Amid hacking fears, Dutch election will be entirely hand-counted, tallied with pen and paper

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 February, 2017, 12:39pm
UPDATED : Friday, 03 February, 2017, 10:25pm

Alarmed that hackers, false news and state-backed propaganda could try to influence or tamper with the results of next month’s national election, the Dutch government has decided to count all ballots the old-fashioned way: with pen and paper.

“The cabinet cannot exclude the possibility that state actors might gain advantage from influencing political decision-making and public opinion in the Netherlands and might use means to try and achieve such influence,” Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk said in a letter sent to the Dutch parliament late Wednesday.

“We’re talking about actors that both have the intention and ability to do this.”

Paper ballots are used in Dutch elections. These are hand-counted at local voting stations before being sent to regional voting centres for computer tallying. But with warnings from intelligence agencies that Russia and ideologically-driven fringe groups may seek to meddle in upcoming political contests in the Netherlands, France and Germany, the Dutch vote on March 15 will rely exclusively on a manual count.

“No shadow of a doubt can be allowed to hang over the result,” Plasterk, who said the move was prompted by fears over computer software “vulnerabilities,” told lawmakers. The intervention follows a Dutch parliamentary debate about alleged pro-Donald Trump, Russian interference — denied by Moscow — in the US election.

Lawmakers were concerned about Trump’s claim, for which there is no evidence, that he lost the popular vote because of ballots cast by illegal immigrants.

Plasterk said that the Dutch government was assessing how susceptible it might be to electoral fraud. Dutch broadcaster RTL reported on Monday that software security experts considered the government’s voting system to be relatively easy to hack.

“The whole panic about Russians attempting to influence elections around the world is completely exaggerated,” said Alexey Kovalev, a Moscow-based journalist who documents instances of Russian propaganda. “It’s a very simplistic answer to why you lost an election. It’s shifting the blame when you don’t like the result.”

About 13 million people are expected to vote in next month’s election, the first of three key votes in Europe taking place amid growing momentum for anti-establishment, populist parties. Last year, Britain’s shock vote to leave the European Union was partially orchestrated by the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party. Its former leader, Nigel Farage, has developed close ties with Trump.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ anti-immigration and anti-EU Party for Freedom has been leading opinion polls for months and may win the most parliamentary seats.

However, Netherlands’ complicated coalition political system is stacked against the flamboyant politician known for his strident anti-Islam remarks and bleached-blond, bouffant hair. Even if he gets the most support nationally, he is unlikely to take over as the nation’s new leader from Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. All the other Dutch political parties have ruled out forming a government with Wilders.

In December, a Dutch court found Wilders guilty of hate speech for instigating a chant about how the Netherlands needed “fewer” Moroccan immigrants. Wilders said the trial and non-custodial conviction was a politically motivated “charade.”