Democracy needs to be preserved even during pandemics. The European Parliament, therefore—in order to make decisions—has been voting remotely since March. There is not just one single voting procedure used in the Parliament at this moment.
How the Bureau of the European Parliament enabled remote voting
The Bureau of the European Parliament temporarily allowed voting by e-mail back in March. In addition to it, some committees started using an internally developed voting application, which is fully dependent on the proprietary Apple platform. I described some of the issues arising from that in my other blog post. Apart from the issues specific for iVote, there’s another concern relevant for all types of electronic remote voting, or voting over the Internet if you will: How do I verify my vote?
How voting results can be trusted
You might have asked yourself that question during elections already. It’s hard to disagree that it is absolutely essential that one can be sure that the result of elections reflects the will of people. In other words, that the votes have not been manipulated.
How can you trust that votes have not been manipulated in elections? Different countries implement measures to ensure vote integrity in various ways. In Czechia, for instance, each political party can nominate a scrutineer who is present at a particular polling station. The scrutineers nominated by different political parties then constitute a system of checks and balances, making sure that no one can manipulate the votes during their casting or counting. All these scrutineers can also subsequently check that the results were counted as reported from the polling station, since results from all polling stations are public. This system of delegated verification allows the citizens to be sure that the votes were counted as cast.
Vote integrity for remote voting in the European Parliament
For functioning democracies, the requirement on vote integrity is, of course, no different for voting of elected representatives of citizens. When votes are cast over the network, things become more complicated. The Parliament has two options: employ an audited system providing cryptographic evidence that votes were counted as cast or ensure integrity of the votes procedurally. Given that the former is not instantaneously technically possible, it leaves the Parliament with one option only: roll call votes (RCV).
If all votes are roll call and the results are public, each voter can verify that their vote was counted as cast. The Parliament’s rules of procedure even recognize this type of voting. They are called—unsurprisingly—roll call votes and indeed they are published. In order to ensure vote integrity during the current period of time when Members of the European Parliament vote remotely, all votes would have to be roll call.
When the Bureau of the European Parliament was taking a decision making remote voting in the European Parliament possible—i.e. back in Spring when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Europe—I insisted in the Bureau meeting that all votes need to be taken roll call. We reached an agreement and all votes taken by the plenary—with the exception of a handful of secret ballots—are taken roll call.
For committee votes, unfortunately, this is not the case. In committees, only the results of final votes are taken roll call. Voting on amendments is not roll call. Only results in the form of number of yes votes, no votes, and abstentions are published. Which returns us to the original question important for remote voting: How do I verify my vote? The answer is simple, yet not satisfactory: I do not.
Members of the European Parliament represent citizens. Now, citizens have to trust that the unaudited system for remote voting used by the Parliament has no flaws. Citizens have to trust that there is no human error in the process. Citizens have to trust that there is no manipulation with the votes. That is far from satisfactory for an institustion with co-legislative powers on European scale.
Hence, I need to continue insisting: In order to remove this uncertainty, when voting remotely, all votes taken by the Parliament and its bodies have to be roll call and publication of the results is crucial, including votes on amendments. Currently, roll call votes is the only way for Members to verify that their votes were counted as cast.
How do we fix this?
This issue is a major problem for democracy and needs to be fixed. Now, the Parliament will work on the reform of the Rules of Procedure in order to authorize remote voting in exceptional circumstances—like those we have been experiencing due to the pandemic. This reform must guarantee that remote voting in the Parliament gets the level of integrity, security, and transparency it urgently needs and deserves. Therefore, I’ll keep pushing this issue towards its resolution.