Electronic voting in the Netherlands

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1 Electronic voting in the Netherlands The return of the paper ballot sheet Eddy Habben Jansen, deputy director ProDemos House for Democracy and the Rule of Law In January 2012 the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament discussed the introduction of electronic voting with the Minister for the Interior. The Dutch government is considering the re-introduction of electronic voting, having learned from experiences in the past. After having used voting machines and voting computers for more than 40 years government banned electronic voting in A group of citizens proved the systems used were not protected well enough. Secret ballot was not guaranteed. A Dutch court ruled in favor of this citizens movement. After that the ban on voting machines was only a matter of time. Voting in the Netherlands a short introduction The Netherlands introduced a system of proportional representation in 1917, using an open list system. Voters can vote for individual candidates on party lists. Preferential votes can influence who is elected. Because there s no threshold, only 0,6% of the votes is enough for a seat in the Second Chamber of parliament. Approximately 20 parties usually take part in national elections. At the moment 10 parties are represented in parliament. In 2007 two parties entered parliament for the first time. Voters tend to change their party preference more often than before. The average party tends to become smaller. No single party ever gained a majority in parliament. Over the last decade at least three parties were needed to form a majority government. Turnout at elections is usually high: for the national elections in 2010 it was 75%. Voters don t need to register themselves. Every citizen with voting rights and an official address in the Netherlands is invited to the polling station. There are only two groups not automatically invited to take part in the elections. Homeless people without an address cannot be invited and citizens living abroad have voting rights, but need to register themselves to vote. Turnout among citizens abroad is extremely low. Approximately one million Dutch citizens live abroad. For the 2010 elections registered to vote and actually voted, using a system of postal voting. Organizing elections is a local responsibility: municipalities are responsible for the process, printing ballot sheets and counting votes. Most polling stations are staffed by volunteers, not necessarily by civil servants. Volunteers get a short training course. There is a national electoral law, but at the time electronic voting was used, it was up to local municipalities to choose between paper ballot sheets and voting machines or computers. 1

2 Introduction of voting machines In the Netherlands voting machines were first introduced in the 1960s, after a few tests had taken place. The machines were rather big and expensive. People had to make a choice by setting the machine to a specific candidate and pulling a handle to confirm their vote. The Parliamentary Committee for the Interior discussed the introduction in October of Members of Parliament supported the introduction, but were worried about a number of issues: Would less educated voters be able to use the machine properly? Would people need assistance, thus making it possible assistants seeing what they are voting? Could mistakes when using the machine make people vote for the wrong candidate or party? Could technical failure lead to wrong results? Although many aspects like these were discussed it never was a big political issue nor a strong controversy between political parties. Voting machines were gradually introduced in most municipalities. Budget was usually the main issue. The city of Amsterdam, with the largest number of voters, was therefore one of the last to introduce voting machines. Ironically this was shortly before the system was banned. The city had just sold all their ballot boxes; my organization is still using ten of these Amsterdam ballot boxes in our educational programmes in The Hague. Between 1965 and 2007 new types of machines were gradually introduced. Mechanical voting machines were replaced by electronic machines and computers. In this period there was no real political discussion on electronic voting. Only one party protested against electronic voting, claiming election results were, or could have been, manipulated. It was a small extreme right party (Centrumdemocraten) that in 1998 lost their last seat in parliament by only a few thousand votes, blaming the voting machines. No one took the claim of this party seriously. Although 2

3 it was very likely the results were not manipulated at all, in fact we must now conclude there was no sufficient evidence for that. The voting machines that were used in 1998 were to be banned in After 2000, a discussion started on a next step: the introduction of electronic voting from a distance, outside polling stations. In 2004 there was an experiment with internet voting for the European Elections for Dutch citizens living abroad. There were also experiments on the regional level: the Regional Water Authorities made it possible to vote by telephone and later also through the internet. There was some public debate on these internet experiments. Some citizens and organizations expressed serious doubts about the safety of internet voting and about the possibility of influencing voters when voting outside the safe environment of a polling station. Successful campaign against electronic voting In 2006 a group of citizens named We don t trust voting computers, started a campaign against voting computers. They carried out technical tests of the machines and computers that were used. One of the things they found was that with special equipment it was possible to electronically read from a distance what a person was voting. A Dutch court ruled in favor of the activists in a case against the government. After that in 2007 the government had no other choice than to ban the existing electronic voting machines. In the public debate that followed it became clear that reading votes from a distance was not the only problem: The design of the machines had been criticized before. The names of a few hundred candidates were shown on the machines in long lists, close to each other. For example: parties with long lists had therefore two rows of 30 candidates, resulting in extra votes for candidate number 31, probably not on purpose. Others claimed you could easily vote for the wrong party. And even the color of the confirmation button was debated. Traditionally the button was red, like the red pencils used with the ballot sheets. Some experts stressed however that voters associate a red button with danger or cancelling a process, not with confirmation. In some machines the red button had already been replaced by a green button. More important was the lack of transparency. For voters it was impossible to verify if the machines produced the right results. There was no possibility to recount the votes. It was a matter of trusting a machine. Trusting the machines however was difficult, because they had no open standards. Independent scientists, researchers or journalists could not in detail verify how these machines worked. 3

