Electronic and Internet Voting

– in the Scottish Parliament on 7th March 2018.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-10407, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on electronic and internet voting. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges that there is an increasingly wide spectrum of applications for digital technology, including those related to internet shopping, banking, travel and automated supermarket checkouts; understands that the latest digital technology has the potential to be developed for electronic and internet voting and deliver electors flexibility in their choice of voting method; considers that the traditional paper voting method has remained virtually unchanged since 1872 and has yet to benefit from advancements in technology; notes the calls by the Institution of Engineering and Technology for government to embrace the latest knowledge in electronic voting, which it believes will encourage more young people in the Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency and across Scotland to vote and help reduce the costs of the traditional paper voting system; recognises that there are important security considerations relating to confidentiality and eligibility that must first be resolved; believes that when these issues are resolved and public confidence is earned, electronic voting has the potential to deliver lower cost elections and improve voter turnout; acknowledges what it sees as the opportunity presented by the Scottish Government’s consultation on electoral reform to further investigate the potential benefits of electronic and internet voting systems, and notes the calls on individuals and organisations to take part.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I start by drawing attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests—particularly my membership of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, which is promoting e-voting, and my membership of the Association for Computing Machinery, which is leading a debate on the subject in the USA, in particular.

A professor of computer science at Stanford University, David Dill, who is the founder of the Verified Voting Foundation, captured the challenge of electronic voting—indeed, of any form of voting—when he wrote:

“The winners of an election are usually satisfied with the outcome, but it is often more challenging to persuade the losers (and their supporters) that they lost. To that end, it is not sufficient that election results be accurate. The public must also know the results are accurate, which can only be achieved if conduct of the election is sufficiently transparent that candidates, the press, and the general public can satisfy themselves that no errors or cheating have occurred.”

Until 1872, voting here was done by attending the polling place, orally advising the returning officer for whom one wished to vote and seeing them record that against one’s name in a ledger. Many of those ledgers survive today. Is that a perfect system that would have met Professor Dill’s challenge? No. The ledgers often show that, at the end of voting, there was debate as to what an individual elector had said or whether the clerk had correctly recorded his—in those days it was always “his”—preference.

The change to the use of voting papers and a ballot box was made solely because changes in the franchise qualification led to a dramatic rise in the number of electors and oral voting was too cumbersome. Today, we have a system that works pretty well, in which those who vote have confidence and which broadly allows losers, in particular, to observe the process and be reconciled to the fact that their loss derives from their having failed to win the argument rather than from the voting system having cheated them.

The Open Rights Group says that any voting system must be secure, anonymous and verifiable, and technologists accept those tests. Professor Dill quoted the ACM, which stated that

“voting systems should enable each voter to inspect a physical record to verify that his or her vote has been accurately cast and to serve as an independent check on the result”.

Professor Kaliyamurthie, the head of the department of information technology at India’s Barath university in Chennai, wrote that

“Internet voting is about making the act of voting as convenient as possible” but qualified that statement by adding that

“this voting channel introduces risks to some of the fundamental principles of democratic systems.”

The question that I pose is whether more convenient voting is of value. Would greater convenience enhance the democratic process?

I have heard some people say that those who do not make the effort to get out of their armchairs to vote do not deserve the vote, but I take a different view. Every political party—and every independent candidate, for that matter—devotes an enormous amount of effort to getting people out of their armchairs and into the polling places. However, there are three numbers that should challenge us: 53, 44 and 34. Fifty-three per cent of people on the electoral roll voted “armchair” in the 2017 council elections, 40 per cent did so in the most recent Scottish Parliament elections and a third stayed away from the 2017 Westminster vote.

The IET has called for the Government to embrace the latest in electronic voting. Can technology help to boost turnout, and can it do so securely, with voter anonymity and in a way that is verifiable by lay observers?

What helps turnout? When I stood in 2003, our local voter database included 6,000 people who had committed to vote for the Scottish National Party in the previous two contacts with the party but had failed to vote in the two most recent elections. We concluded that we needed to get those people to vote. A huge number of activists spent considerable time knocking on the doors of those 6,000 people, and we got 4,000 of them to sign up for a postal vote.

Typically, about 70 per cent of postal voters actually vote. It is fair to say that there is imprecision and uncertainty about that, because we can only infer the number of postal voters from looking at those who voted in person and how many postal votes were issued, thereby indirectly concluding how many votes were postal votes. Nevertheless, the rate of voting is clearly higher among postal voters.

