Thursday, January 29, 2015

Election automation in the Philippines: a snapshot

taesmileland / freedigitalphotos
During the last few months, the Philippine Commission on Elections (Comelec) has been selecting election technology and service providers for the 2016 general elections. As is customary in this country, the process has sparked all kinds of controversies.

One of the latest controversial episodes occurred on Tuesday's hearing of the House Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms. Under intense questioning from Caloocan Representative Edgar Erice, Carlos Suarez, vice president of Indra Sistemas – a bidding company–, was forced to admit that the Government of Spain, through Sociedad Estatal de Participaciones Industriales (SEPI), is the single largest shareholder of the company.

Erice pressed Indra on the ownership issue saying that he is concerned that a foreign state might interfere with the country's elections. "I understand that it's normal for states to have a majority stake in companies. But it's a different matter if we're talking about elections" he said. Erice was seconded by Rep. Terry Ridon, who said that the matter is "cause for concern", and added:"We don’t want foreign state entities to be involved in our elections". If authorities reach a consensus over the inconvenience of risking a foreign government intervene in national elections, the Philippines would be left with only one choice to choose from. Smartmatic, a privately owned company based in London.

Besides the Spanish company, controversy is also spilling over to Comelec. For example, two poll watch coalitions accused Comelec of signing a “midnight deal” with Smartmatic for the diagnostic tests of the same 80,000 PCOS machines Smartmatic sold to the country in 2012. The fact that no contract has actually been signed to this day between Comelec and Smartmatic for such services, prompted authorities to slam those poll watchdog groups.

It is a shame that the institution responsible for the previous two successful automated elections has become the target of such aggressive campaign. Public administration should be thoroughly scrutinized, but unfounded accusations hurt the democratic ecosystem as a whole. Comelec has made mistakes in the past, just like any other public institution in the world, but it should also be credited for increasing the speed with which results are delivered and reducing post-electoral violence since automation. 

The latest two automated elections (2010-2013) have also been constantly hammered with criticism by certain watchdogs. However, these groups have not escaped controversy. Local Rep. Fredenil Castro, who chairs the House Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms, scolded certain "interested" groups and "self-styled" experts for creating unwarranted "noise" about the ongoing bid even as he appealed to such groups not to cast aspersion upon Comelec's integrity and credibility.  "We should not allow this thing to happen because elections are of critical importance to our democracy.”

Addressing Evita Jimenez of AES Watch, which had been critical of the automated election system, Castro appealed for the group to refrain from attacking the Comelec without substantiation. "Unless they can substantiate their accusations, I urge these groups to exercise restraint in coming out with statements that put the Comelec in a bad light" Castro said, and concluded: "The Comelec safeguards our elections. If these groups attack the integrity of the Comelec, then it weakens out democracy because it places the legitimacy of the government under a cloud of suspicion."

Controversy is still in the air, and is likely to grow as the bidding processes gets into more decisive stages. We’ll keep you posted with another snapshot in due time. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Considering E-Voting in Saskatoon, Canada

Rolling out e-voting and Internet-voting based protocols in large cities and across large countries can feel like a daunting task for many a government official. There are many factors that must be considered before such a deployment and that is why it is of critical importance that election commissions select respectable vendors in the electronic voting space that offer transparency, robust audits and a proven track record in international elections.

And while it may feel simpler and easier on a smaller scale, running an election in smaller markets must also undergo similar considerations. Even so, this is where governments with more limited budgets can leverage the existing experience and expertise of elections that have already taken place with some form of e-voting technology and learn from them to implement the best possible solution. This is why conferences like EVOTE 2014 are so invaluable to the worldwide community. 

One specific example is the city of Saskatoon in Canada's Saskatchewan province. A journalist from The StarPhoenix newspaper is calling for the inclusion of Internet voting in the town's upcoming municipal election, which isn't scheduled to happen until October 2016. This should give local and provincial authorities ample time in order to prepare and launch a pilot project, overcoming any legislative boundaries that may currently in place.

While concerns about security, privacy and administration are certainly valid, the writer says that Saskatoon can learn much from the Internet voting experience in other parts of the country. A prime example is the town of Ajax, Ontario, which is just outside of Toronto. Ajax recently experimented with Internet voting and found that it was incredibly popular. Voter turnout increased by approximately 30% compared to the previous elections in 2006 and 2010. 

Improving voter turnout is easily one of the most appealing advantages to the implementation of an Internet-based voting system. It is also important to note that Ajax did not use Internet voting to replace all other forms of voting completely. Citizens still had the opportunity to vote via telephone or at the physical polling stations with computer terminals on Election Day. Internet voting is simply another option that should be brought to the table and it's one that can suitably be used in place of postal voting for absentee ballots. 

Internet voting continues to grow right across Canada with advance polls seeing a 300 percent increase in Markham, Ontario. In fact, some 25 percent of municipal elections in the province of Ontario offered online voting as an option in the local elections of 2014. That is nearly 100 municipalities in just one Canadian province. By working together with local authorities in these cities and towns, a more robust and secure system can be utilized by all.

Another major advantage to Internet-based voting is the cost savings that can be enjoyed by government commissions. There are many hidden costs to manual elections that can be overcome, minimized or even eliminated with an online option. With the example of Markham, Ontario, the StarPhoenix cites Markham city clerk and returning officer Kimberley Kitteringham as saying Internet voting in the town cost about 81 cents per voter. Compare that to the estimated $5.63 it costs to administer and process the vote from one in-person ballot. 

