Wednesday, July 16, 2014

South Africa Votes mobile app keeps voters informed

Source: Google Images
While several other countries around the world have had the luxury of enjoying an open democracy for a number of generations already, the democracy in South Africa is still in its relative infancy. The fifth election in the nation was held on May 7 of this year and it was the first election held in South Africa since the death of Nelson Mandela. There is still much to be learned and the system still has a lot of room to grow, mature and improve.

As the concept of an open democracy with universal adult suffrage is still relatively new to the people of South Africa, seeing how apartheid only ended in 1994, the Mail & Guardian launched the SA Votes mobile app leading up to the May election. Although the app didn't have any direct impact on how the election was run or the technology that was used in creating and maintaining the voter list, recording and tabulating ballots, or so forth, it did help to add an important dose of technology and modernity into the South African system.

Made available both as an Android app and an iOS app, SA Votes strove to provide the people of South Africa and all interested people around the world with a “constantly updated source for quality news articles, opinion pieces, videos and slideshows about the election.” The content was curated by the Mail & Guardian and the app allowed users to easily access, comment and share the content from the app to their friends.

It is important to have a reliable and secure infrastructure in place for any general election and the elections in South Africa will continue to improve, but the first goal is to educate and inform the public. An informed electorate is better able to make educated decisions about who should get their vote, rather than basing their voting decisions on misinformation and propaganda. “We hope voters will use the app to arm themselves with the knowledge they need to vote responsibly,” said M&G Editor-in-Chief Chris Roper.

The 2014 general election in South Africa was notable for a number of reasons. It not only continues the young tradition of democracy in the country, but it is also the first election in which the “born-free” generation were able to cast their ballot. These are the young voters who were born after the 1994 general election when the apartheid era ended in South Africa. The number of total registered voters was encouraging; 80.5% of the 31.4 million eligible voters were registered ahead of the election, including 2.3 million new voters. An additional 26,000 international voters were also registered to cast their ballot from abroad, mostly from London, Dubai and Canberra.

While it can never be accurately determined how much of an impact the SA Votes app had on the outcome of the election, it does point toward the increasing use of technology in the country and perhaps the increased use of technology in the actual administration of future elections. The African National Congress (ANC) party won the National Assembly election with a majority vote of 62.1%, which is slightly lower than the 65.9% it achieved in the 2009 election. Opinion polls conducted by Ipsos Pulse of the People and Sunday Times leading up to the May election were in line with the final result.

People from more developed countries like Canada and France have come to take public information and public scrutiny for granted. It is assumed that the electorate can be reasonably educated and informed about the issues. In a younger democracy like South Africa, this may not have always been the case. The introduction of the SA Votes mobile app is one step toward having a more educated and informed electorate, one that will continue to be better able to make their voting decisions more wisely. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Is the Internet the future of voting?

Image: Virgin.com
Sir Richard Branson, the business magnate and investor who founded the Virgin Group, published on March 24 a post on his blog with the title -Is the internet the future of voting?

The inquiry served to bring to the surface the stark contrast between those in favor of I-voting, and those who consider the technology currently available is not ready to be implemented in government elections. In spite of the differences in positions, the post showed an overwhelming interest on what seems to be one of the next big things in the digital era. 

Answering his own question, Sir Branson made a compelling yet simple argument. In its 25 years of existence, the Internet has transformed countless areas of our lives, and, although it has yet to make it into the balloting process massively, it is already affecting politics. From e-petitions to live debates to breaking news, cyberspace is the arena where politics are being played out. 

At this point in time, it is not hard to imagine that most electoral authorities around the world would share Branson’s view on the advantages of Internet voting. Remote online voting expedites the voting experience, simplifies logistics, and reduces costs. As a perfect substitute for traditional mail voting, it is called to facilitate the vote of expatriates. Online voting is also a perfect means to enfranchise disabled voters, a very sensitive group of voters current technology can serve as never before.

But moving from concept to implementation is seldom easy. Internet voting still faces many challenges – e.g. voter coercion, identity fraud, vote selling/buying – that need to be resolved. Authorities must guarantee to the average voter that the vote counted was the same vote cast. And, regardless of the method used to cast a ballot, it must remain secret and secure. 

To circumvent these obstacles many countries – e.g. Estonia, Norway, France, the US, Australia, Switzerland, and India - have experimented with Internet voting achieving varied results. Estonia and Norway, who have used Internet voting in binding elections, have shown contrasting results in recent elections. 

Norway began piloting Internet voting a few years ago. In 2011 a first test was conducted in 10 municipalities and in 2013, two more municipalities were added. Although the pilots showed some early success – 168.000 eligible voters (4.5% of the population) chose to cast their votes online, and 250.000 (7% of population) in 2013 – important security issues forced the Norwegian Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation to put the project to a halt last week. 

One of the most concerning issues raised during the tests was the encryption failure that compromised the secrecy of some 40,000 voters (54% of the total) who exerted their right remotely.

Scytl, the Spanish firm tasked with designing a method to guarantee vote secrecy and security, failed to configure a secure encryption algorithm that would protect the vote being cast in the voter´s personal computer before sending it to consolidation servers. See 2hrs27mins of this video for more details. 

Although Norwegian authorities had acknowledged the technical issues aforementioned, in a recent press release they blamed the lack of broad political support as the reason why the Minister of Local Government and Modernisation, Mr. Jan Tore Sanner, decided not to continue expending public resources on continuing the pilots.

Despite Norway´s set back, there are reasons to believe Internet voting will become a worldwide reality soon. Estonia, the only country that has successfully carried 7 national elections giving its voters the option to cast a ballot remotely, announced two weeks ago the creation of a R & D lab to further develop its platform, and to begin sharing its experience in government elections with electoral commissions from around the world.

