E-voting. There are concerns
The Putin-led invasion in February of last year deprived Ukraine of only one major headache: holding elections. During the martial law, they are explicitly prohibited by the Constitution. Certain political games, especially at the local level, sometimes break through to the surface, but it seems that everyone has accepted the fact that parliamentary elections, which were supposed to take place on October 29, 2023, are being postponed indefinitely. As for the presidential elections scheduled for spring 2024, there is still enough time until then. There is a lot of talk that Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s team is interested in conducting a power reboot as soon as possible. While the incumbent head of state remains the undisputed leader, and the party he will be associated with may not replicate the stunning success of the Servant of the People party, it can at least come close to it. There are already preliminary indications that the new presidential project will be called Action (Diia), by analogy with the state mobile application.
In mid-May, the statement of the head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Tiny Kox, caused a stir. He stated that Ukraine should find ways to hold elections even in the current difficult conditions. Kox is aware that the Ukrainian Constitution does not allow elections during martial law but he believes that the Ukrainian authorities are capable of “addressing this challenge.” As an example to follow, the European official cited Turkey, which, despite a devastating earthquake, managed to organize elections, although not in the most democratic manner.
Mr Kox also discussed the possibility of online voting. It would be able to resolve the issue of millions of Ukrainian citizens who are abroad because of the war. European and other countries already have experience in using such technologies, so Ukraine does not have to reinvent the wheel. It would only have to adjust it to its specific realities.
The ideas of electronic remote voting have been floating around in Ukraine for a long time. Indeed, a bill on this topic was registered in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) as early as 2011. It was later mentioned during the “remote” period of the coronavirus epidemic. However, considering how long parliamentarians took to implement such a technically elementary invention as a touch button, the idea of collecting voters’ votes through soulless machines seemed suspicious to them.
But everything was supposed to change under the current ruling team, which came to power, in particular, through the effective use of internet technologies and slogans of total digitalization. The government saw the emergence of a whole “digital minister,” Mykhailo Fedorov, who set himself the goal of digitizing 100% of state services and promised to enable online voting in the next presidential elections. It is now impossible to say whether Fedorov would have kept his promise if a large-scale war had not broken out.
But it is precisely the current challenging circumstances that the Servant of the People party can use to roll out the “voting on smartphones” technology, primarily for the millions of Ukrainian citizens residing abroad. And perhaps not only for them. In particular, hypothetically, it would allow Ukrainians who remain in the occupied territories to cast their votes.
So, what could make electronic voting attractive for Ukraine, and what are the reservations regarding its absolute unacceptability in our realities?
Within the “Servant of the People” faction, there are both supporters of electronic voting and those who are somewhat cautious about this idea, so to speak. Among the former is the Chairman of the Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy, Mykyta Poturaev. He believes that Kox’s statements are primarily intended to sober up opposition parliamentarians who see even the discussion of e-voting as “treason” and suspect the government of cunning plans.
“The reality is that in the conditions Ukraine finds itself in, without electronic voting, it will not be possible to ensure the realization of citizens’ basic right to expression of will. We are constantly accused of wanting to legitimize some kind of scheme, so now let the opposition prove it to the Europeans who have been privately discussing the possibility of e-voting with us for a long time. For example, they have asked me questions in this context: How do you plan to ensure the expression of will of your citizens in our countries? At the same time, there are no obstacles to conducting elections with open lists, except for one — the opposition’s unwillingness to introduce electronic voting. And this blocks the holding of legitimate elections as such,” asserts Poturaev categorically.
Poturaev points out that there are two categories of voters that can be involved in electronic voting — millions of Ukrainians abroad, whose influx cannot be accommodated by polling stations at embassies and consulates, and internally displaced persons. The latter could traditionally be assigned to polling stations, but according to the MP, the option of remote voting would be simpler. Poturaev suggests using the well-known Diia application, which is installed on the smartphones of many Ukrainians.
However, he acknowledges that there will be a number of issues to address: “There are people who simply do not have smartphones, and their rights cannot be limited. Information about special polling stations with appropriate equipment can be provided to them. This system guarantees that a person votes only once, which prevents various ‘carousel’ schemes. By the way, a similar system exists in the United States, but we don’t necessarily have to copy it; we can create our own based on these principles.”