In 2003, which was an election in which the SNP’s vote in Scotland was heading downwards—pretty sharply downwards, it is worth saying—our local vote went up by 3,000. Members might care to think about that. We signed up 4,000 postal voters, and I assert that 70 per cent of postal voters vote. Therefore, I draw a line between our effort to sign up 4,000 people for postal votes and the increase of 3,000 in our vote. People with a postal vote have 21 days over which they can vote from their armchair, which might be one of the reasons why our vote shot up. Of course, the excellent candidate and terrific campaign in Banff and Buchan contributed to the result, but I think that making it easier for people to vote helped.

Have countries that have adopted internet voting seen benefits? Do their systems meet the tests of security, anonymity and verifiability? There are mixed results, but there is substantial evidence of increased voting.

Eindhoven University of Technology researchers de Vries and Bokslag assessed the Estonian system and the Dutch internet voting system against eight criteria, which, in essence, encompassed the three tests to which I have referred. Estonia, which is generally regarded as the most advanced country online, following its experience of suffering a cyber attack from the Russians shortly after becoming independent, did not pass the Open Rights Group’s three tests; it passed only two of them and met only half of the Eindhoven researchers’ criteria. The Dutch system met only one of the researchers’ eight criteria, and it did so very marginally.

The key difficulty in any electronically aided voting system is verification—that is, allowing the observation of every step in the process from voter registration through voting and counting votes to the determination of the final result. Is that an unsolvable problem? No. However, it is probably a problem that is not yet solved.

I cannot describe my solution in my remaining 100 words, but it would leave paper as the medium for each vote that is submitted for counting and would allow secure submission from smartphone to counting centre and verification by voter and observers.

The Government’s consultation on electoral reform closes on Monday—I am sure that the minister will refer to it. Members will be able to read my submission to ElectionsTeam@gov.scot when I publish it on Monday, on my website at ivoting.stewartstevenson.scot. I hope that other members will respond to the consultation.

There are seven unsolvable maths problems—the millennium problems. If someone solves one, they win $1 million. I am working on one of them—the queens problem—and I think that I am halfway there. The problem that we face in relation to electronic voting is by no means unsolvable.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I advise Stewart Stevenson that he benefited from a fault in the electronic clock and got an extra two minutes—we did not notice. We are now back to the right timings.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

I am tempted to refer to the problems with our electronic voting system, Presiding Officer.

I congratulate Stewart Stevenson on securing the debate. The issue clearly has significant implications for our electoral system.

In a democracy, voting methods are important. Today’s motion refers to the Ballot Act 1872, which met calls after the second reform act to ensure a secret ballot. Many of the principles in that legislation—that we have a thorough system that is anonymous and secure and that guards against electoral fraud—remain in our system today.

Some of the issues around the principles have arisen in relation to postal voting, whereby we have a system that, in essence, provides postal votes on demand. Undoubtedly, there have been problems but, thankfully, they are on a small scale. However, personation—the offence of voting as another person—has gradually reappeared after having all but died out in the 19th century.

In my region, a number of the remoter island communities operate universal postal voting, which enables election results to be delivered in good time despite the challenges of geography. It is possible to see potential benefits to electronic voting in such circumstances if a robust system can be found.

We need to think not simply in terms of people using computers in their homes or voting via mobile phones, because positive outcomes could be achieved without compromising security by electronic voting through new, more remote polling stations where activities could continue to be monitored.

A number of the concerns that have been raised with me relate to the confirmation of identity, although the additional opportunities for undue influence that electronic voting may bring is also a concern. Those are not so much technological challenges as social ones such as the idea of people together in a group environment who are on mobile phones receiving pressure to vote on the spot and being subject to the influence of a crowd. Problems of that nature raise complicated questions. For example, what if a person wants to change their vote? Should that be enabled? Should there be a last-vote-counts system? Would that impact on political campaigning, or would it have a psychological impact on how people will, in the end, vote?

This serious subject merits further debate. However, I have a concern with the suggestion in Stewart Stevenson’s motion that a switchover would “help reduce the costs”. I appreciate that there is an inclination in motions to list potential positives, but we should not be considering electronic voting as democracy on the cheap. As I have outlined, there are possibilities around the proposals, but some may cost as much—if not more—to administer correctly. If voter flexibility can be provided, it may well be worth paying a little more. I would not want to see any attempt to change the voting system in which cost saving was put front and centre.

