet (see the links pages for details). It is unthinkable that the ballots not be made available - how otherwise can people make sure that the votes were counted correctly?

However, a simple look at these ballots shows that there is a serious problem using electronic voting with STV. STV allows one to rank the candidates in order of preference from 1 to n, where n is the number of candidates. The number of ways to vote for all candidates is n! (ie. 1 x 2 x 3 ..... x n-1 x n). This means that the number of possible ways of voting for all n candidates is almost always many orders of magnitude greater than the electorate. In Galway West, where there were 17 candidates in 2002, the number of ways to vote for all 17 was 355,687,428,096,000 (355 thousand billion). Put another way, there were 6 billion combinations for every voter.

The practical importance of such huge numbers is this:- it is quite easy for a voter to give their vote a unique digital signature, which can be later identified in the downloadable file of ballots. If I sign my name on the ballot paper, my vote will quite rightly be rejected. Yet, if I assign my vote a unique digital signature, no one will know.

Suppose I wanted to sell my vote to another person - all I have to do is to agree a set of preferences to use on the ballot paper. Once the file of ballots is made available on the internet, the purchaser of my vote simply checks that the agreed list of preferences is there and then pays me the money. The chances of anyone else using the agreed combination of votes is so small as to be not worth considering.

Similarly, electronic voting allows for intimidation of voters. If someone is given a list of preferences to use when voting, and is told that they will be beaten up if that sequence does not appear in the list of ballots, what can they do? They know that the chances of someone else using the same sequence of preferences are negligible and that if they do not vote as requested, that they will be found out. Their ballot is no longer secret.

Perhaps the reality is that electronic voting and STV are incompatible.
© Ciaran Quinn, Dublin - last updated on 1st February 2004