Election Results in a Minute: Should Israel Switch to Online Voting?

The experts say no, but many countries use other digital technology such as computerized identification at polling stations

Sagi Cohen
Sagi Cohen
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Mr. Monopoly urges New Yorkers to vote. Can Israel shift to electronic voting?
Mr. Monopoly urges New Yorkers to vote. Can Israel shift to electronic voting?Credit: Charles Sykes,AP
Sagi Cohen
Sagi Cohen

We may be well into the 21st century, but Israelis are still voting with slips of paper that they place in an envelope and slide into a cardboard ballot box. And that’s even though almost everything today can be performed digitally on the internet. So why can’t Israelis, who cast their ballots at polling stations in Tuesday’s Knesset election, vote by computer or on their smartphones?

There are two major types of computer voting: the use of touch-screen voting machines at polling stations and online voting over the internet – which can be done without leaving home. Israeli law does not provide for absentee ballots.

Electronic voting machines exist in Brazil, as well as in a number of states in the United States.

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Computerized voting can be much faster, more efficient and precise – and eliminate some of the enormous logistical tasks that Election Day in Israel currently involve. Ballots wouldn’t have to be counted by hand, for example, meaning that theoretically it would be possible to know the final results by 10:01 P.M., a minute after the polls close. That would also eliminate the need for television exit polls, results of which are reported when the polls close.

A special polling station in Jerusalem for voters in coronavirus quarantine.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Computerized voting would be more environmentally friendly, reducing the need for paper and cardboard. It could help eliminate mistakes in voting and put an end to Election Day as a day off from work. It would also be expected to prevent fraud (or at least claims of fraud) in the identification process, in casting a vote and in counting the votes.

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In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, special arrangements had to be made in this week’s election for voters in quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19. They voted in person at specially-designated polling stations, but their ballots required special processing to verify that a fraudulent second ballot wasn’t cast in their name at their regular polling stations.

Over the years, experts in Israel and around the world have firmly opposed computerized voting – mainly due to major concern of cyberattacks or technical problems. They have taken the view that the supreme goal of an election should be preventing fraud and maintaining the integrity of the vote – and that this should take precedence over any other consideration or any advantage that technology may provide. Relatively new approaches, such as using blockchain technology to make fraud much more difficult, are still only in the theoretical stage.

Only one country, Estonia, allows all of its voters to cast their ballots via the internet. The Baltic country held the first election in the world in 2007 in which online voting was an option. Only 3.4 percent of Estonia’s voters availed themselves of the option that year, but by the country’s election in 2019, the figure jumped to 43.8 percent.

A Democratic Party primary election app in the United States.Credit: Bloomberg

In 2019, a study by the Knesset Research and Information Center found that nine other jurisdictions – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and several states in the United States –  permitted online voting in some form, but it was only made available to limited categories of voters, such as soldiers or citizens abroad.

A number of other countries have tried out computerized voting in recent years but then reconsidered in the face of concern over its reliability, information security issues and technical problems. In 2012, the Likud party primary in Israel was conducted using computerized voting that was marred by problems that were apparently caused by technical communications failures. Another potential problem with online voting is that citizens casting their votes from home might be more readily subject to pressure to vote a certain way.

A system that is designed to identify and register millions of voters within a short period of time and then record their votes and generate final results should be capable of functioning flawlessly. But concern that technical problems on Election Day could spell disaster for the democratic process and the public’s trust in the results has prevented many countries, including Israel, from making the switch.

An even larger vulnerability is concern over sabotage. Even the most secure system is not entirely safe from cyberattacks carried out by people seeking to alter the election result or undermine public trust in an election – particularly if a large number of groups, including foreign governments and intelligence agencies, have an interest in altering the results. 

Unique security flaws

“Securing the election systems is a complex thing. These aren’t generic systems. Every country has a different system, so the holes in the security are unique and you have to invest a great deal of effort in checking for security flaws,” Prof. Orr Dunkelman of the University of Haifa said in a lecture last year.

Developing an authentication system to prevent interference with the results is also a complex task. “A person writes the [computer] code,” Dunkelman, who is an expert on information security cryptography, noted.  “Let’s assume that I program the voting system, and I really want the ‘Canadian party’ to win. A citizen will vote for another party and behind it in the database, there will be a vote for the Canadian party. That is how the person who wrote the code can affect the results.”

The Knesset Research Center pointed out another problem: In a computerized election, it’s difficult to provide oversight of the election process and to conduct a recount in the event of suspected fraud.

And Dunkelman raises an issue that isn’t necessarily related to technology: “Elections are comprised of history, values and political culture. The balance is delicate: One of the arguments against switching to electronic voting is that in Brazil, families have traditionally controlled certain electoral regions, and that after the switch to computerized voting, everything changed. Changing the system also changed the voting patterns,” he said.

An electronic voting machine in India.Credit: Bloomberg

Nevertheless, the use of computers doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition – either entirely digital elections or completely paper ones. In Israel at the moment, the counting of the ballots is done entirely by hand, and computers are only used in tallying the number of votes and in releasing the results to the public. In many other countries, they are integrated into other stages of the voting process.

For example, a computerized identification system could be used when people arrive at the polling station. It could more accurately confirm the voter’s identity and prevent people from voting more than once or impersonating someone else. There are 42 countries that use technology for this purpose.

The issue of computerized voting has rarely been seriously examined in Israel. It was explored by an Interior Ministry committee established in 2013, but the committee never released recommendations. In 2014, there were also general recommendations on the matter in a report from the State Comptroller’s Office.

A complete computerization of elections in Israel may be a bad idea. There is also the option of increased use of computers in some aspects of the process – but no one in Israel appears to be particularly interested in it.

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