Our system is not perfect, but we should take time to consider the impact of changing long-held traditions. Matthew Parris, a columnist for

The Times and a former MP, once described our village halls, schools and other polling places as “small cathedrals of democracy.” I may be an electoral and political geek, but I still get a buzz every time I go into a polling station. On some level, voting binds society together, and there is perhaps a physical element to that, too.

If we look at places where voting has been denied over a long period, we find that people will queue for many hours—sometimes in dangerous conditions—just for the chance to vote. Those queues are a physical embodiment of democracy being practised. Although we do not always have voting queues in this country, we would lose that physical embodiment of democracy were we to make voting as simple as voting for contestants on “X Factor”, “I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here!” or “The Great British Bake Off”.

I also question whether making voting easier would mean that more people would vote. I have always been surprised by the number of older people who have never voted and who never will. The young people with whom I have spoken about why they might not vote have told me that it is a question not of ease but of engagement, which is an issue that goes wider than just young people.

As much as the technical hurdles must be considered, I invite members to give thought to some of the other hurdles, too. We should not be under any illusions about the potentially enormous changes in our voting system that electronic voting would bring. If we make changes to how we vote, we must ensure that we get them right.

Photo of Alex Rowley Alex Rowley Labour

First, I apologise to you, Presiding Officer, because I am unable to stay for the whole of the debate as I have a constituency engagement in Fife.

I congratulate Stewart Stevenson on securing the debate and I support the principle that anything that we can do to encourage people to vote and make it easier for them to do so is a good thing.

I come from a local government background and, knowing how important local government is to everyday life, it is very disappointing that some of the lowest turnouts are for council elections. That is why this subject is often discussed in council chambers up and down Scotland. I have to be honest and say that I do not see electronic and internet voting as a panacea for low turnout, but I certainly think that it is worth further consideration, along with other methods of good practice that can be picked up from many other countries.

Earlier this week, I got an email from a constituent who was very concerned about electronic voting. I replied to him saying that I had an open mind about it. He was very worried about the security of such systems and the ability for the election to be rigged. Those are very real concerns, it seems to me.

Estonia, which has been one of the most successful countries in the use of e-voting, says that a crucial part of its system is that the online voting is linked to the country’s state-of-the-art electronic identity cards, which are carried by every citizen and resident. We know from experience that identity cards were not popular when they were mooted for introduction in the United Kingdom. It would be important to know what the introduction of a successful electronic voting system would require and what the impact of that would be on the general public.

The point about identity cards was also made by Professor Steve Schneider, the director of the Surrey centre for cyber security at the University of Surrey, who says that the success of Estonia’s system lies in the fact that it was built from the ground up, supported by a solid infrastructure that includes the digital identification system. Given our track record with information technology projects in this country, that would also be a major concern. The Netherlands tried electronic voting but has returned to paper voting, and Norway tested i-voting but decided to discontinue that system. France has also said that it has concerns about cybersecurity.

To people who are enthusiastic about electronic voting, I have to say that there are legitimate major concerns and obstacles and that is why I do not think that we will be moving in that direction any time soon. Concerns are being raised about technology and how it can be used to distort democratic processes, and until many of those issues and concerns can be addressed, that is not the way that I want to go.

In conclusion, I am sure that many of the candidates and others involved in the Clackmannanshire North by-election last Thursday would have been happy to have electronic voting, given that there was a red weather warning for the whole day on which voting took place. That said, perhaps common sense should be applied.

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate and thank my colleague Stewart Stevenson for bringing the issue to the chamber. Much of what I was going to say has already been covered thoroughly by Stewart, in the way in which he tends to cover every possible aspect of a debate in his speech.

I am going make use of a piece of advice that Stewart gave me, which is that a debate is not over when everything has been said, but only once everybody has said it.

However, I will reprimand him on divulging our postal vote strategy. It is not something that I think we should necessarily be sharing with Opposition parties. If the official report would like to excise that from the record, I would be most grateful.

I come to the debate with an open mind as regards electronic voting. That is obviously an umbrella term that captures e-voting, online voting, internet voting and electronic counting. There are very strong arguments both for and against. I am grateful for the submission that the Open Rights Group made available on its website, which is a response to the Scottish Government. That raises a lot of issues, some of which have already been touched on.

Electronic voting—particularly online voting—could have a positive effect because it would enable people to engage easily with the democratic process, which would make that process more accessible.

