Fact Check: Does E-Voting Help Prevent Electoral Fraud?
Following a year of rumours, in May 2015 a few Members of Parliament (MP) reignited a debate about electronic voting when the Internal Affairs Committee told Majlis that e-voting could potentially combat fraud across the country and reduce distrust in the electoral process.
Discussions over e-voting began over ten years ago, when new measures were adopted by the then-government to reduce and prevent instances of fraud during elections to Majlis, and e-voting was considered as one such measure.
But what is e-voting, anyway? And does it really prevent fraud?
What is E-Voting?
The term ‘e-voting’ refers to the digitization of the voting system for elections. E-voting replaces an existing manual system of voting with an electronic system of counting ballots. In the past 20 years, countries like the United States, Japan, South Korea, and the UK have implemented e-voting for part of their elections. On the other hand, countries like Germany and the Netherlands have actually gone back to traditional voting systems after having adopted e-voting for a period of time.
The implementation of e-voting requires specific electronic systems that governments need to acquire, including direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, networked electronic voting systems, special polling booths, and storage capabilities.
The E-Voting Debate in Iran
Except for a few limited trials, Iranian elections have been conducted in a traditional way, where voters attend polling stations to cast their votes. However, implementing e-voting has been part of public debate about elections since Khatami’s presidency in the 90s. Despite the public discussion of e-voting, the Guardian Council has so far prevented efforts to change the voting system.
However, the debate took a more pointed turn in March 2014, when Abdulreza Rahmani Fazli, the Minister of the Interior, announced that a decision to conduct e-voting for parliamentary elections had been made by the government.
One day before e-voting was approved by the government, President Rouhani stressed the importance of fair and transparent elections at a gathering of governors. He said that transparency in elections is more important than election results, as it validates voters’ trust in the Ministry of the Interior, and ultimately in the results of elections themselves. The hope of the government, therefore, is that the implementation of e-voting will help to restore trust in the electoral process.
Technical Obstacles to Fair & Transparent E-Voting
One obstacle to e-voting in Iran is a lack of technical platforms. Recently, the government has digitized most of its administrative systems. For example, Windows XP is the operating system for ATM machines across the country. However, now that Microsoft no longer offers technical support for Windows XP, it has become vulnerable to bugs and cyber attacks.
“All administrative systems and ATMs use Windows XP, which makes them prone to attacks by hackers,” IT expert Pouya Afazali told ISNA News. He further explained that without Microsoft’s technical support, any security holes and bugs in Windows XP will not be repaired, making it easier for hackers to conduct cyber attacks. However, the director of IT at Central Bank, Nasir Hakimi, believes there are no threats to the security of ATMs since they operate in a closed space, separate from the Internet.
While the defence industry and other sensitive government entities use an unidentified version of Windows, the lack of alternative software options or secure support for Windows XP hinders the efficient and secure implementation of e-voting across the country.
Kevin Mistune, an information security researcher, spoke to Rouhani Meter and drew similarities between the DRE system and ATM operations in Iran. According to Mistune, “there is no way to ensure the efficiency of electronic voting machines during or after elections. Data storage conditions are extremely complex, and hackers can easily find opportunities to manipulate results.” He also said that electronic devices currently in place at the Ministry and at polling stations are not secure and can be hacked without great difficulty. Unlike traditional ballot boxes, it is impossible to ‘seal’ e-votes. Even if the USB port is blocked, there are other ports that are associated with the network that can be manipulated with ease.
A real threat to voters occurs when the network or one of the devices influences election results. Even if votes are encrypted by software, hackers can easily crack the software and abuse data both during and after elections. Infected hardware provides hackers with greater opportunities to manipulate election data. For example, if a voter chooses option 4, an infected device could be programmed to record a different option.
Mistune argues that whether or not e-voting is established by the government, it requires an essential technical foundation of safe hardware with secure operating systems, otherwise hackers will be able to manipulate election results, because existing software like Windows XP cannot ensure vote security.
Therefore, it is vitally important to use safe hardware with secure software when conducting elections using electronic means.
Political Obstacles to Fair & Transparent E-Voting
As suggested above, the possibility of fraud in e-voting also depends on the voting mechanisms used by the institutions of the state.
In order to organize a fair and transparent election through e-voting, two important issues need to be considered: 1) the confidentiality and anonymity of voters, and 2) election monitoring. The anonymity of voters could be ensured by regulatory bodies and media. However, in Iran, given the prevalence of Internet surveillance and state-controlled access to information, the anonymity of e-voters could potentially be compromised in the absence of monitoring institutions. Furthermore, there are currently no security protocols across the country for secure data transmission, so the confidentiality of votes cannot be guaranteed.
The Guardian Council is also a potential obstacle to the implementation of fair and transparent e-voting. Deputy Minister Hossein-Ali Amiri said that a new model of electronic ballot boxes had been presented by experts to the Guardian Council. He describes the e-voting system as having three pieces: one ballot box, one piece for implementation, and one piece for monitoring by the Guardian Council.
The Vice President of the Council of Internal Affairs announced that any digitization of elections requires an electronic structure with telephone lines and Internet usage, all to be approved by the Guardian Council, and on 19 October, the Guardian Council finally certified the electronic equipment required for e-voting.
Given the uncertainties regarding e-voting and the obstacles to its implementation, it is clear that – contrary to the recommendation of Majlis’ Commission of Internal Affairs – at this stage, we assess the claim that e-voting would prevent electoral fraud as mostly false.