Thursday, November 20, 2014

The advancing innovations and trends of voting technology

All industries and business sectors should aspire for continuous innovation, ceaselessly moving forward with changes that make for a better product or experience by all. In the case of mobile phones, the rise of the smartphone and mobile apps has completely revolutionized the way that people communicate on the go. Modern cars are packed with an increasing assortment of technology, providing drivers and passengers with more comfort, better safety and improved fuel economy.

In the context of elections, the pace of innovation can sometimes feel slowed by the bureaucracies of government, but this should not thwart the continuing advances in creating a better and more efficient voting process. This should include innovations for the election infrastructure, hardware and software for collecting ballots, and advances in the tabulation and reporting of results.

Traditionally, innovations that impact how the voter casts a ballot tend to create friction as they have direct require legal framework adaptations. As a rule of thumb, the closer the technology is to the voter, the harder it is to implement it. 
That is why, some of the innovations being implemented in the industry address problems either before the voter casts a ballot, or after when the vote is being processed. To better illustrate our point, let’s look at three recent elections that employed technology in different stages. 

Voter authentication
Biometric technology can help to protect against election fraud, giving voters greater confidence in the integrity and legitimacy of results. In Brazil, approximately 21 million voters where authenticated biometrically before casting a ballot, thus eliminating the possibility of voter impersonation. Authorities are expecting to extend the use of the biometric devices to the entire electorate by 2017. 

Electronic poll books 
Among the many recommendations made by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration electronic poll books emerged as one source of possible innovation in the field. The report, handed to the President of the US on January 1st, 2014, sees e-poll books as a way for jurisdictions to make voter processing at polling places more accurate and efficient. The report stated “In the national survey of election of­ficials, e-poll books was one of the most frequently identified innovations that respon­dents desired.”

The Onondaga County Board of Elections recently tried a new electronic poll book during the recent midterm elections in the US. Using an electronic pad similar to what it is used to pay with credit cards at grocery stores, polling management got much easier. 

According to Onondaga County Elections Commissioners, Dustin Czarny, and Helen Kiggins Walsh voters at three polling places were asked to sign their names on the electronic pad. Also, elections inspectors typed voters' names into a database, to pull up information.

Promising to end long lines at polling stations, an election technology provider, everyone counts is also promoting their Electronic Polling Book in their website. 

Results processing

Oonce voters have left the precincts, there are still plenty of instances where administrators can use some help from technology. 

Recently, the West Heath Ward by-election of the Rushmoor Borough Council in the United Kingdom, used a digital pen to streamline the transmission of results. The digital pen, adapted to elections by Smartmatic, was employed in two aspects of the West Heath by-election. It was used by the election officials during the official tabulation and reporting of the election results. More specifically, it was used by officials with the ballot box verification form and the election results verification form. The former aggregates the final tally in each box, while the latter records the results for each electoral candidate. In both cases, the ePen was able to digitally capture the important information, allowing election officials to quickly and easily verify and transmit the results. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Why the New Brunswick election struggled with vote counting

E-voting technology, both in terms of direct-recording e-voting machines (DRE) and with technology used for the electronic tabulation and administration of the elections themselves, has been slowly gaining in popularity in many parts of the world. As with any new technology, however, it has been met with its share of growing pains.

A recent example of this is the election in the Canadian province of New Brunswick where some votes “disappeared” from the system. Opponents of e-voting quickly jumped at the opportunity to criticize the technology, saying how it can be unreliable and how further problems may come up in future elections.

In the case of the New Brunswick election, what happened was that the software program being used to tabulate the votes malfunctioned such that it failed to transfer the polling data correctly from the computer server in the city of Fredericton to the Internet website where journalists and media outlets could access the results of the election. The software, according to Dominion Voting president John Poulos, is designed to get the results to media in as fast a manner as possible. 

The problem that occurred was not with the election software or administration itself. The votes were never “lost” in the final, official tabulation, but rather they temporarily went missing for the media-facing website. The intense pressure from the media to receive results as quickly as possible hastened and exacerbated the issue. 

In the days that followed, it was confirmed that there was “never a problem with the tabulation machines themselves.” The integrity and legitimacy of the election results were upheld. There may have been a discrepancy between the results posted to the website and the results as tabulated from the machines, but that discrepancy was suitably addressed and rectified. It was merely a software glitch that caused the delays in reporting. 

There are several lessons from the New Brunswick experience that can prove valuable to other jurisdictions and governments considering e-voting technology in any form, as well as to the e-voting community at large. 

First, it is important to choose the right company to handle the automation of the election. The company that New Brunswick chose seemingly had some issues with its software and that is what effectively caused the reporting delay and subsequent controversy. 

Second, it is important to prioritize the legitimacy, integrity and security of the election over the need to provide the results in as timely a manner to the media as possible. If the commission overseeing the New Brunswick election didn't have to worry about the media website, the final tabulations would have held to be true and accurate.

Third, it is important to have a paper trail. The final results of the New Brunswick election were confirmed with a manual count and this may not have been possible had there not been a paper trail in addition to the automation system.