My party uses electronic voting as an effective way of doing candidate selection. Electronic voting also enables people to see their voting options presented alongside information on the candidate or—in the case of national elections—the political parties. If we used an electronic voting system in polling places, that would enable issues—some of which can be quite vague—to be presented to people who only get involved in politics at election times. Of course, we are not allowed to have campaign material within polling places, so there are opportunities there in relation to allowing people to properly evaluate their choices.

Electronic voting would also help to facilitate other election methods, such as the single transferable vote, as it would allow vote counting and verification to be carried out far more quickly.

I recognise the arguments against electronic voting, a key one being the challenge of auditing. Clearly, the various security mechanisms that would be required would create a level of opacity that only a technical expert with the capacities of Stewart Stevenson could accurately discern. Fundamental to any democracy is the capability of any person, without such expertise, to evaluate and discern what is going on with the voting system; I think that there is nothing more straightforward than seeing whether there is a cross or a number on a ballot paper.

Issues of personation, privacy and so on are also relevant, as is the issue of vote selling. Obviously, such issues are behavioural, and aspects of that could be mitigated. Clearly, a big concern in the present age is that of foreign interference—the on-going investigations in the United States are testament to that. The issue is not simply that experts can be convinced of the safety and security of electronic systems; the general public has to be similarly convinced. The system has to be unimpeachable, and people must have confidence in it.

At the moment, in terms of the balance of the issues, I come down in favour of e-counting, which is a useful mechanism. It certainly works extremely well in local elections—I do not think that anyone would welcome the idea of trying to do an STV calculation by hand. We could consider using it for elections to the Scottish Parliament and, indeed, to Westminster, if that Parliament wishes to go down that route. It would certainly expedite the process, which would be beneficial for the staff who have to spend long hours in draughty halls, and would be beneficial to all the candidates, because it would shorten the period in which we have to wait in uncertainty.

I thank Stewart Stevenson for bringing this interesting debate to the Parliament.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I apologise to Jamie Halcro Johnston for the fact that I missed part of his speech. It has been a long afternoon in the chamber for me—I will leave it at that.

As my party has not yet adopted any policy on the question of online, internet or electronic voting, I am speaking in a personal capacity only.

I would be concerned if we were to go down the route of a trial of these systems. As members will be aware from the email that I circulated, I am a member of the Open Rights Group. I was happy to host it in Parliament last week. Sadly, that was on the day of the red weather warning, so not all members who wanted to be there for the briefing event were able to attend. However, I have circulated some of the group’s material to members by email.

I will run through some of the key concerns that the Open Rights Group set out. The first issue that I will address is that of the three-way test that says that a system should be secure, anonymous and verifiable. There is not much else that needs to meet that kind of test. People say, “Well, I do my banking online and I file my tax return online.” Those things do not need to be anonymous—in fact, they require not to be anonymous. Other things might need to be anonymous but not need to be so secure. The Open Rights Group said that the need to meet all three of the tests was an unsolvable problem, saying that seeking to strengthen one or two of those factors in any system of online or internet voting would almost inevitably weaken the third.

I do not know whether it is, in fact, a theoretically unsolvable problem. I am not enough of a technical expert to know whether it is theoretically unsolvable, but I can see pretty clearly that the more complex and theoretical the solution needs to be, the less comprehensible it is to most voters.

A piece of paper with a mark on it, put into a metal or plastic box with a physical secure tag on it, carried from one room in one building to another room in another building, opened in front of people’s eyes and counted physically can be seen by everyone. Everyone has a tangible sense of the security, verifiability and trust that there can be in that system. The more complex, theoretical and technological the solution that is needed to achieve that high standard of security, anonymity and verifiability, the less trust a great many people will have in the system.

I also have to ask, what are we trying to fix by doing this? It has been asserted that it is a way of increasing turnout. According to the research that members have access to in the Open Rights Group’s briefing, analysis has been done of countries such as Estonia, which has been conducting internet voting for a number of years—since 2007, in fact—and which provides a fairly substantial amount of data about how that system has worked. The conclusion is that there is not actually strong evidence of an increase in turnout, because the uptake tends to be from people who were more likely to vote anyway.

I suggest that there are a whole host of other options that we should be exploring first if we are concerned, as we should be, about turnout. Reducing the voting age to 16 was a good step. Getting high-quality, creative, engaging citizenship lessons in our schools, year after year and election after election, will help to drive up turnout. A whole host of other methods could increase turnout, but e-voting would be way down the list of priorities, even if there were not concerns around the security, verifiability and anonymity of the process.

