The Finnish E-Voting System Failure

In the last week's municipal government elections, Finland tested a new e-voting system in three small cities. These cities were Kauniainen, my home town as well as Karkkila and Vihti. The system is expected to become implemented country wide in future elections.

Two days after the elections it has been revealed that the system lost 2% of votes cast electronically. (Also reported by Slashdot and Helsingin Sanomat in Finnish). In my home town they lost 61 votes out of about 3000; the lost number of votes would have been sufficient to change the results or even get someone who otherwise had no votes to the city council.

It turns out that the problem was the sequencing of two events: pressing the final "OK" button on the screen vs. withdrawing the smart card that was given to each voter. Testing had not discovered the possibility that people would pull the card out prematurely. An alternative explanation is that some people failed to press the OK button twice as was required. But it is hard to know what the intent of the voters was. Did they just make a mistake? Did they intend to cast an empty vote? (But if they did, why did they not follow the procedure for that?) Or was there a so-far unknown failure that lead the machines to believe that the card had been withdrawn? There is no evidence of any of these theories. I think the most likely explanation is that the majority of users behaved unexpectedly, but really intended to cast a vote. The government officials explain this as a user failure. The local news have reported that the voting system was experienced as a good one: "Election officials have told us that voters were very pleased with the electronic voting system.".

Critics of the system, such Finland's Electronic Frontier Foundation organization have stated (in more detail in Finnish) that the error is unacceptable and unlawful. They have called for new elections and the firing of the responsible officials. Previously, several critics have complained about the closed nature of the voting system, which did not allow open review of its problems. Several other news articles have suggested that new elections may have to be run (in Finnish). However, minister Tuija Brax responsible for the judicial system has stated that new elections are not possible.

From my perspective this case is a combination of a user interface bug, inadequate testing, and the unexpected nature of human behaviour. News reports support the fact that no testing was done with outsiders at all. However, it is important to not jump to the details of one bug and how it should or should have been fixed. This kind of an accident is a consequence of an election system architecture that first cannot stand unexpected behavior in the same way as the traditional ballot voting system, and secondly leaves no paper proof of what happened. I think adopting a system like this shows poor judgment from the designers. It is also very hard to see what possible practical or economic benefit might result from such a system in a country that has well working and reliable voting system and an ability to place votes beforehand in virtually any location. I am an avid fan of technology, but I fear the desire to show a "nice user interface" and a "feeling of advanced technology" to voters has overshadowed rational concerns.

The elections must be re-run. And when they are, they must employ paper ballots or perform a complete re-design of the voting system to allow paper trails and public scrutiny. Lets remember that this was a minor incident in a very well behaving society. What if malice or heated political situation had been involved? The new system is simply too unreliable, even if the current bug can be fixed. I have sent an appeal to the electoral board of Kauniainen on this matter. Other appeals are encouraged as well, please send them to or the relevant counterpart in your community. If this appeal is not successful, it is also possible to appeal within two weeks to the administrative court. More information here. NEW: The electoral board approved the results and dismissed the concerns raised in my appeal. The next stop is going to be in the court...

More news stories will be added below as they come available, but so far there have no good quality articles in English.

Kauniainen, October 28th, 2008
Jari Arkko

Other articles: MTV3 reports that the error may have affected the results (in Finnish). The government-controlled broadcasting company YLE reports that there "small amount of problems in the voting". Politician Jyrki Kasvi demands new elections (in Finnish). Vartti writes that the court may force a re-run of the elections (again in Finnish). Digitoday criticizes heavily the system and points out the secrecy surrounding its development (in Finnish). Iltalehti reports about the problems (also in Finnish). Uusi Suomi tells us that demands have been made for Tuija Brax (the responsible minister) to be fired. Professor Kaarlo Tuori comments that basic voter rights have been violated and the election may have to be re-run. MTV3 reports that the young Kokoomus party members have filed an appeal to the parliament judicial oversight administrator. This would make this the second known appeal in addition to the one that I filed. Iltasanomat reports that a "scandal is brewing" due to the inadequate testing practices of the system, and that new elections may have to be run. The same news reports have been given in Iltalehti. Now Helsingin Sanomat reports that the problems experienced in the election were actually discovered much earlier, but ignored. A politician from Vihti has filed an appeal.

Picture credits: government documentation and Slashdot.
Created October 28th, 2008.
Last modified Nov 5th, 2008 by Jari Arkko