The Work of the Venice Commission on Electronic Democracy,
Council of Europe Forum for the Future of Democracy, Madrid 15-17 October 2008
The Venice Commission has, since the beginning, played a very active role in the development of the Council of Europe standards of e-voting. It already took part in the preparation of the e-voting Recommendation:
I. Report on the compatibility of remote voting and electronic voting with the requirements of the documents of the Council of Europe
In March 2004, the Commission adopted a “report” which elaborated on the “compatibility of remote voting and electronic voting with the requirements of the documents of the Council of Europe”1. This report specifies an opinion on remote voting, taking into consideration the impressive development of electronic voting, but also the problems and dangers that could result from technically new voting methods.
The report defines a « European standard » that is based on three documents:
1. Article 3 of the first Additional Protocol to the Convention (and its right to vote in free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people),
2. the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters of the Venice Commission2 (which defines “principles of Europe's electoral heritage” and “conditions for implementing these principles”, and
3. the answers of different states to a questionnaire.
In general, the report of the Venice Commission determines the compatibility of electronic voting with these documents, but “under the condition that certain preventive measures are adopted within the procedure”. These measures have to meet certain legal, operational and technical standards. They can be defined as precautions aiming at:
1. guaranteeing the principle of universal, equal, free and secret suffrage,
2. protecting the authenticity and integrity of elections,
3. limiting the risks of fraud, in particular the risk of double votes,
4. and guaranteeing the transparency of the system.
In order to concretise these conditions, the report of the Venice Commission distinguishes between electronic voting in a supervised location – this means that electronic means are used only in order to enregister for the vote (« electronic voting in a supervised environment ») – and electronic voting in a location not supervised, this means that the authentication of the voter is effected by electronic means (« electronic voting in a non-supervised environment»). The Commission defines concrete precautions, for this mode of voting, which resembles postal voting. A few months later, the Committee of Ministers of the CoE formulated the Rec (2004)11 which is to this day the main document of the CoE on the subject of e-voting.3
II. Guidelines on the Holding of Referendums (Code of Good Practice on Referendums)
In its Guidelines on the Holding of Referendums from October 2006 the Venice Commission formulated requirements for democratic referendums underlining the principles of suffrage, reasserting that e-voting could be admissible under certain conditions. First of all, the Commission underlines the necessity of exercising e-voting in compliance with the Council of Europe recommendation4, but moreover emphasises eight crucial conditions a system of e-voting has to fulfil in particular to ensure the free expression of will of the voters and to fight against fraud. E-voting has to be secure, reliable, efficient, technically robust, open to independent verification, easily accessible to voters, transparent and only an optional voting channel unless channels of remote electronic voting are universally accessible (point I.3.2.a.iv). Now I will briefly explain these standards:
1. Secure means that all possible provisions have to be made to avoid the risk of fraud or non authorised intervention that could affect the system during the voting procedure. In all phases of the voting procedure, the system has to be protected from manipulation or planned attacks.
2. Reliable implies that the e-voting system has to work correctly, that all measures have to be taken to assure that in the case of malfunction no votes get lost, within the limits of the secrecy of the voting procedure. The Commission underlines that the voter has to receive a confirmation of his vote so that he can correct it.
3. An efficient system of e-voting serves the purpose of its introduction: It facilitates the registration of the votes, improves voter participation, reduces the global costs and delivers – more rapidly than the classic system – reliable results. Remote voting systems are perhaps more efficient than e-voting systems in a supervised environment, but certainly pose more problems with regard to safety and reliability of the voting procedure.
4. Solidity of the e-voting-system means that it has to work well but also that all its risks have to be evaluated. Audits can preserve that the voters stay anonymous and that they can verify whether procedures and results comply with constitutional and legal standards.
5.The e-voting system has to be open to an independent verification. This means that an independent organism has to verify the correct operation of the system before and regularly after the activating of the system. In the case of objections, the system has to enable a recounting of the votes as well.
6. The condition of accessibility implies two components: the comprehensibility and the availability for all voters. The users have to be involved in the conception of the system and they must be able to test it. A system that is too complicated, particularly for aged and disabled persons, does not comply with this standard.
7. Moreover, the e-voting system has to be transparent, meaning that the voters have to know and to understand how it is working. Only thereby, they can gain confidence in the system and accept it. Information and explications have to be allocated. The information has to explain the different steps of the voting procedure using clear and simple language.
8. The last condition refers to remote e-voting systems and claims that they have to stay optional unless these channels are universally accessible. As long as this accessibility is lacking, the option of voting in a traditional polling station must remain possible. This aims at avoiding a so called “digital divide” between those who have access to the technology and those who have not. It underlines the fundamental idea, that e-voting should be a chance for new possibilities and improve the access to voting, but should not raise concerns about the compatibility with the principles of universal and equal elections.
III. The Be Voting Study and the comments of the Council of Europe
The Venice Commission has confirmed this position recently by taking note of the so-called Be Voting Study, together with the Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in March 2008. This scientific study which was issued by seven European universities on behalf of the Belgian government evaluates five technically possible e-voting systems and analyses their compliance with the Council of Europe Recommendation. In short it can be observed that this study declines both examined remote e-voting systems and finds acceptable only one e-voting model: an improved paper based system, which takes place in a traditional polling station, provides an identification by normal ID to the president of the voting office, a voting machine in a booth, the casting of the vote by using this machine and a printed paper ballot which is dropped in a normal ballot box outside the booth. The major advantage of this system is the automation of the counting process of the votes. Ne-vertheless, it cannot improve voter participation, as it is no remote e-voting system.
The Secretariat General of the Council of Europe on its turn made an assessment of the study and issued a report on the subject. This report focuses on the improved paper based system and agrees with the judgment that it is the only one overall complying with the recommendation. However, the Council finds it unfortunate that the study too quickly rejects remote e-voting scenarios and does not explore them in greater depth, since internet voting is the most interesting topic within the e-voting debate and there are many controversial issues. Thus, a detailed assessment of remote e-voting systems and their concern with public confidence, transparency, identification and recount in the light of the European standards is still lacking. Anyway, the Be Voting study and its assessment by the Council deliver interesting information about different technical possibilities and their advantages, problems and weaknesses in respect of traditional principles of election. The documents demonstrate where e-voting systems still have to develop in order to reach conformity with European standards, to gain full public confidence and thus to effectively improve voter participation.
The Venice Commission has always had a positive approach to electoral modernisation. It is following carefully all technical developments that can bring electronic democracy in Europe to a state of maturity and improve voter participation. It supports all national initiatives and pilots which examine the possibilities of these features by scientific standards. However, the Commission remains critical about e-voting systems which are not yet ready to correspond with the fundamental principles of democracy set up and defined by the CoE.
Gabriele Kucsko-Stadlmayer, Venice Commission