4 A final problem was that there were only two (national) companies producing voting machines. One was the former State Printing Company, now a private company. The other was Nedap, a large company producing advanced electronic systems for schools, libraries, agriculture, healthcare and the energy sector. Nedap also produced voting machines for other countries. The Republic of Ireland spent 50 million on Nedap machines, shortly before the Dutch government banned these machines. The Irish machines were never used and are still in storage today. Context The campaign against voting machines was led by internet activist Rop Gonggrijp, who was later associated with the WikiLeaks movement. We can consider the campaign a reaction to growing concerns on the use of modern technology. At the same time there were quite a few discussions in the Netherlands on technology and privacy. The introduction of an electronic public transport ticket, of electronic patient files in hospitals and of a road pricing system that exactly registered where you were driving, just to name a few. More personal information on all citizens is stored in electronic systems every single day. The tendency is that more and more people start getting worried about this. What is the government doing with all this information? Is it well protected against criminals? Every incident with this kind of electronic systems raises new questions like these. The attack on electronic voting is related to this debate. Information on voting behavior is a very sensitive type of information. Small risks and weaknesses in the electoral system are enough to cause big problems and enormous damage to public trust in the electoral process and the political system. New standards for the election process The ban on the existing voting machines started a process of evaluating the standards for the electoral process. The government appointed a committee chaired by former minister and former chairman of the Senate Korthals Altes. He concluded that returning to paper ballot sheets was on the short term the only option to meet the legal standards for the elections. Therefore paper ballot sheets were used for the European elections in 2009 and local and national elections in The committee named eight essential guarantees for the electoral process: Transparency: everybody should be able to understand the electoral process. There should be no secrets in the process. There should be an answer to every question on the process. Assess ability: it should be possible to assess the electoral process independently. Integrity: no one should be able to influence the result of the elections. Voting rights: only people who are eligible to vote should be able to vote. 4

5 Freedom to vote: every voter should be free to vote, without any influence from other people. Secret ballot: voting is secret. No one should be able to know what another voter has voted. Unique voting: every voter can vote only once and every vote should be counted once. Accessible: every voter should get the possibility to vote. The committee concluded that although voting with paper ballot sheets was the only option for the short term, there are also objections against the manual counting of votes. It takes a long time and there is always the possibility of human mistakes. Because of these objections a new system of electronic voting should be considered. The committee concluded that a new system of electronic voting should always have a paper trail, for example by letting people print their vote and counting these votes electronically. The government agreed to the committees conclusions. The Minister for the Interior came with four policy conclusions for a possible re-introduction of electronic voting: Not the ease of operation for voters, but reliability should be the key issue. Hardware and software should be transparent. Standards should be reviewed periodically. Software and hardware must be assessed independently from government and suppliers. Alternatives and re-introduction Although the Dutch government seems not ready for re-introduction yet, in the public debate and from the private sector alternatives are being presented, such as electronic counting and paper trail voting. Nedap built a prototype voting machine printing your vote and counting it automatically. 5

6 A few municipalities tested the machine in a shadow election at the 2010 local elections. Voters seemed satisfied, but the government concluded it was to early: first of all new standards had to be developed and approved by government (and the Parliament). At the moment also the Belgian government is considering the introduction of new voting machines. The estimated costs are per polling station and an additional 2 million per election, for maintenance and software updates. In The Netherlands there are polling stations and over 12 million people have the right to vote, an average of 1200 per polling station. On the basis of the Belgian estimates re-introduction in the Netherlands would mean an investment of 100 million, approximately 8 (or $ 10,-) per voter, and for every election an additional 16 cents per voter. At the moment the government deficit and budget cuts are dominating our political debate. That s another reason to postpone the discussion on the re-introduction of electronic voting. It is likely the paper ballot sheet will be used In the Netherlands for at least the next few years. The Hague, The Netherlands, 13 February

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