Among the widely recognized advantages of electronic voting is its convenience, which leads to increased voter turnout. The voter is not required to be tied to a specific polling station. Essentially, voters can cast their vote without getting out of bed at a convenient moment. Of course, it is necessary to take care of obtaining personal identifiers in advance. Moreover, many citizens do not reside at their official place of registration and do not register at a new one. If they wish to vote, they would need to change their polling location in advance, but electronic voting removes this barrier.
The state also benefits from this innovation. By simplifying and modernizing the process, it will be possible to engage those who would not have made it to a polling station under different circumstances. Voting and the vote-counting process will be faster, with minimal human involvement. Ultimately, there will be potential cost savings in organizing the process, including printing ballots and their transportation.
Electronic voting should be divided into remote voting — via the Internet (using ID passport or other identification procedures) and physical voting – using digital terminals. The latter resembles operations with regular payment terminals: instead of marking on paper ballots, voters press on the screens of monitors, where complete information about the candidates can be presented. After making their choice, some models of these touchscreen machines issue a paper receipt, which is then deposited into the ballot box. This receipt essentially serves as a ballot that can be used to verify the vote count after the announcement of preliminary voting results. Such a system was used not long ago in elections in Kyrgyzstan.
E-voting in one form or another has been implemented or experimented with in countries such as the United States, Canada, India, the Philippines, Brazil, Switzerland, the Netherlands, South Korea, and others. In some cases, it was introduced as an experiment, and some countries have discontinued it due to significant risks. Estonia is considered somewhat of a benchmark in this field, but even there, voting has not fully transitioned to digital, as the option to vote “traditionally” at polling stations still remains. However, Estonia may not be a direct model for Ukraine in this matter due to differences in size, risks, and political culture. They are fundamentally different states and societies.
There are concerns that the introduction of electronic voting in Ukraine may lead to consequences that some politicians and experts anticipate to be catastrophic. In fact, the attempt to pilot internet voting was discussed during the local elections in 2020 and faced opposition from civil society organizations, arguing that the country was not yet ready for it.
Is Ukraine ready for it now?
“Do you want to vote? Come to the country”
Chairman of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, Oleksiy Koshel, lists several risks of electronic voting in the current situation. One of them, often reiterated by critics of radical technological progress, is the risk of cyber intrusion, primarily from Russia. The expert recalls an incident from several years ago when Russian hackers targeted the websites of the National Bank, the Cabinet of Ministers, and other government agencies. However, the key risk, in his opinion, is the potential non-acceptance of the election results by voters. Koshel cites the example of Turkey, where in the recent second round of the presidential elections, the old and proven system with regular paper ballots and protocols was used, but this did not prevent information manipulation and parallel vote counting. An electronic system, on the other hand, would completely eliminate the possibility of recounting votes in case of questions and disputes, where opposing parties would wave their own data.
“In 2019, the leaders of parliamentary parties in Ukraine claimed that they were preparing for falsifications in Western Ukraine on a scale of up to two million voters. Now, imagine the extent of manipulation that would occur with electronic voting. There will definitely be national-level politicians who will say that they do not trust the falsified election results. Consequently, a portion of society will not accept their outcomes, and we will end up with a semi-legitimate president, parliament, and local authorities. Unlike Western democratic countries, we still have a significant lack of trust in the election results. Let me remind you that information about the ‘transit server’ was one of the reasons behind the events on Maidan. Introducing electronic voting can be done as an experiment — for ships that are on long voyages, and perhaps even for first-time voters to encourage their participation in elections. But under no circumstances should it be implemented in a general format,” says Koshel.
One of the authors of the current Electoral Code, former MP Oleksandr Chernenko, agrees: the obvious advantage of internet voting is the ability to involve people in the electoral process who are unable to vote at their designated polling stations due to the war. However, he points out that there is currently no record of such voters. Moreover, this method will not ensure the opportunity for everyone to vote, even for technical reasons — to cast their vote, individuals would need to download special software, have internet access, and possess basic skills. Chernenko reminds us that several countries that implemented electronic voting later abandoned it. The reasons for such a step include the risk of hacking and the inability to ensure the secrecy of voting.
“We cannot see whether the voter is voting independently or under coercion and bribery. It’s one thing when a voter casts their ballot in a booth at a polling station with numerous observers, and another thing when it’s unclear where and how they are voting. There have been cases where, during home voting, commission members from different candidates, as well as observers, would visit the voters, all the ballots would be counted, and the ballot boxes sealed — and still, a bunch of abuses would arise during such voting. And electronic voting is essentially the same as voting at home but without any control. A group of individuals will come to a village to elderly people, giving them 200 hryvnias each to press buttons on their phones. Or a boss will gather subordinates in the office, and everyone will vote remotely, showing him how they voted. And there is no need for any system interference or hacking,” Chernenko simulates the situation.
