Thursday, April 16, 2015

Swiss abroad push for electronic voting

Switzerland is consistently ranked as one of the most desirable places to live in the world, with cities like Zurich and Geneva topping many international lists. Switzerland is one of the richest countries in the world on a per capita basis and it also has among the highest standards of living. The Swiss approach of “armed neutrality” means that the European country is generally very peaceful and safe as well. Even so, Switzerland is still not necessarily the most modern or technologically advanced when it comes to its modern day democracy.

There are a number of Swiss citizens who are living or working abroad, and they are just as deserving to the right of suffrage as their counterparts who live in Switzerland itself. However, access to the democratic process is still quite limited and this is why the Council of the Swiss Abroad are rallying behind the promotion of electronic voting for Swiss expatriates.

The expatriate community is represented by the Council of the Swiss Abroad and at the council's regular meeting in Bern in March, all of the over 120 representatives approved a new 8-point manifesto on the future of elections in Switzerland, particularly as it pertains to voting access for Swiss who are living or working abroad. The approval by the council was unanimous, emphasizing how important it is that expatriates can still participate in the Swiss political process and have their voice heard.

As Organization of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) president Jacques-Simon Eggly indicated at the meeting, this is a critical element in keeping the democratic system alive, transparent, and representative in the country. The OSA is pushing for expatriates to have the ability to elect officials into both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Approximately 10% of the Swiss population live abroad, numbering over 700,000 in total, and this number continues to grow. Most live in neighbouring European nations (462,000), like France, Germany and Italy, followed by the Americas (181,000), Asia (50,000), Oceania (31,000), and Africa (21,000).

However, only 142,000 expatriates globally are currently registered and eligible to take part in votes and elections. Three electronic voting systems have been tested in 14 of the country's 26 cantons, but this means that citizens from the country's other 12 cantons do not have access to the Swiss Abroad e-voting platform. A big part of the problem is that many Swiss expatriates have been denied the possibility of having an account in Switzerland. This leads to problems related to pension payments, for example, as well as access to voting rights. 

Among many other reasons, this is why Swiss Abroad is pushing for the rapid and widespread introduction of a better e-voting system that would empower expatriates with the ability to participate in the democratic process. The tests in 14 of the country's cantons demonstrate a strong interest in e-voting among the expatriate community. This echoes similar sentiments expressed in other international democracies like those in India and demonstrated in Brazil.

Understandably, the Swiss government would not want to rush into the full widespread deployment of a brand new e-voting system and further investigations into the matter are clearly required. As Barbara Perriard of the Federal Chancellery indicates, “Security comes before speed.” Transparency, reliability and the sanctity of the secret ballot must be maintained. 

"All Swiss expatriates," said Jacques-Simon Eggly, "have to be able to have access to e-voting to use their political rights." Given the strong and proud banking tradition of Swotzerland and its high standards forsecurity and privacy, the development of a secure and reliable e-voting paradigm for expatriates should be a top priority.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Optical scan vs. electronic touchscreen voting machines

The democratic process in any given city, county, state or country should be reasonably independent and impartial such that it is not directly influenced by outside forces. The results of such elections should represent the will of the people in an accurate and transparent manner. This being said, government agencies from around the globe can benefit greatly by collaborating and sharing their knowledge, experience and expertise in regards to voting technologies being used.

Last October, the EVOTE 2014 International Conference was held in Austria, gathering together some of the most influential figures in the vertical of voting paradigms, administration and technology. This has since been followed by the 9th Annual International Electoral Affairs Symposium in December 2014, hosted in South Africa. One of the presenters at the event was Bruce Clark, the Kankakee County Clerk from the United States, and he spoke about the experience of the 2014 midterm elections in Illinois.

In addition to discussing poll worker training, outreach efforts, and ballot preparation, a key subject addressed was the deployment and use of optical scan machines for the election. One of the major trends observed by Clark was the shift in the type of voting equipment used in United States elections over the last 10 to 15 years.

The types of voting equipment in 2000 were incredibly varied and fragmented across the different counties in the United States. There was no systematic approach, resulting in counties using punch cards, DataVote, levers, paper, optical scan, electronic and mixed systems in a rather scattered fashion. By contrast, the vast majority of counties and townships in 2012 used either optical scan (62.8% of counties) or electronic voting machines (32.8%), resulting in less than 5% of counties using different equipment.

Given this, the Kankakee County Clerk took a closer look to compare optical scan (OS) machines with touch screen (TS) electronic voting machines. In the case of an optical scan machine, people still cast their vote on a paper ballot, but it is then inserted into the optical scan machine for tabulation. The advantages here include the fact that people like to see their vote and, in case of a discovery, there is a physical ballot to examine. However, ballot costs can be significant and there are physical limitations to the size of the ballot box.

By comparison, there are many positives associated with the use of a touchscreen direct-recording electronic voting machine (TS DRE). The accuracy level is incredibly high and the touchscreen machines facilitate far better accessibility for voters with disabilities, as they are able to cast a ballot completely unassisted. An audit trail can be produced, just like the optical scan machine, providing great accountability and transparency to further bolster the legitimacy and integrity of election results.