I urge the Scottish Government, when looking at the responses to the consultation, to pay attention to the response from the Open Rights Group and others who have raised those concerns, and I suggest that we do not proceed with a trial of internet, online or electronic voting at this stage.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

I thank my colleague Stewart Stevenson for bringing this important and exciting topic to the chamber. As the motion points out, it is crucial that considerations relating to confidentiality and security are addressed, but I believe that the potential of what e-voting could deliver makes it well worth exploring the topic and working towards that, and I welcome today’s opportunity to contribute to the discussion.

We can all agree that democracy works only when people actually take part. Electronic voting holds huge potential for making it easier to vote, which could in turn increase turnout and engagement. That might be particularly true for younger people, who conduct so much of their lives online, but who are also least likely to turn out to vote. Figures for the Office for National Statistics for 2017 show that virtually all adults aged from 16 to 34 years—99 per cent of them—are internet users. At the same time, according to YouGov, just over half of 18 and 19-year-olds turned out to vote at the 2017 general election, compared with 84 per cent of those aged 70 and over.

That might have some appeal to the members who are sitting on my left. I do not want to be cheeky, but the Conservatives had a 50-point lead among the over-70s at the previous election, so I could understand their reticence about increasing the youth vote. However, to be serious, I think that everyone in the chamber would share the desire to see greater democratic engagement and turnout among young people.

In an era of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, hashtags and online petitions, imagine the impact on turnout if people could, for example, simply see a tweet reminding them to vote, click on the link and do just that, whatever the time of day or wherever they might be. Following the European Union referendum in 2016, a YouGov survey found that almost half of the 18 to 24-year-olds who were polled and who had failed to vote said that they would have done so if they had been able to vote online.

Although there is a particular case to be made for the impact of e-voting on young people, its appeal goes further. As has been mentioned, Estonia has used e-voting since 2005, and more than 30 per cent of voters cast their ballot online in the most recent parliamentary elections. The deputy head of Estonia’s electoral office has stressed that e-voting “has become massive” and that

“statistically there is no such thing as a typical”

e-voter.

He said:

“All voters, irrespective of gender, income, education, nationality and even computer skills have the likelihood of becoming” an e-voter.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

Would it not be better if we actually got across to people, particularly younger people, the importance of their vote and the impact that it has?

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

Absolutely. We can do that right away, and many of us do so in our political campaigning. It is not a question of one thing or the other. I certainly do not suggest that e-voting is the one solution to the problem; there are lots of things that we need to do.

The Welsh Government has recently announced plans to pilot remote online voting in elections in Wales following the result of a consultation. The submission from WebRoots Democracy notes that voters in the 2021 Welsh Assembly election will be the first generation of voters who will not recall a world before smartphones and social media. It states:

“As time goes on, a digital democracy will become an expectation instead of an aspiration. It is time we looked at how best we can bring this about and online voting will play an important part of that.”

The Scottish Government’s consultation on electronic voting is under way as we speak, and there is a real opportunity to reform the way in which we vote in Scotland, to make it more inclusive and engaging and to increase turnout among younger voters, and perhaps to inject a new lease of life into our democracy. I encourage any of my constituents who have views on the matter to make their voice heard and to respond to the consultation before 12 March.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Before I call Mr Carson—you are not in trouble, Mr Carson; really, you are not—I point out that, due to the fact that four members still wish to speak, I am minded to accept a motion without notice under rule 8.14.3 to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[

Stewart Stevenson

]

Motion agreed to.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

I thank Stewart Stevenson for bringing the debate to the chamber. As my party’s spokesman on the digital economy, I am pleased to be able to take part and to outline some of the many issues surrounding electronic voting. We now deal with advances in technology on a daily basis, and it is important to discuss that in the context of our democracy and elections. Although members have raised many constructive points, I will outline why I still have many concerns over the introduction of electronic voting in Scottish and UK elections.

In December 2017, the UK Government commissioned Sir Ken Knight to look into electronic voting in industrial ballots. Sir Ken’s report gives stark warnings about how vulnerable the UK’s information technology systems are to cyberattacks. In April 2017, the Foreign Office came under a sustained attack from hackers who were alleged to be linked to a foreign state. That led to the Government reporting that it faces the threat of tens of thousands of cyberattacks every month. We hear very serious allegations that high-ranking officials in the Russian Government may even have helped to put President Trump into the White house. Do we really want electronic voting if it raises questions about the validity of who is resident in Bute house or about who may be responsible for that outcome?

