Thursday, September 10, 2020

How bullet-proof is the paper ballot?

Calls to modernize elections are often answered with warnings. Skeptics claim that automated election systems lack the necessary mechanisms to ensure the integrity of the vote. These promoters of paper ballots seem to forget that basically all recorded cases of election fraud were conducted while using paper-based systems.

The article Cheating with Paper Ballots, by Professor Andrew Appel from Princeton University, debunks the notion of the infallibility of the paper ballot as he enumerated several possible ways to commit electoral fraud using these instruments.

One method, Appel said in the article, is to steal the entire ballot box and replace the paper ballots with fraudulent ballots marked differently, or just ignore the paper ballots entirely.

The article reveals that the practice used to happen on a regular basis, citing an example: “That is, in some counties, the party bosses who controlled the polling places and ballot boxes would just report whatever counts they wanted, regardless of the ballots. [See also: Robert Caro, Means of Ascent, 1991, Chapter 13]. In the 19th and early 20th century, insider election fraud was widespread in the U.S. [Saltman, The History and Politics of Voting Technology, 2006],” the article continued.

The practice of ballot-stuffing and ballot box-snatching appear to be prevalent in other parts as well, as evidenced by the conviction of a former Philadelphia Congressman, as well as reports in Russia, and in the Philippines.

Another method to cheat in elections that use ballot paper is by sabotaging the audit or recount, the article said.

“While working in a recount (or audit) of paper ballots, hide a bit of pencil lead under your fingernail. Surreptitiously mark overvotes on ballots marked for the candidate you don’t like,” Appel said.

Appel’s observations squares with a documented of incident in the Philippines where fraudsters appear to have made post-election tampering on ballots to sow confusion and undermine the legitimacy of the results.

The article argues that what all this illustrates is that “paper ballots with audits and recounts, by themselves, are not a panacea.”

Interestingly, Appel recommends the use of a precinct-count optical scan to counter such fraud.

“Votes are recorded and tabulated by the voting machine immediately as they are cast; paper ballots are saved in a sealed ballot box for later audit or recount,” Appel said.

“The election fraudster will find it more difficult to make fraudulent paper ballots that exactly match a fraudulent voting machine’s report, than to hack just the voting machine or just the paper ballots. Although the paper ballots are the default ballot of record, serious discrepancies can lead to investigations. Once it ends up in court, the judge can hear evidence; perhaps there will be reason to rule that the machine counts are trustworthy where the paper ballots are not,” the article continued.

This excellent article by this Princeton scholar is a clarion call to modernize voting systems. Election administrators must take advantage of any available technology that enhances the speed, accuracy and auditability of the count.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

How elections are faring in the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is leaving in its wake a massive reordering of society such as has never seen before. In an instant, the avoidance of the virus had taken primacy over any other activity, dragging along with it whole institutions and practices that for centuries have been largely taken for granted. Elections, whose clockwork regularity has been used by most democracies to mark time, are now in the entirely unfamiliar center of debate about possible postponement. 

Already, some elections in the following jurisdictions have been rescheduled to a later date, to wit: Botswana, Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Somalia, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda, Zimbabwe. Anguilla, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Kamloops, Lytton, Canada, New Brunswick; Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, French Guiana, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Australia, among others. According to Idea International, since February 21 and up until August 23, “at least 70 countries and territories across the globe have decided to postpone national and subnational elections due to COVID-19”.

Yet postponement is by no means the only response to the pandemic. Some electoral boards have successfully mitigated the risk by implementing Safe In Person voting measures, allowing for election continuity. Some notable elections that went ahead as scheduled were: Taiwan parliamentary elections, Singapore parliamentary elections, Slovakia general elections, Queensland, Cameroon parliamentary elections, Dominican Republic municipal elections, France local elections, Germany local elections in Bavaria, Guyana legislative elections, Israel legislative elections, Mali general elections, Tajikistan parliamentary elections, Ukraine by-elections in Kharkov region, primaries in the US; Vanuatu general elections, Japan local by-elections, South Korea parliamentary elections, Switzerland municipal elections in Geneva, among others.

Still other elections are right on track, the most eagerly anticipated of which is the US presidential elections in November. Although trial balloons have been flown to test the idea of postponing the exercise, public opinion has been quick to shoot them down. Under US laws, it would take a federal legislation to move the date of the elections, something that would necessitate a law enacted by Congress, signed by the president and subject to challenge in the courts.

While the issue of safety is paramount, the possibility that election delays could undermine democracy is very real, so much so that the EU has issued a paper urging member states to arrive at a nuanced decision regarding postponements. 

“When it comes to elections, decision makers should be very cautious when deciding to hold or postpone them by navigating carefully through constitutional and legal parameters,” the paper said, adding that “in case of postponement, public concerns about perceived attempts at extending mandates of incumbents “undemocratically” should be seriously considered.” 

However, the paper argues that proceeding with elections in COVID-19 hotspots carries with it the risk of considerably hobbling campaigns and further reducing the already rapidly declining voter turnout, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the elections.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Anatomy of election fraud: How manual counting abetted poll-rigging in Belarus


Kommersant Photo / Polaris/Newscom
Kommersant Photo / Polaris/Newscom

In a massive outpouring of indignation, hundreds of thousands of protesters have occupied the streets of Belarus demanding the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, who was recently elected for a sixth term in an election tainted by allegations of rigging.