Naturally, the touchscreen voting machines are also not without their share of problems and concerns. There may be issues related to calibration and, in addition to the $3,000 cost to purchase each machine, counties and election officials must consider the costs of equipment repair or replacement. Even so, the pros clearly far outweigh the cons and this is why touchscreen machines are understandably growing in popularity.

By working with other governments around the world and increasing competition among the vendors of electronic voting machines with touchscreen capabilities, election administrators can encourage further development in the industry, continuing to improve reliability, security and affordability.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

E-voting encouraged in Zimbabwe and Nigeria

E-voting modalities continue to gain in popularity across the globe, despite what some of the opponents of electronic voting technology may have to say about its challenges and limitations. It is only be modernizing the electoral process and updating it to an increasingly interconnected and digitally-powered world that democracies can continue to be relevant.

This is one of many steps needed to appeal to younger voters in particular, but also the mass electorate as a whole. Technology can improve transparency, developing a greater level of trust that voters can have in the electoral process and in the reported results of elections. Without trust and transparency, an election holds no weight among a nation's citizens.

What is curious is that some of the biggest advancements in e-voting adoption are coming not from established democracies in fully developed nations, but rather in relatively young democracies in economies that are still struggling and in development. Indeed, Africa has become a major point of discussion in this regard.

It should come as little surprise, then, that e-voting is gaining support in countries like Nigeria and Zimbabwe. More specifically, the Nigerian Computer Society (NCS) is encouraging the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in the country to adopt electronic voting for its upcoming general elections. It is said that a “huge percentage of the voting population” is unable to collect the Permanent Voter's Card (PVC) and the card reader machines may be non-functional. 

The NCS believes that e-voting will help to reduce costs and bolster transparency. They say is more accessible for economies and governments of all sizes. By having the infrastructure in place, costs can be saved in the long run through economies of scale. According to NCS President, Professor David Adewumi, the lack of computer literacy is not an issue, as even “the old people in the villages now use mobile phones.”

In much the same manner, the Elections Resource Centre (ERC) is urging the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to adopt electronic voting paradigms in time for its elections in 2018. They can gain from and leverage the recent experience in Namibia with e-voting  to improve its own implementation of the e-voting technology. Namibia was the first African country to use the technology and it did so in a “flawless” manner that was “praised the world over.” 

In addition to cost savings, perhaps one of the greatest advantages to e-voting is that “it removes human error and rigging” of manual paper ballots, said ERC director Tawanda Chimhini. “We want a situation where those defeated in the elections can endorse the results.” Again, this comes back to transparency and legitimacy, an area where many elections in Africa continue to struggle.

Friday, March 27, 2015

New Mexico may introduce biometric voter authentication

It doesn't matter how well an election appears to be run or how smoothly the voting process goes for each constituent if the voting public cannot have a great deal of confidence that the integrity of the election and its results are suitably upheld. This includes the security and confidentiality of each individual ballot, to be sure, and it also includes the importance of eliminating voter fraud and ensuring that each person voting is adequately authenticated and verified.

There are many people who have spoken about the perceived voter fraud throughout the United States and various measures have been taken by the individual states to overcome this concern. However, some of these efforts have been perceived as unilaterally impacting disenfranchised citizens or individuals of a particular demographic that may be more inclined to vote for one political party than another.

The voter registration and proof of citizenship requirements in Arizona are one such example of this and it has become an incredibly contentious issue for everyone involved. Such laws, according to many Democrats, make voting more difficult for demographics that are more likely to support Democrats, including the Hispanic and Latino community.

To counteract this, a Republican Senator William Payne is proposing that biometric voter identification technology be implemented in the state of New Mexico. In his proposal, Payne says that he hopes to “put to rest the criticism that voters cannot afford to produce reliable photo identification when they vote.”

While the proposal is certainly still in its early stages and is decidedly up for debate, Payne offered the example of using everyday devices like a regular consumer smartphone as a method of identifying a voter using biometric data. “This is already commercially available,” he stated, “and it has nothing to do with the technical literacy of the person.”

That statement may be questionable and securing the legitimacy and security of a smartphone may be an incredible challenge, but the concept of utilizing existing technology for the purposes of voter authentication need to be explored. Smartphones like the Galaxy S5 from Samsung and the iPhone 6 from Apple have fingerprint readers on them. Using an off-the-shelf solution like these biometric fingerprint readers is far more cost-effective and far more of a proven system than if governments were to develop a brand new solution from the ground up.

The appeal of a biometric system for voter identification and verification is undeniable. Biometric technology has already been used in other elections around the world as an effective means of protecting against election fraud. If developing countries like Tanzania, Ghana and Kenya can explore and implement biometrics, the state of New Mexico should not ignore this possibility. It has been very successful in elections in Venezuela, for instance.

While some of the existing systems and infrastructure can make it difficult for the poor and disenfranchised to register to vote, biometric systems can be far more effective. Indeed, the US electoral system should adopt biometrics for this very reason. Mexico was able to register 95% of its population with biometric identity cards. There's no reason why New Mexico can't do the same.

To simultaneously reduce voter fraud and to encourage greater voter turnout among disenfranchised and marginalized demographics, biometrics can represent the future of security in increasingly electronically-geared elections. Anyone can swipe a fingerprint or have their iris scanned and it is far more difficult for fraudsters to spoof these identifying features.