An even greater warning about the dangers of electronic voting comes from the former head of MI6 Sir John Sawers, who said in January 2017:

“The more things that go online, the more susceptible you are to cyber attacks.”

He went on:

“Bizarrely the stubby pencil and piece of paper that you put your cross on in the ballot box is actually much more secure than anything which is electronic.”

I know from designing cattle management programmes for computers that it is much easier to put in false records on a computer system than it was when we had to fill in a ledger with a pencil. With that system, it was almost impossible to delete records, whereas that is very straightforward with an electronic system. As someone who very proudly visited my local polling station recently, to vote with my 90-year-old father and 18-year-old son, I think that we all need to learn lessons from what the former head of MI6 said.

Stewart Stevenson’s motion refers to electronic voting increasing turnout, which, of course, we would all like to see. At this point, I will not debate the argument surrounding lower-cost elections because I do not believe that we can really put a price on transparency and democracy. However, there is evidence from countries across the world that electronic voting has not resulted in increased turnout. In Estonia, which has used internet voting since 2007, the evidence shows that it has done very little to attract new voters. In Norway, where trials were done in 10 municipalities in 2011, analysis indicated that younger voters actually preferred the walk to polling stations, identifying it as being symbolic. Furthermore, 89 per cent of those who voted via the internet would have voted anyway if the electronic option had not been available.

I conclude by raising connectivity issues in my constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries, in which there are still widespread areas that are without good mobile or broadband signals; those issues continue to dominate my inbox. If we want to encourage people to participate electronically in our democratic process, should we not first ensure that everyone is able to do so?

As politicians, we all have a duty to encourage voters, young and old, to participate in that process. We all know how much we have had to do that in Scotland in recent years. However, as much as technology continues to advance, I believe that when it comes down to our democratic system, this is one area in which I do not want to take away the pencil and introduce the click or the text message. We should heed the concerns that were outlined in Sir Ken Knight’s recent report and look at better ways of increasing voter engagement and turnout.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

I thank my colleague Stewart Stevenson—who is sitting behind me—for securing this interesting debate.

It is only right that, as technology continues to develop at a fast pace, we examine how it could make the process of voting more in tune with how people live their lives. As the motion states,

“the traditional paper voting method has remained virtually unchanged since 1872”.

I therefore welcome the Scottish Government’s consultation on electoral reform, which seeks to investigate further the potential benefits of electronic and internet voting systems.

Prior to tonight’s debate, Stewart Stevenson circulated a helpful briefing note from the Institution of Engineering and Technology, which I read with interest. I have read before about some of the benefits that were highlighted in it, including boosting voter turnout, cutting the cost of elections and improving accessibility. Many other members have mentioned the IET, so I am sure that we found the briefing that Stewart Stevenson sent us to be very helpful.

Under the current system, there is room for human error: votes can be miscounted, misread or misplaced. When election counts go wrong, it can be very difficult to trace problems back to their source, and there is no easy way to fix them other than simply to begin again.

What has been done so far to test electronic voting technology? In 2007, 13 pilot studies were held during England’s local elections, and in 2011 trials were carried out in 10 of Norway’s municipalities. As part of Norway’s trials, two research centres used qualitative and quantitative methods to study participation and turnout. The findings were, perhaps, unexpected: 89 per cent of internet voters said that they would have voted even in the absence of the online voting option. That analysis was repeated in 2013 and the same conclusions were reached: again, the trials did not have an effect on voter turnout. In fact, as Finlay Carson mentioned, younger voters tended to say that they enjoyed attending polling stations. As a result, the Norwegian Government ceased the trials. In England, after the 2007 pilots, the Electoral Commission voiced its concerns about planning and quality assurance, and confirmed that those matters would need to be addressed before it would lend support to further e-voting pilots.

However, as members have mentioned, Estonia has used internet voting since 2007, and more than a quarter of votes that are cast there are now cast online. The Estonians seem to have solved the problems of cybersecurity that the IET highlighted as a concern, by designing a system that lets voters sign and encrypt their own votes. The secret behind the solution is biometric identification cards. Every citizen has an online ID card with a digital signing capability, and the card can be used with a chip and PIN machine to prove to Government agencies that the online user is a citizen of Estonia. I am sure that members will remember that, in the previous decade, there was a debate in the UK about the introduction of ID cards, but the idea was shelved by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition.

