Casting your digital vote with Zeus

As ancient Greece is considered the birthplace of democracy, it seems only natural that the Greek Research & Education Network GRNET has given birth to its own online voting system used by thousands of people, both in the Greek academic sector and elsewhere.

Going by the grand name of Zeus, the system boasts ultra-high security, excluding any possibility of tampering with the result, together with guaranteeing full voter anonymity.

GRNET has now hosted over 600 Zeus-enabled votes since its launch in 2012, from votes for governing bodies in academia and political parties conducting internal elections to the association of Greek hotel owners electing their management board.

Blocking elections

The development of Zeus, however, stems from something not at all democratic: people trying to block elections. Panos Louridas from GRNET explains:

“In 2011 the Greek Parliament passed a new law introducing a series of changes in higher education in Greece. Among the changes the law decreed the creation of new governing bodies for the universities.

“This law was considered very controversial in some parts of the political spectrum. We have a tradition of demonstrations and people taking to the streets here in Greece, so vocal opposition is not unexpected and Greeks are well used to it. It so happened in this case that, although the law had been passed with overwhelming majority in Parliament, the elections could not take place. For example, the opponents could simply go to the universities and block access to the ballot boxes; you could not have elections in this climate.”

From Helios to Zeus

“It was then thought, that the only way to actually do the elections was to do them electronically. So, in August 2012 I got a phone call and was asked if I could have an online voting system in place in one month. That was impossible. Instead, I asked for three months and we managed to put Zeus together within that time frame.

“The only way this could happen was by having the two best developers I could find work on the project, George Tsoukalas and Kostas Papadimitriou.

“We took an existing voting system called Helios and modified it to be used both for “approval voting”, where you vote either yes or no, and “rank voting”, which means you have a list of candidates and each voter ranks them according to his or her preference. That was necessary because the electoral system in the university election used rank voting, in particular, a variation of a system called Single Transferable Vote (STV).

“We managed to get Zeus ready just a few days before election time, and it was successful. In fact, we had a very significant participation rate, much higher than usual. So we were happy, both to have solved all the technical issues in designing the system and that so many people decided to use it.”

Blocked mail servers

“But still, there were attacks against the system. Although the system could not be attacked physically, there were attempts to attack it digitally. There were some Denial of Service (DOS) attacks, which were dealt with swiftly, thanks to GRNET’s superb administration team.

“At one university the mail server was shut down, so voters could not receive their ballot invitations, but we solved that problem by extending the voting deadline and by changing the Zeus system so the voters could access the ballot box via SMS messages, bypassing the blocked mail server. So in the end, all the elections took place, and results were published and accepted.”

Called Technofascists

“The system was discussed intensely, and it got even mentioned in the Greek Parliament. In fact, the opponents called us, the people that had made the system, Technofascists. That was a whole new word that entered the Greek lexicon. You know, I am very much for Open Source, liberty and digital freedom. So being called Technofascist was really astonishing.

“For me and the rest of the team, giving people the ability to vote security and confidentially was, and still is, a fascinating technological problem. We had no part in the political discussions, but we were happy that people used the system in large numbers. Whether elections should be carried out electronically is for society to decide. We, as technologists, are responsible for giving society the best possible option, should they choose to do.

“Also, everything we do in such matters should be in the spotlight: Zeus has been Open Source from the very beginning so that everybody can check exactly what it does and how it works. I would be extremely, extremely reluctant to ever use a closed source e-voting system.”

Shutting Zeus down

After having carried out the university elections Panos Louridas and his team prepared to shut the Zeus system down. But soon they discovered that people started asking if they could use it for other votes. And from there it took off by word-of-mouth. Since launch in October 2012, Zeus has now been used for over 600 votes, with more than 60.000 voters participating.

“That took us by surprise. And it gave us the incentive to continue developing Zeus, adding speed and additional voting mechanisms together with even better technology. Later this year we are releasing a new version capable of running elections on a national scale, giving you the results within a few hours after closing time.”

Absentee votes

According to Panos Louridas Zeus could in the future be used for national elections, and he has given the matter some thought:

“You could offer the voters two choices: the conventional polling stations or Zeus, so people can choose what is most convenient to them. Also, there is the question of the Greek diaspora. Lots of Greeks are living abroad, but they can only vote if they travel back to Greece. So, a topic that comes up in Greek politics time and again is: Should we give these people a right of absentee vote? That could be done securely and efficiently with a system like Zeus. Obviously, that’s up to the politicians to decide, but we could do it; again, our job is to give people the choice.”

Published: 06/2018

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