Unlike government officials who hint that international partners are promoting the topic of electronic voting, according to former Deputy Chair of the Central Election Commission Andriy Mahera, nothing of the sort is happening.
“If someone has a strong desire to push everything into Diia mobile application or somewhere else, they don’t fully understand where they are pushing and what the consequences might be. In reality, the first question that should be addressed is the relevance of the voter registry and whether we have accurate information on polling stations. As far as I know, the situation there is quite complex, and it cannot be resolved simply by monthly updates to the database. We need to pass a separate law and restart the registry,” emotionally explains Mahera.
See also: Ukraine after war: social dimension
Mahera notes that for the European continent, the question of voting by citizens abroad is not a key issue. There are several European countries that do not allow their citizens to vote from abroad in parliamentary and presidential elections at all.
“If you want to vote, you come to the country, meaning you have to be engaged with the country and its issues. In my opinion, we pay too much attention to Ukrainians living abroad, with all due respect to them, at a time when our focus should be on conducting fair and just elections. By prioritizing the adherence to the principle of universal suffrage, we may compromise two other fundamental principles — the secrecy of the vote and free elections. Believe me, Russian special services will make significant efforts to gain access to the electronic system and manipulate the results. It will be impossible to prove afterwards that Medvedchuk did not receive the highest number of votes in the elections. What documentary evidence can we present in court instead of paper ballots?” comments the former member of the Central Election Commission.
What can be done?
To engage foreign voters in the voting process, experts suggest a simple solution: increase the number of polling stations for them.
“If there is an opportunity to establish two polling stations and two precinct commissions near the embassies, they should be formed. In addition, not only diplomatic missions but also trade and economic missions should be involved where it is possible to establish polling stations,” says Andriy Mahera.
Olexiy Kosheil notes that in France, they abandoned electronic voting in favor of a more secure postal voting system. A similar experience can be borrowed from our neighbors in Poland. In Ukraine, the civil network Opora is currently conducting an experiment to see how the postal voting format will work.
“We need to develop secure voting mechanisms for Ukrainian citizens abroad now. Neighboring Moldova has tens of times more polling stations in some countries than Ukraine. However, the idea of e-voting will continue to be promoted to attract the interest of young voters, for whom the new voting mechanism is more intriguing than specific political preferences for candidates. Nevertheless, it should be noted that in Estonia, which is often cited as an example in this regard, voting can be done either online or at a polling station,” urges Koshel.
For now, the possibility of holding elections before the end of martial law is ruled out, as stated by the President himself. However, discussions are taking place regarding the potential interruption of martial law, which is currently in effect until August 18, specifically to initiate the electoral process. Any discrepancies that inevitably arise during the process can be promptly addressed through decisions of the Verkhovna Rada. However, the situation on the frontlines leading up to August 18 is unknown, and such a scenario carries numerous risks that are currently impossible to anticipate. Moreover, the current composition of the Parliament is functioning effectively, making all necessary decisions to ensure national defense. What more can one ask for the country during a time of war?
However, proponents of power rotation have their arguments. While the civility and unwavering nature of the current parliament may be perceived as a positive aspect, it is also its weak point. The ninth convocation of the Verkhovna Rada is a pre-war institution. It consists of members of the Servants of the People party, a large portion of whom understand that their political careers will end with this term; remnants of the former Opposition Platform — For Life, “resource-based majoritarians” who will no longer be present in the next convocation; fragments of the long-suffering Holos party.
In such scenarios, Western partners will remind the Ukrainian authorities more than once about the need to explore opportunities for their own reboot, whether it be through electronic voting or some other means. And in pursuit of this process, the international community will even be willing to turn a blind eye to certain shortcomings and “excesses on the ground.” Interestingly, the current government, which considers itself irreplaceable, is not particularly opposed to this. It may well try to take advantage of such a position by solidifying its power for several more years.
First Deputy Speaker Oleksandr Kornienko assured Glavkom (Ukrainian media outlet) that there are currently no bills in parliament that promote the process of e-voting. However, this issue can be resolved in an instant as soon as there is the political will to do so.
Originally posted by OlehVuyets on Glavcom.ua. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website