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Dutch e-voting is waiting for an opportunity

Despite years of opposition and distrust in voting machines, a small Dutch initiative is aiming for a new form of e-voting

The run-up to the Dutch election in March 2017 saw an interesting new phenomenon. Among several small splinter parties was one newcomer that not only championed political change but also e-voting. This was one of the pillars on which the so-called GeenPeil political party campaigned.

This party emerged from the well-known webforum GeenStijl, which styles itself as “tendentious, unfounded and needlessly hurtful”. The vocal community surrounding this populist website became politically active during the Dutch referendum about the European Union Association Agreement with Ukraine. Like Brexit in the United Kingdom, this population consultation caused quite a stir.

The action committee GeenPeil evolved into a political movement with ambitions to govern. One basic tenet was the power of referendum. Hence, the attention for e-voting. Casting votes by electronic means is strewn with technical, political and even legal troubles.

It seems every few years some well-meaning technologist or politician brings up the possibility of voting machines and internet voting.

And each and every time the technological possibilities clash with legal requirements and political processes. Security, absolute reliability, legally provable accountability and other factors come into play.

About 10 years ago, the Dutch action group known as “We do not trust voting computers” set out to protect the election process in the Netherlands from the perceived risks of e-voting. The driving force behind this group was Rop Gonggrijp, one of the country’s earliest hackers and co-founder of consumer ISP XS4ALL.

“We do not trust voting computers” was able to prove the unsuitability of voting computers by hacking them. After this hacking followed media exposure, political attention and extensive review by an independent commission.

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In the end, the machines from Dutch company Nedap were cast aside. They turned out to fall short of the requirements for the democratic voting process. Court orders and decertification of voting computers followed, and in May 2008, the Dutch officially went back to voting with pencil and paper.

Since then, few politicians have dared to touch on the subject of bringing in e-voting. It seems the outdated method of red pencil and plain paper is still the most reliable. E-voting is contentious and distrusted.

Voting versus electing

The most recent Dutch initiative for e-voting was aware of all this and aimed to avoid it. The political startup of GeenPeil did not strive for general e-elections, but proposed day-to-day e-voting on its own policies.

The promise was that any elected representatives would not be able to pursue possible personal agendas. This had already happened in other parties before the election and led to the formation of many small splinter parties, that each had its own seat or even seats in the House of Representatives. GeenPeils representatives would function as “living voting boxes” for the party’s people.

Hence, political decision making would not be a matter for elected officials who once made campaign promises to the people. Those very same constituents would be able to cast their vote in government decisions being made after the traditionally held general elections – via the internet. “Direct democracy” was the pitch to voters.

In the run-up to the elections, the small party of GeenPeil was not just occupied with campaigning but also busy programming. The software needed for e-voting was still in the making with the national elections looming. This might sound like a rush job, but the fact that it concerns online-voting in a party (and not general elections) takes away some of the strict requirements for e-voting.

Inherent risks

However, there are still critics, such as Dutch science and IT journalist Herbert Blankesteijn. He fears for the risk of hacking, also for this modest approach of intra party e-voting. If a polling or voting system is small and has modest usage, it might escape the risk of hacking. This tiny target is too insignificant to be of interest. Blankesteijn mentions the example of a reader poll on an arbitrary website or webforum.

But as soon as voting processes are important enough, they’ll attract attackers, warns the author of several books on technology. His most recently published work is Just trust us, illuminating the rise and fall of voting computers in the Netherlands.

GeenPeil has countered this and other criticism with the reassurance that it is out to solve only some of the problems with e-voting, but certainly not all of them. The main principle is citizen participation in the political decision making process.

Where the political goal of GeenPeil was to win one or more seats in the house, the underlying idea for the software-in-development was much broader. The goal was to make a crowdsourced, open source and secure e-voting system that could be used by anyone.

The market for this software encompasses political parties, government institutions, non-political entities and many other organisations. Possible use cases range from constituent polling at traditional party congresses, via citizen participation in municipalities and boroughs, to member voting in local football clubs.

In everyday reality, these voting and polling scenarios are done in analog fashion. Infamous in the Netherlands is the use of voting booklets at a party congress, where a crowd of constituents needed to raise the green or red side of that paper item in response to calls from a chairman at the microphone. GeenPeil’s e-voting software was also meant to offer a modern alternative for this old-fashioned method. Future hackathons to dish out functionality for others were also planned.

Winter has come?

GeenPeil did not win a seat in the Dutch general election, and the ambitions for the broader issue of e-voting have been hobbled. A look at the GitHub repository shows no activity for the past few months: since the elections in March.

GeenPeil’s chief developer confirms to Computer Weekly that the development of the software “has come to something of a standstill”. He himself is now full-time occupied elsewhere as a developer, with little time left to volunteer on this open source project. Other developers have not stepped in to continue development.

The loss in the election has cut off momentum but also financial contributions from party members. Despite developer volunteers and good intentions, the project is now in hibernation. GeenPeil itself was not disbanded and it recently asked its constituents about the way forward. This member polling has been done in another traditional way: by e-mail. In the meantime, code for an ambitious and contentious e-voting project is lying still. Lying in wait?

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