Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The US elections technology oligopoly

Last week we learned from the Wall Street Journal that “Election machines used in more than half of U.S. states carry a flaw disclosed more than a decade ago that makes them vulnerable to a cyberattack”. A startling development, considering that the midterms are around the corner, and that China has allegedly joined the list of foreign powers trying to meddle in US elections.

Although the reason why a flaw of this magnitude is still present is manifold, recent studies point at the concentrated structure of the industry as one of the main causes for the poor state of the US election infrastructure.

In 2017, a Penn Wharton professor, Lorin Hitt, and a team of six students published a report titled “The Business of Voting”. According to their findings, “the industry is dominated by three firms that are moderate in size and neither publicly nor independently held, limiting the amount of information available in the public domain about their operations and financial performance. Meanwhile, the customer base is highly fragmented, with election technology decision-making dispersed across more than 10,000 county election officials.”

The three firms in question -Election Systems & Software (ES&S), Dominion Voting Systems, and Hart Intercivic- control approximately 92% of the voting machines used in the US. The existence of an oligopoly which controls US elections is undoubtedly a problem that needs to be addressed. 

As pointed out in the Wharton study, the lack of competitiveness leads to an inefficient market.  “First, the companies can exert their market power to lock-in clients”.  And second, “the industry’s high degree of concentration reduces investment in making voting machines more secure. The three incumbent companies can easily cooperate in carving up the existing market. And little outside competition, according to the authors of the report, means “limited incentives for innovation”.

The inefficiencies of this oligopoly have become evident in recent weeks.

On September 26, the city of Chicago awarded a 10-year contract for approximately $31 million to Dominion Voting Systems. The decision to purchase technology from the Canadian-based company was made months ago following a public bidding, yet the acquisition of technology is now being questioned. ES&S, the largest manufacturer in the country, filed a lawsuit against the county and the office of its chief procurement officer on September 25. According to ES&S, the “proposed voting system was not compliant with Illinois law, and likewise could not meet the requirements [of the request for proposals], because it had not been certified by the Illinois State Board of Elections.”

A similar episode is unfolding in Louisiana where ES&S is accusing state officials of favoring Dominion during the bidding process. In June, it was revealed that ES&S “had coaxed state and local elections officials —including South Carolina's election chief— to serve on an “advisory board” that gathers twice annually for company-sponsored conferences for at least nine years.”

Ethics experts have questioned this practice, labeling it as potentially corrupt. “This is a massive promotional opportunity for ES&S,” said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, D.C. “It’s highly inappropriate for any election official to be accepting anything of value from a primary contractor. It shocks the conscience … I think it compromises their integrity.”

To cope with the shortcomings of this inefficient market, the Penn Wharton study recommends:

• Buyer coalitions, which can give jurisdictions greater bargaining power for getting vendors to provide systems that are both better priced and more customized to their needs;
• Open source technology, which proponents believe may catalyze the development of new competitive markets in voting systems solutions;
• Modified certification processes, to support a move to modular voting systems built from less expensive commercial off

It is time to take action.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

What happened with e-voting in Angola?

Photo by Elections 360 via Flickr

The 2012 elections in Angola was marred with a myriad of doubts. Intimidation of opposition candidates, media personalities, election authorities and international observers characterised the political process. The developments portrayed downright electoral fraud, and very few individuals expected free and fair elections.

In recent months news came out that the Spanish Tax Agency fined the company Indra Sistemas S.A. as part of an investigation for the payment of illegal commissions of 2.4 million euros, carried out under the Angolan presidential elections of 2012. Six years later, this investigation has re-open the “Pandora box” of uncertainties surrounding the election process.

Angola’s hope: e-voting

Conventionally, the conditions that facilitate free and fair elections often begin long before Election Day. Nonetheless, within 30 days to the 2012 elections, it was explicit that Angolans were not ready as they could not campaign freely without pressure or intimidation.

The hostility escalated to worrying levels a week toward the election date prompting some patriots and the international community to advice on the postponement of the election date. The electoral body appeared compromised and overwhelmed by the unfolding chaos in the entire circle of national leadership.

The previous election had been associated with widespread rigging and widespread electoral irregularities, which had taken a significant amount of time and financial resources to set strategies in place to curb a repeat. Angolans and the entire continent had been tired of the post-election violence whenever voting concluded with massive uncertainties.

By 2012, Angolans had been psychologically prepared to participate freely in voting for a new National Assembly, and it was going to be their first time to adopt electronic voting. Given that the elections were conducted electronically, there was significant hope for more secure, reliable and transparent ballots, and that post-election convolution would be a thing of the past.

However, when everything seemed wrong with the way campaigns were being conducted, voters saw red flags. The outcome of the elections undermined the independence of the EMB, as most election stakeholders doubted they were free and fair. From massive rigging claims to outright manipulation of results, it appeared the instigation of the electronic voting process was deceiving to the citizens.

Indra’s case

Regarding the election technology provider investigation, the Angolan jurist William Tonet revealed on Radio Despertar, that the company “Indra Sistemas is one of the institutions that had connotations with the Angolan political power that fled taxation in their countries. We had already denounced, in 2012 and 2018, that some companies associated with the government ran engaging in certain types of business. The elections are no longer an act of citizenship and nobility to be a real business.”

Indra organised the logistics of the Angolan presidential elections of 2008, 2012 and 2017.