Fourth, it is important to have a robust audit system in place for before, during and after the votes have been cast. A good pre-election audit of the software may have revealed the glitch ahead of time and it could have been suitably addressed in a preventative manner.

E-voting technology offers many positives, like reduced costs, that far outweigh the negatives.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Online voting needs to be an option in future elections

Democracy has taken on many different forms over the years and the exact mechanics utilized in capturing the will of the people have also adapted with the times. In the earlier days of democracy, votes were cast in a very public fashion, but the concept of the secret ballot has become a cornerstone of many modern democracies. Whereas people may have once selected to place a ball in one of two jars to signify which candidate they supported, the vote is now captured in a number of different ways.

The now traditional paper ballot allowed for some flexibility, as several candidates could be listed and it would be possible to get votes on multiple issues or elections at the same time. And while traditional paper ballots may continue to persist, a number of more modern technologies have really started to pick up in popularity. Direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines are increasingly widespread and, more recently, Internet-based voting has been used in many parts of the world.

It is true that Internet voting (sometimes called “i-voting” to differentiate from “e-voting” on voting terminals) has ran into trouble here and there. A recent article in The Mississauga News, by way of the Waterloo Region Record, has stated that online voting in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada is “worth the risks.” One of the primary reasons for promoting online voting raised in the article is that it may help to boost voter participation. Voter turnout rates have continued to drop in many countries and part of the explanation is that the tech-savvy generation of today have become disenchanted or disinterested in the electoral process.

It has become abundantly clear that young people can be very interested in human interest issues and in politics, as evidenced by the events in places like Hong Kong and Cairo, but they may not necessarily participate in politics in a more traditional manner. Online voting can help to make the electoral process both more accessible and more relevant to this demographic. The convenience of voting “from the comfort of your home” cannot be understated.

The issues surrounding the security and reliability of online voting have been a topic of hot debate. In the case of Cambridge, Ontario, Internet-based voting is still in testing phases. However, online voting is not new to Canada and it has been experimented with in the past and it continues to be explored across the country. 

The author of the article recognizes the risks of online voting, including the potential for hacking the system and for compromising the integrity of election results, but these can be substantially minimized with the right provider using the right software, under the right guidelines for a robust audit system throughout the election process. There are challenges to be faced in maintaining the privacy of the secret ballot and protecting the system against distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, but it needs to be recognized that traditional paper ballots also come with their own set of challenges and difficulties to overcome.

The goal, at least in the short term, is not for online voting to replace traditional ballots altogether. Instead, it is far better to combine the best elements of both systems in order to promote greater voter turnout while maintaining a high level of security, reliability and integrity. An online voting system can work in parallel with paper-based ballots or with direct-recording electronic voting machines situated in official voting places, as the former provides greater access to those with disabilities, those living in remote areas, or simply those who enjoy the comfort and convenience of voting anywhere they have an Internet connection.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Replace postal voting with secure internet voting

The traditional view of collecting votes during an election would entail having citizens visit an official polling place to cast their ballot. In the past, this may have been with colored balls in marked jars, but it has since evolved to involve paper ballots, pull-lever machines and direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, some with intuitive touchscreen displays and advanced security measures. 

While this standard, regardless of the exact mechanism used, largely remains the primary way that most democracies in the world allow their citizens to exercise their right to vote, it is not always enough on its own. Particularly when it comes to universal access and convenience, people living in rural areas or more remote parts of the country can encounter significant difficulty in making the physical trip to a polling place in the city.

The world as a whole is experiencing a greater level of urbanization than ever before, but this does not mean that people living outside of major metropolitan areas should have any greater difficulty in casting a vote than their urban counterparts. To address this, electoral commissions have typically relied on postal voting, offering an extended period of time where citizens could send their ballots in through the regular postal mail.

However, postal voting is “becoming increasingly problematic” for a number of reasons. The pieces of mail can easily become lost and sending private ballots through the postal service may not live up to the security and confidentiality standards that a legitimate election should have. Mail tampering is not uncommon and this could jeopardize the integrity of the election results.

A more recent solution to gain popularity in countries like Estonia is Internet-based voting. Also called i-voting, online voting may not necessarily replace precinct-based voting places for the majority of people, but it can provide much greater access and convenience to those who wish to use an online system instead. 

Naturally, there are also many concerns about security when it comes to anything to do with the Internet, but these concerns can be suitably addressed if the proper audits are in place and the right firms are handled to manage the elections. Online systems have the potential of becoming the victim of malicious attacks, but they can be prevented. The hacking of an online vote in the Canadian province of Alberta was suitably thwarted, despite “multiple attempts to infiltrate the website.” The internal security systems prevented these attacks from having any impact on the results of the vote.

Because of the possibility of such attacks, it is important that all online voting systems allow for an adequate period of time during which voters can cast their ballots online. The time needs to be sufficient to mitigate a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. Should the voting website go down for a period of time, there needs to be enough time to recover and to ensure that voters can still cast their vote.

As expert William J. Kelleher has asserted in the past, Internet voting can be safe and reliable and it is certainly a more viable, scalable and secure solution than the increasingly archaic system of postal voting.