While the City of Saskatoon should not dive into e-voting and online voting with reckless abandon, it should give the prospect of Internet-based voting a very close look if it hopes to increase voter turnout, reduce costs and modernize elections for generations to follow.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Evaluating Namibia's first election with e-voting

Some of the greatest progress in the adoption and expansion of electronic voting technology has not necessarily been witnessed in first-world countries, but rather in developing nations with relatively young democracies. Namibia achieved a very notable milestone on November 28, as the national election on that day was the first time that direct recording e-voting machines had been used on the African continent. It was also the first time that the entire country—with a total of some 1.2 million ballots cast—voted on a single day, unlike previous elections in Namibia that were spread over two days

E-voting technology is not completely new to Africa. Biometric authentication has already been implemented in countries like Kenya and Ghana, with electronic transmission of results also being utilized in the former. However, the e-voting experience in both of those countries was marred with a number of issues due to poor implementation and improper management. Namibia also experienced its share of problems. 

The deployment and utilization of direct recording e-voting machines was “a big achievement for Namibia and the African continent at large,” according to Namibia Electoral Commission chairwoman Nontemba Tjipueja. The goal was that results would be coming through on the same day following the closing of the polls with the final results being announced within 24 hours. 

However, that was not the case with Electoral Commission Director Paul Isaak being forced to apologize for the delays. While the election was scheduled to end at 9pm local time on a Friday evening, some polling stations remained open until Saturday morning and only 30 percent of the votes had been counted, verified and released by late on the Sunday evening. 

The electronic voting machines used in the Namibian election were sourced from India, a country that has had some success with e-voting itself. All of the voter verification machines used in Namibia were loaded with the entirety of the national voters register, including the necessary biometric and biographical data to authenticate the voters. This was designed to expedite voter verification and shorten the time needed to cast a ballot. 

The cost of running an electronic-based election has also come under scrutiny with some critics saying that the Namibian Electoral Commission gave priority to an Indian business rather than to the voters of Namibia. The devices were meant to be accessible and low cost, but they were sold “as if they were next-generation.” Different figures have been reported as to the final cost, though the consensus appears to be that the 3400 EVMs were purchased for $10 million Namibian, which worked out to US$948,000 at the prevailing exchange rate at the time. That is approximately US$278 per voting machine. 

The makers of the voting machines used, Bharat Electronic Limited from Bangalore, India, have defended their product, saying that it is tamper-proof and it was not the cause for the election result delays. They say that the device cannot be re-programmed and altered after the initial programming during the manufacturing process. 

Based on some of the problems experienced by Namibia, other African nations that are considering e-voting technology -like South Sudan and Nigeria- will need to re-evaluate the direction they wish to take. And while there were problems with delays, South African observers have noted that the Namibian polls were “free and fair.” 

There is still much room for improvement with e-voting in Africa and the Namibian election can serve as an initial example of what went well and what areas need further attention. In particular, it highlights the importance of sourcing a reliable and trustworthy vendor for the e-voting machines, as well as the importance of pre-election audits to test the functionality of the infrastructure. Proper planning and management are absolutely paramount. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bangladesh exploring e-voting technology for future elections

Many democracies clear across the globe have adopted e-voting technology in varying capacities and the popularity of electronic voting machines, both for vote-capturing and for counting ballots, has been steadily rising. Brazil has had a long history with e-voting, for example, and countries like the Philippines and Estonia continue to set positive examples for the rest of the world to follow. 

While there is still much research and exploration to be conducted, a delegation from Bangladesh recently visited with election commissioners in neighbouring India and they were “impressed” by the Indian electronic voting machines. As the world's largest democracy, India has proven not only that e-voting technology is viable and advantageous, but that it can also be utilized on an incredibly massive scale, improving accessibility to its citizens. 

The Indian electoral system with its deployment of e-voting technology was designed from the start to be as cost-effective as possible, particularly given the grand scale of the Indian election, while still maintaining high levels of security and integrity. The Bangladeshi delegation, which was led by Muhammad Faruk Khan and consisted of 10 members from the Bangladesh Parliament, sought to “know the traits of conducting free and peaceful elections” from their Indian counterparts.

Harinshankar “HS” Brahma, one of India's Election Commissioners, emphasized the importance of increasing voter enrollment and encouraged the appropriate use of technology. He said it has been a real game changer in elections, addressing many of the major challenges that elections can face. 

One of the most common challenges is engaging the youth electorate and India has been largely successful with this, empowering the tech-savvy youth with political start-ups like Grassroute, MumbaiVotes and Know Your Vote. 

The Indian officials provided their visitors from Bangladesh with a demonstration of the electronic voting machines and how they worked in tandem with the voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT), a vital component for audits and recounts, ensuring that the correct voter intent was properly captured and recorded. Accountability is of great importance.

It is through delegations and meetings like this that the state of electronic voting can continue to improve and grow well into the future. Countries do not exist in isolation and it is through collective collaboration that they can leverage their expertise in a synergistic manner. This is why events like the EVOTE International Conference in Austria are so valuable, gathering together many of the most important decision makers from different democracies. The budgets and details may vary, but the primary objectives remain the same. 

The history and politics of the region are such that India and Bangladesh have not always gotten along as the keenest of allies, but major strides like this for mutual benefit can also help to foster goodwill and peace between nations. By encouraging further collaboration and partnerships between countries all around the world, e-voting technology can continue to be strengthened for elections of all sizes. It is far more cost effective to co-develop e-voting solutions than to develop them individually.

And by learning from the experience and missteps of those who moved to e-voting before them, Bangladesh can position itself to be as problem-free as possible for its elections in the future.