Internet in Estonia is succeeding in part to the long term approach authorities adopted. A government controlled lab created over a decade ago, carefully developed a system that has already been used in national contests to great success. In the last European Parliament election in March, a third of the voters used the remote online system. This system will continue to evolve as citizens and Government continue to use it.

Estonia is now called to continue leading the way in making Internet voting a reality for all.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Youthful tech-savvy electorate empowered in 2014 India election

Source: Google Images
The recently concluded Lok Sabha Elections in India were particularly noteworthy for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it is the largest ever election on record anywhere in the world. Over 550 million voters headed to the polls during an election which was held in nine phases from April 7 to May 12, 2014. With an estimated 814.5 million people eligible to vote, this represents a voter turnout of over 66%, the highest ever in any of India's general elections.

Two of the major driving forces in India's general election were the rise of the youth vote and the growing adoption of electronic voting technology. Indeed, even in as small a demographic as eligible voters aged 18 to 19 years, there was a massive cohort of 23 million people. This is nearly three percent of the total number of voters. What's more, the voting youth of India are more engaged than ever with the politics of their country.

“The youth played a major role in these elections,” said Mukhtar Abbas Nagvi, Vice President of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP led the National Democratic Alliance, which won the election by clinching 336 of the available 543 Lok Sabha seats. “Due to social media, we got support from a large section of population through Facebook, Twitter, etc.”

The growing importance of appealing to younger voters has been observed not only in India, but also in other parts of the world. Some have dubbed it the “Obama effect,” as American President Barack Obama leveraged the “disruptive power of technology and youth” to achieve his victory in 2008. In the case of India, visionary and idealistic political youth are utilizing social media, mobile, analytics and cloud technologies to address issues and raise voter awareness among their age group and beyond.

The youth-driven political start-ups are non-partisan in nature and they utilize the range of technology to best express and distribute their message. Some of the more notable political start-ups in India include GrassRoute, MumbaiVotes, Know Your Vote and iForIndia. The increased prevalence of the Internet and the higher rate of literacy among India's youth further embolden their desire to have their political voices heard and to empower their ability to do so too.

In the case of iForIndia, the web-based citizen engagement platform collects and analyzes data regarding the performance of an elected official. The generated “report card” improves accountability in real time. “We will share the data with the media and invite the politicians and public for active engagements,” said iForIndia co-founder Akur Garg. “The website will also serve as a mirror to inform the politicians where they stand in people's perception, which areas they are doing well in and which ones require more attention.”

Technology and the Internet certainly played very important roles leading up to the 2014 elections in India, particularly among the younger and more tech-savvy demographic, but technology was also heavily influential in how the elections themselves were run. Indeed, in order to reach the hundreds of millions of eligible voters, India deployed approximately 1.4 million e-voting machines across the 930,000 polling stations across the country over the course of the nine-phase election period.

Considering the massive scale of the multi-week election that involved hundreds of millions of voters, concerns over voter literacy, dozens of political parties and over one million e-voting machines, India could serve as a glowing example of democracy for the rest of the world. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bulgarian referendum could introduce e-voting and improve transparency

Source: Google Images
Electoral reform could soon be coming to Bulgaria. The country's President, Rosen Plevneliev, proposed in January that a referendum should be held on three key issues surrounding elections in Bulgaria: the introduction of a majority election, the proposal for compulsory voting among citizens and the introduction of e-voting technology.

A big part of the problem with the democratic process in Bulgaria is that the people have very low trust in the political institutions in the country. Indeed, Bulgaria is regarded as the second most corrupt member of the European Union and this doesn't fare well for how the people of Bulgaria regard their governments. Indeed, recent polls have indicated that public trust in parliament is a mere 10 percent. Electoral reform that sees improvements in transparency could aid in this effort.

The introduction of a majority election could help too. Currently, the people vote on lawmakers based on a set of pre-defined party lists. What this means is that the people of Bulgaria are currently electing their 240 parliament members from party lists that are chosen by someone else, rather than electing these officials on an individual basis, based on individual merits. They may choose a party list based on just one person from the list, not knowing anything about the other candidates on the list that they are also effectively voting for.

There are debates as to whether compulsory voting would be beneficial, but President Plevneliev wants “the voice of the people [to] be heard.” Proponents of compulsory voting say that it would improve the legitimacy of the results, as it would be far more difficult for interested parties to “buy” votes and thus rig the election results. It could also help to fight voter apathy.

Perhaps one of the most exciting developments that could come from the Bulgarian referendum is the development of e-voting technology as part of the overall electoral system. Opponents of the proposition bring up common concerns about security and technical complexity, but the overall advantages of such a system are undeniable. The primary goal for the Bulgarian implementation would be to provide better representation and access to the tens of thousands of Bulgarians who are living abroad.

Remote voting, oftentimes implemented over a secure Internet web portal, is growing in popularity among many countries around the world. We've already seen improvements in remote voting in places like Australia and the Philippines, helping rural residents and expatriates have their voice heard on the issues that matter to them. In tandem with the possible inclusion of compulsory voting in Bulgaria, this could help to further legitimize the elections and help to improve trust in government.

Indeed, following allegations that up to 350,000 fake ballots were prepared to influence the May 12 general election last year in Bulgaria, having a voter-verifiable paper trail to go along with an e-voting system that is thoroughly audited by an impartial third party could reduce doubts among the Bulgarian people in regards to electoral fraud.

However, the referendum on these three key issues – majority voting, compulsory voting, and e-voting technology – may not even be held. As it stands, a petition is being signed that could then be delivered to the Bulgarian government. If 500,000 authentic signatures are collected, a poll must be held.

"I appeal to the parliament to take a decision to hold a referendum, said Plevneliev. “I believe [it] will help to stabilize the institutions and increase public trust.”