There are legitimate concerns about the adoption of electronic voting that need to be addressed before its widespread adoption. Not least, there are significant cybersecurity risks, which I have not had time to go into today, and those risks might damage public trust in the voting systems. Fortunately, the IET has already started to examine those issues in its policy and panel work, and it is engaging with the Electoral Commission to discuss the challenges.

Until electronic voting is introduced, one way that we can ensure increased public engagement with the electoral process is to continue to drive forward a vision for a better country and to let people see for themselves that they have a Government and a Parliament that are committed to changing society for the better.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

I congratulate my colleague Stewart Stevenson on securing this interesting debate. Notionally, I am sceptical about electronic and internet voting. However, the motion is detailed and measured, which is typical of Stewart Stevenson. As we all know, he is a mathematician. I am quite sure that, if he had the time, he would be able to design an electronic voting system for Scotland to use. He is halfway there with one aspect that he talked about earlier. I am sure that, if he was not an MSP, he would devote his time to designing such a system.

In the Scottish National Party, we have electronic voting when we hold internal elections. The system works very well, but I accept that a much smaller number of individuals are involved in that process than the number in the wider electorate. I am not sure whether other parties use electronic voting for internal elections.

I agree with the concept of electronic voting, but I have concerns, similar to those of colleagues, on security issues among other things.

Thus far, no member has mentioned accessibility of voting. I chair the cross-party group on visual impairment. At recent meetings we have had discussions about the Scottish Government’s consultation on electoral reform. Cross-party group members who are blind or visually impaired have raised the issue of the problems that they have with voting using the current system, and many suggested that an electronic voting system using tablets or smartphones would improve their access to the electoral process.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

The issue was discussed at the Open Rights Group briefing last week, when there was a general acknowledgment that we are open to changes to the current voting system to improve accessibility. However, there was also concern expressed that there is no single technological solution that can overcome all forms of disability and the barriers that exist to using technology. We also know from research that was done by Citizens Advice Scotland that the barriers to using technology in other areas of life correlate with social exclusion, disability and a number of other factors. There is a danger that we would compound an existing problem, rather than solve it.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You will have extra time, Mr McMillan.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

I am not suggesting for one minute that electronic and internet voting will be a panacea; not one person in the cross-party group suggested that, either. However, as a general concept, members of the cross-party group are willing to examine the possibility of electronic and internet voting as one means of increasing accessibility and voter participation in the electoral system.

If electronic voting could help more electors to be involved in the democratic process, it should certainly be examined. However, we politicians have a crucial role to play with our campaigns, our parties’ campaigns and how we engage with the electorate. The motion says that

“security considerations ... confidentiality and eligibility ... must ... be resolved”.

I agree that before we move to wider electronic voting, those three points must be fully dealt with so that the electorate has absolute confidence that their votes will be counted and that votes will be confidential. Those issues are so important.

Electronic systems have been used for many things in society. With electronic banking, billions of financial transactions take place daily. If we can make electronic progress in those matters, the concept of electronic voting should not be rejected. Its time will come, but it is not there yet. It still has a considerable way to go, and work still needs to be done. However, this start—dialogue in Parliament—is very worth while. Once again, I congratulate Stewart Stevenson on securing the debate.

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

I add my congratulations to Stewart Stevenson on securing this timely debate. In 2016, the Scottish Government gained additional powers over elections so that, for the first time, we have full responsibility for Scottish Parliament as well as local government elections. This is the ideal time to consider the possibilities that are presented by new developments in voting technology.

We are keen to explore, in particular, how recent electronic innovation might support our aim to maximise access to democratic participation. The Scottish Government aims to be a global leader in its adoption of digital solutions. The Government’s digital strategy sets out how we plan to achieve that and includes a specific commitment to trial electronic voting solutions.

As Emma Harper and Finlay Carson have said, many countries have already either adopted or trialled some form of e-voting. We are open to exploring the range of options. That might mean trialling the use of electronic voting machines—which are already widely used in a large number of countries—and researching the potential of internet voting, which is much less widely used for local and national elections. Internet voting presents significant security challenges, as the motion highlights, but, as Stuart McMillan said, it is already used for some significant elections in this country.