Yet even as the high-stakes political drama plays out before the watchful eyes of the world, the nuts and bolts of how the alleged rigging was executed is likewise worthy of investigation.

The European Union has already rejected the results of the elections and is set to impose sanctions. Steffen Seibert, German Federal Government’s Press and Information Officer, declared that the minimum standards for democratic elections were not observed during the vote and believes the claims of the opposition about election fraud.

The Belarus election fraud debacle throws into sharp focus the inherent vulnerability of hand-counted elections to manipulation and the damage it brings to the integrity of the whole electoral process. Add this to the fact that manual elections are notorious for its lack of mechanisms to audit the results and you have a perfect storm for massive electoral fraud.

Ihar Barsuk, who served as a precinct election commission during the presidential election, revealed exactly how fraud was committed in his precinct. “According to my calculations, Lukashenka received about 10% of the vote. I do not remember the details but about 9-10% were stolen from opposition candidates. Just like that, in front of the entire commission and observers,” said Barsuk. Barsuk went on to say that commission members did not get to sign most of ballot papers, which raises serious questions on the chain of custody. But the major violations took place after the vote count where, according to Barsuk, his numbers “were very different to the results voiced by chairman of the commission.”

Outraged, Barsuk requested for a recount which the Commission granted. The recount revealed the discrepancy between Barsuk’s count and that of the chairman, which prompted correction of the official count. Barsuk made sure to document the attempted fraud by writing a note in the final protocol.

An election observer stationed in a Minsk precinct, Zmicier Sauka describes how the elections at his station were rigged. He claimed that 13 of the 15 observers were from the Belarusian Republican Youth Union and similar government organizations, precluding an independent observation of the proceedings.

Also, Sauka observed how he counted 710 people drop ballots in but was surprised to see the official tally at 1,046 voters, noting the difference of 336 “pseudovotes.” Worse, he noted that early voting votes for opposition candidate Karatkevich, which totaled 36, were not counted in the official tally which only reflected the in-person votes.

He believes that one person was enough to perpetuate election fraud in the precinct and laid the blame on the commission chair – the head teacher of secondary school 28 in Minsk.

The same fatal flaws of manual elections made evident in Belarus has provided the impetus for a growing number of countries to modernize their electoral processes and adopt automated election systems in one form or another. It remains to be seen how the Belarus will resolve the political upheaval. Either way, the international community is expected to put more and more pressure on the landlocked Eastern European country to fix its broken election system.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Questions hound purchase of new voting machines in Venezuela


When 48,000 voting machines burned in a mysterious fire that razed the warehouses of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) earlier this year, rumors flew thick and fast that it had something to do with the December parliamentary elections. The timing of the fire seemed suspicious to many as it left the CNE with very little wiggle room to select, purchase, and implement a new voting system.

Yet, as if on cue, news that the CNE acquired 15,000 new China-made machines have recently surfaced even as the circumstances around the fire is still unknown.

Alarmingly, the purchase seems to be clouded with questions. Chief of which is the criteria used to arrive at the decision to purchase the technology from an Argentine company named Exclé. There are no records of the company ever manufacturing a voting machine, not even in Argentina. Many have also observed the lack of transparency on the cost of the machines and the software they will use.

In the center of the controversy is the CNE, where shadiness seems to have been reigning supreme. The lack of transparency in crucial decisions made at the helm of the CNE prompted Director Rafael Simón Jiménez to resign only two months after being sworn in. Among the many irregularities he exposed as he exited the post was the direct purchase of the machines from ExCle.

Recently, the popular Venezuelan news portal Efecto Cocuyo ran an exposé on ExClé’s numerous involvement with the government of Nicolas Maduro Moros which include providing tech support for Bank of Venezuela and the Venezuelan cryptocurrency "Petro.” The company also provides biometric technology for Carnet de la Patria, or the homeland card.

These dealings led former Governor Carlos Tablante to raise in a Twitter thread the issue of conflict of interest. How indeed can a company with numerous lucrative dealings with a government be expected to count votes fairly?

The director of the Venezuelan Electoral Observatory (OEV), Carlos Medina, also expressed concern about the new purchase of voting machines claiming it "has not been very transparent". For years, OEV had been a staunch advocate of election automation. Yet concerns about the opaqueness surrounding the new technology have made the group question the credibility and legitimacy of future elections.

In 2017, automated voting company Smartmatic broke relations with the CNE after denouncing that the poll body had published results different from those counted by its system. Hastily, Exclé took over to organize the 2018 presidential elections, which was roundly condemned as illegitimate by the Lima Group, the Organization of American States, and the international community at large.

To make sure that everyone knows that it had severed any and all relationship with the CNE since August 2, 2017, Smartmatic issued a statement underscoring its public break with Venezuelan poll body. The statement also said explicitly stated that the break meant that CNE cannot anymore use the company’s software, and that the software to be used in the 2020 election with new machines purchased from another supplier is not theirs. Time is running out for Venezuela. As doubts grow, the hope of having credible elections to quell its roiling political environment dims.