According to a 2018 investigation in El Confidencial (Spanish outlet), “The Dos Santos regime was always receptive to closing deals with Spanish companies. Indra Sistemas has been one of those companies graced with contracts negotiated without competition or thanks to direct awards.”

The newspaper states that during the organisation of the elections of 2012, “Indra had fictitiously increased by 9.8 million euros the price of the 14 charter planes transporting electoral material to Angola, for the payment of commissions. The 2018 Spanish Tax Agency investigation finally concluded that the unjustified figure was 2.4 million euros, and the matter was settled.”

Until now, it remains unclear all the procedural details in the Angolan 2012 elections. Even if the 2017 general elections had already brought new perspectives to the country, perpetual talks are ongoing to address election integrity. It will continue to be newsworthy how transparency of EMBs and election providers can help spare African nations from imminent post-election chaos.

Friday, August 31, 2018

E-voting in Southeast Asia is growing stronger

In our digital-driven world, technological innovation has become an essential pillar to carry out routine activities as well as to stay updated and at par with others. Elections are one of the many areas where some countries are reaping the benefits technology has to offer.
Three examples in the election field are the registration of voters, the adoption of electronic voting machines, and the use of digital platforms to share and inform election details to stakeholders via SMS, emails, or social networks.
Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore currently are global technology hubs. Yet, they have not taken full advantage of it to make election processes easier, more robust, and public friendlier.
Most South Asians[1] and Southeast Asians[2] have historically relied on the traditional methods of elections, i.e. with limited use of technology, and they continue to do so. Voters still must go through dated registration and voting processes, including long queues to manually cast their ballots, and waiting days -or weeks- to get official election results.

India and The Philippines

India in Southern Asia and The Philippines in Southeast Asia, however, have led the train of change on e-voting. For the last decade, voters in both countries have been casting ballots through electronic voting machines, with significant and positive results for Election management bodies (EMB) regarding ease of use, speediness, and efficiency of the voting technology.
According to a recent paper: Independent Electoral Commissions (IECs) for Inclusive, Honest, Orderly, and Peaceful Elections presented at the 25th World Congress of Political Science (July 2018), “The automation of elections in the Philippines despite the numerous organizational and technical issues, had an overall positive effect on public trust in the voting process, and public confidence in the COMELEC. The adoption of an automated election system also triggered institutional changes and improvements in the COMELEC.”

Other countries in the region are following The Philippines and India, and they are starting procedures to upgrade and trial new election technologies. Electronic voting pilots have taken place in Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, and Mongolia. While Biometric voting registration has been adopted in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Nepal.

Social networks help

Let us not forget social media is also inducing voting consciously in the region to a vast extent. People in Southeast Asia are using these networks to convey an array of ideas and perspectives diluting knowledge for others.
Social platforms are acting as a forum to discuss the pros and cons of a candidate or a party contesting elections, helping leaders or candidates to connect with the public, and grasp a trend of public needs and expectations.
Therefore, even if countries in Southern and Southeast Asia are not widely benefitting from election technology just yet, there are some leading examples and several domains in which digital transformation is smoothing the election cycles.

[1] Current territories of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka form South Asia.
[2] Current territories of Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Singapore, The Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam form Southeast Asia.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

How badly were US elections hacked?

After the 2016 elections in the United States, a large number of headlines appeared regarding the supposed intervention of hackers to manipulate the voting system and to change the will of the citizens.

Thousands of web pages spread fake news through social networks and generated misinformation. Today we know that Russian nationals were indicted for conducting an illegal "information warfare" effort to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, possibly distorting the popularity of Donald Trump’s candidacy.

The real impact of such campaigns is hard to measure: recent research on the real effects found that most voters reading such fake news already supported their candidate. In other words, they somehow favored voting for President Trump; or they already were not too enthusiastic to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Besides this media campaign, there were the hacking events against the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Also, there were attempts to attack state election offices where intruders sought to hack voter registration databases in Illinois and Arizona.

However, there is no evidence to proof that even a single voting machine was hacked. As the article Voting machines in America are reassuringly hard to hack; Voter rolls are not from The Economist points out, “Rigorous software studies and vote counting revealed that there is no evidence of manipulation, change or votes eliminated during the 2016 elections”.

Also, this article from Politico: What we know about Russia’s election hacking states that “Officials from the Department of Homeland Security say they haven’t seen any evidence of digital tampering with election organizations, individuals or systems — though that doesn’t rule out some broader effort to undermine public faith in the U.S. political system or sow unrest”.

Although voting machines were not hacked and not a single vote was changed, Russia might be still trying. “It is 2018, and we continue to see Russian targeting of American society in ways that could affect our midterm elections” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats stated. Therefore, the US should be seeking to adopt a more secure, accessible and reliable election system – one that can only be achieved through modernization.

One out of three US voters have concerns about the accuracy and reliability of the voting technology used at their polling place, and one out of five Americans who voted in the 2016 presidential contest do not fully trust that the national election results were tabulated accurately. However, they also propose a clear solution: eight out of 10 voters believe that upgrading the nation’s voting technology will strengthen and build trust in future elections –a fact the administration and its commissions should not ignore.

To achieve this, there is not only the matter of modernizing and upgrading the voting systems. All sectors involved (media, government, NGOs) and influencers should debunk the myths that are generated daily by false news that seek to warp democracy in the United States. By the way, here an Expert advise on how to fight fake news.