In whatever way we choose to proceed—taking into account the outcome of our electoral reform consultation—this will not be Scotland’s first foray into using technology to manage the electoral process. As Tom Arthur said, the electronic counting of votes for our local government elections has been in place since 2007. E-counting has been used successfully without issues in the past two Scotland-wide local government elections as well as in a number of by-elections. Last May, nearly two million votes were cast in local elections and counted across 32 local authorities in just eight hours. In all elections where e-counting has been used in Scotland, the results have been accepted by all those who were involved.

Some people may ask why we should consider moving away from the tried-and-tested paper and pencil-based voting system that has widespread public confidence. This year, 2018, is an important year in the history of our democracy, and 6 February marked 100 years since the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which allowed some women who were aged over 30 to vote in elections in the UK. It seems a bit odd that in our most recent council elections, last May, and in all elections that have been held in Scotland, votes were cast in much the same way as they have been since the 1800s. It was great to hear from Stewart Stevenson what happened prior to 1872—every day is a learning experience when he is around. It seems extraordinary that the process that is so important to our act of citizenship and democracy has not materially changed for more than a hundred years.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

To be honest, it does not seem extraordinary to me that it has not changed. What that suggests to me is that we have a system that works, that is secure, anonymous and verifiable, and that meets the tests that it appears are not yet meetable and might never be meetable by an internet system.

I am sure that the minister will pay close attention to all the consultation responses, including those that raise such concerns. When does he expect the Scottish Government to come forward with proposals, which I assume will come to Parliament before any final decision is made? How long after the consultation closes does he anticipate that that will happen?

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

I thank Patrick Harvie for his question. I will return to the consultation later in my speech. As with all consultations, the consultation will close and we will take time to analyse the responses before we produce proposals. In making progress on anything to do with elections, we need to operate on the basis of consensus.

I recognise the tests that Mr Harvie mentioned. I would argue that the three tests are not 100 per cent met by the current system. We need to look at all the arguments. As I said, we will look carefully at all the representations that are made in the consultation, including those from the organisation that Mr Harvie mentioned.

Technology has brought us to the point where we can shop with a watch, consume media on a phone and count 2 million votes in eight hours, so is it right that our system of elected representation remains basically unchanged since Victorian times? It is clear that we need to look at that.

Our decision to move to e-counting in local government elections was based largely on need—it was driven by the introduction of the STV system. I would like us to consider being driven by opportunity rather than need. The use of new technology brings with it potential benefits, a couple of which I will highlight.

As Stuart McMillan said, for many of Scotland’s disabled voters, casting their vote or being able to vote in secret can be challenging, whether they make use of a postal vote or vote in a polling booth. That is an area in which technology could help. Electronic machines can be modified to make voting easier for voters with certain disabilities. For example, e-voting machines can be configured to include audio and tactile interfaces for those with visual or mobility impairments, and the voting instructions can be presented in different languages, including visually, in British Sign Language. In addition, internet voting could benefit blind and visually impaired voters and people with mobility challenges.

As Ruth Maguire mentioned, another potential benefit of e-voting is that it might help to improve participation. It is clear that we are not where we want to be as regards participation at all levels. I do not think that anyone is suggesting that e-voting would be a panacea, but it is right for us to consider whether it might encourage more people to vote, particularly—given that it is the year of young people—younger voters who have grown up in a digital world. We certainly need to look at that.

I am mindful of the time.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You do not need to rush, minister. I will give you extra time for the intervention.

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

Thank you.

It is clear that there are challenges, which several members have raised. I can confirm that the Government will listen very carefully to all the challenges that are raised. There are clear concerns around security, as a number of members mentioned. In any electronic system, the integrity of the votes that are cast is an important consideration. As Patrick Harvie said, any change that is introduced here in Scotland would have to win the confidence of voters.

The motion refers to the Scottish Government’s public consultation on electoral reform, which gives us the opportunity to explore a wide range of alternatives to the existing electoral processes, and we are keen to hear people’s views on not just the innovation of e-voting but a range of other changes.

Patrick Harvie mentioned the weather that interfered with his meeting last week. We have been trying to meet a number of stakeholders to hear their views on the consultation, but the weather has posed some challenges for some of the groups involved. On that basis, I am announcing our intention to extend the consultation to 29 March, and I hope that tonight’s debate will encourage more people to feed in their views, whatever they are, and that the extra time will make things easier in that respect.

In conclusion, I thank Mr Stevenson for bringing this debate to the chamber and members for their considered contributions.

Meeting closed at 18:00.