In the last months a meme went viral on social media networks that showed a multiple-choice test with the questions “Who is pushing remote working in your company?” the answers were “CEO”, “CTO”, “Covid-19”. Mutatis mutandis this joke can be translated to many other sectors that are deeply affected by the pandemic. One of these is elections and voting modalities. Although it is not a brand new topic in the media, the urgency to make democracy work in pandemic time ignited a recent debate. Simultaneously, many governments are making decisions on 5G, which is “one of the most important innovations of our time”. Beyond the open confrontation between the United States and China, discussions were further fostered by the UK's decision to ban Chinese 5G technologies from its networks. This decision has been particularly under the spotlight as the UK did not ban Chinese technology in the first place. Thus, it fuelled the fire about the security and safety of critical infrastructures, including elections.
The pandemic triggered the necessity to find alternative solutions to in-person voting. Currently, the United States, as long as the postal service is put in the condition to work, is making it easier for citizens to vote absentee by mail to avoid postponing presidential elections. As a matter of fact, this has been the case in many other countries. In the last months just among Council of Europe member states, 12 elections have been postponed (including one presidential and two parliamentary). Despite concerns over election delays, one potential solution, internet voting, continues to be called into question, as many experts worry that they are not yet safe, especially for general elections. Indeed there are just a few countries (for example, Estonia and Switzerland) that have already implemented internet voting solutions.
Internet voting is just the tip of the iceberg of the use of digital tools in elections. We should consider elections as a cycle, composed of pre and post-election periods. This approach envisions elections as continuous processes rather than isolated events. As such, elections are considered not only in terms of election-day but integrated building blocks that include procurements, voters registration, result tabulation, etc. For some of these building blocks, electoral authorities use some degree of digital technology to improve electoral processes (such as office tools, websites, databases, voting technologies). The growing threats to the digital side of elections were the drivers that let the United States declaring elections as “critical infrastructure” in 2017. Therefore, even if we consider voting modalities or the electoral cycle as a whole, the digital dimension is an important variable to consider for the election's integrity. So, how might the advent of 5G impact this element?
The fifth generation of mobile telecommunications could generate two main effects when it comes to electoral processes. The first one regards the opportunities; the second refers to the public perception of it. Speaking of opportunities: 5G technologies are safer than those developed so far. Indeed, 5G permits the encryption of more data, it is more software and cloud-based than previous systems (allowing for better monitoring), and it allows “network slicing” (which refers to the ability to segment the system into numerous networks that can be customized separately in terms of cybersecurity). These characteristics could give further impetus to those who advocate for digital voting. For example, “network slicing” could be extremely relevant for building up cyber-secured voting networks. Moreover, as argued in one of our previous publications, due to the software nature of 5G, “the outlook for a future that relies on this technology and other new digital pathways is cyber-defined”. In this sense, given the fact that 5G is mostly privately developed, “[C]ompanies must recognize and be held responsible for a new cyber duty of care”, and “[g]overnment must establish a new cyber regulatory paradigm to reflect these new realities”. Achieving these conditions could be a practical step towards increasing the cybersecurity of the election as critical infrastructure even within the context of 5G. So, would this technology eventually push for the concretisation of internet voting?
It may not be sufficient to push forward the idea of Internet voting among the population. Trust is still a huge issue when it comes to digital technologies. There are still large segments of the population that do not understand and thus do not trust digital technologies. For example, a recent Eurobarometer survey on cybersecurity showed that “[t]he majority of respondents (52%) feel that they are not able to protect themselves sufficiently against cybercrime” or that they are afraid of identity theft (66%). Trust is also a crucial issue concerning electoral integrity. Indeed, to accept the result of an election, electoral stakeholders (including voters) must trust the system. As reported in a recent analysis by the International Foundation for Electoral Studies (IFES), “the technology that underpins internet voting is highly sophisticated […] most voters will not understand how it works, and this lack of understanding could undermine public trust”.
The advent of 5G would probably slightly increase distrust in digital elections (regardless of internet voting) for at least the following three reasons: first of all, as it was mentioned, it is a much more complex technology, which could lead to greater miscomprehension on how it works even among politicians and decision-makers. Second, the ongoing struggle between some western governments and some Chinese companies could weaken the perception of the neutrality and integrity of this technology as a whole. The accusations regarding possible spying activities through the 5G could, in turn, spark concerns among electoral stakeholders (raising issues such as endangering the sacred principle of voter secrecy). Finally, 5G is fuelling multiple conspiracies theories, which are spreading all over the world. Although deceptive tales frequently target information and communication technologies, these skyrocketed since the outbreak of Covid-19, fuelled by growing disinformation and the fake news phenomenon.
Therefore, even if we are living in a world that is in real need of new ways to vote remotely, the advent of 5G may generate contrasting effects. On one side, 5G technologies could help to enhance cybersecurity concerns regarding Internet voting. On the other, 5G could increase public distrust of Internet voting and thus on electoral integrity. The solution to this stalemate must be addressed with a comprehensive and consistent cybersecurity strategy vìs à vìs 5G technologies and with proper communication and dissemination campaigns for the general public and keep on fostering basic digital knowledge to the marginalized segments of the society.
 Lily Hai Newmann, “5G Is More Secure Than 4G and 3G—Except When It’s Not”, Wired, 15 December 2019.
 Applegate M., Chanussot T., and Basysty V., “Considerations on Internet Voting:
An Overview for Electoral Decision-Makers”, IFES, April 2020. Available at: https://www.ifes.org/sites/default/files/considerations_on_internet_voting_an_overview_for_electoral_decision-makers.pdf