Monday, January 14, 2019

From Estonia to Zimbabwe, a multicultural call for e-voting

The urge to have free, fair and credible elections in African democracies has prompted most leaders to go out of their way to seek drastic measure to achieve that quality. The 2018 general elections in Zimbabwe are a demonstration of how desperate African states need to embrace e-voting system in their elections.

Envisaging the impasse in the elections, the transition government led by President Mnangagwa reached out to Estonia in search for help in exploring the possibility of implementing an e-voting system. This was a strategy aimed at enabling Zimbabweans who were living in the diaspora to take part in the national elections from the comfort of their destinations.

A timely solution for the diaspora

There had been a long clamour by the diaspora-based Zimbabweans demanding an opportunity to exercise their democratic right, even when they are away from their country. Desperate efforts had been done but remained futile following a conspicuous lack of political goodwill especially from the former regime of President Robert Mugabe.

This has come at a time when several Zimbabweans living in diaspora had to undertake a rigorous effort appealing to the government through law courts for the facilitation of their participation in the political processes. Although this quest would not be successful after a long struggle, the agitators never relented. After the ouster of the former president from power, the effort took a different turn as the current president reach out to Estonia for help.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa guaranteed Zimbabweans who inhabited in the US that his organization would investigate the likelihood of executing e-voting sooner rather than later as had been revealed by the state-run news office. Mnangagwa, in the interim, met Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas on the side-lines of the UNGA to examine a series of issues including how Zimbabwe could take advantage of Estonian information on e-voting.

Estonia’s online voting leadership

The agreement between the two leaders entailed that the ICT officials would be outsourced from Estonia to educate the ICT officials in Zimbabwe who would then disseminate similar education to the citizens living in the diaspora to undertake the process.

Estonia remains a hub of technology and e-voting. It has already offered guidance to help a series of countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan in curbing election irregularities during their general elections.

Estonia is in truth a pioneer with ICT advancements. In the case of Zimbabwe, the president evaluated three basic zones of collaboration with the Baltic country, e-wellbeing, e-administration, and e-voting. e-Voting is gradually becoming a solution highly sought after by developing countries to eliminate electoral fraud in their political regimes. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Corruption scandal tarnishes A-WEB

Last April, former President Park Geun-hye, the first woman president of South Korea, was sentenced to 24 years in prison after having been found guilty of abuse of power. But the ex-ruler is far from being the only figure involved in this type of controversy. This year, South Korea has been the scene of major corruption scandals, which also include Kim-Yong Hi, current Secretary General of the Association of World Election Bodies (A-WEB), who is under police investigation for electoral corruption.

Kim-Yong Hi is being accused of exclusively favoring local firm Miru Systems Co., Ltd. in electoral assistance agreements signed by A-WEB under alleged "international cooperation". 

According to Kwon Mi-hyuk, representative of the Democratic Party of Korea, A-WEB and Miru System signed an illicit agreement to assist the official foreign aid projects from 2015 to 2017, when supposedly a public bidding process was to be held. However, the general secretary of A-WEB said the firm was the only one with the technical capacity to offer electoral technology in the region.

In addition to allegations of bribery, Miru is being questioned about the malfunctioning of its electronic voting devices. Their recent experience in Iraq, where the firm exported electronic voting equipment worth 135 million Dollars, ended in accusations of fraud and allegations related to flaws in the voting machines. Authorities were forced to carry out manual tallies in some areas of the country.

If that wasn’t enough, things keep getting worse for the Korean tech company. The scandal caused by the participation of Miru Systems in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) elections -held on December 30- forced the former secretary of the South Korean National Electoral Commission, Kim Dai-Nyeon, to resign. In a press release he urged Kim Yong-Hi to also resign and blamed him for favoring the firm Miru Systems. 

Image by The Western Star. The DRC's Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) showed off the device from Miru System to reporters on Feb 21.

At the beginning of November, press articles began to circulate stating that the Blue House had recommended appointing Kim-Yong Hi as a permanent member of the National Election Commission. Being a permanent member of the Commission gives the authority to determine what is right or wrong within the NEC. As a result, several representatives of both opposition parties and the government itself have been actively demanding an official explanation from the Blue House, and questioning the reasons that led it to ignore the police investigations in which the current secretary of A-WEB is involved.

Accordingly, the A-WEB office is inactive, after its budget of 4 million dollars was slashed to little less than 2 million after a NEC decision. Some representatives of the governing party have asked A-WEB's general secretary to accept his responsibility for his faults, and allow the organization to continue working, as since that budget cut many young people working for the organization were left unemployed.

Only time will tell what the future holds for A-WEB.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Congolese elections surrounded by controversy

Congo is scheduled to hold elections on December 23. However, the results of the election are already the source of much controversy. 
For months, activists, international observers and even the government of the United States have warned that the election system to be deployed for the first time can be manipulated. Recent corruption scandals involving the vendor who provided the voting machines (Miru Systems), a fire that incinerated some voting machines, in addition to activist protesting against the use of the technology have increased tensions ahead of the polls. 
Security experts have voiced their concern surrounding the more than 100 thousand machines that will be deployed on the day of the election. A report from the Sentry published in June revealed "potential threats to the secrecy of the ballot and manipulation of results." The Sentry is a surveillance group that investigates corruption and problems in Africa.
Lorenzo Hall, Chief technologist at the Washington-based Center for Democracy & Technology, stated in the Sentry report: “QR codes may store more information than simply a voter’s ballot selections, potentially including the time a person voted, their place in line and other voter-specific or ballotspecific identifiers. This information can be used to correlate the contents of a ballot to a specific voter’s identity, violating ballot secrecy.”
Recently, a fire in Congo’s capital destroyed nearly 80 percent of the capital city’s voting machines just 10 days before the presidential election. Officials claimed that the blaze, which burned nearly 8,000 of the capital’s 10,368 voting, appeared to be criminal but vowed that it would not disrupt the vote. 
Adding to the controversy, Miru System, the company that provided the voting machines has been embroiled in corruption scandals in South Korea. Authorities in the Asian country are investigating whether or not A-WEB, an Association of World Election Bodies funded by the South Korean government, used its influence to help Miru Systems sign multi-million dollar deals in Congo and elsewhere. 
Congolese activists who live in Korea have asked the Korean government to ban Miru Systems from supplying the machines to his country. Although their voices have not been heard, both A-WEB and the South Korean government have issued statements distancing themselves from Miru Systems and the Congolese election.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Securing elections in the United States

Protection of election integrity has been keeping poll authorities around the world busy lately, especially after important elections of 2016 (e.g. US Presidential and Brexit) have revealed how vulnerable this democratic exercise is to the remote manipulation of external powers employing newfangled technologies.
The menu options for those wishing to disrupt a democratic election have grown in recent times thanks to rapid technological advancements. From misinformation campaigns using platforms like Facebook and Twitter, to “real” hacking of email servers to compromise political parties.
The perception that voting machines can be hacked from afar have also made election commissioners and voters alike jittery. A recent poll conducted by the University of Chicago revealed that 8 out of 10 respondents were concerned with the possibility of hackers breaking into electronic voting machines and tampering with votes.
For the last year or so, large technology companies such as Facebook and Twitter have been taking actions to tackle the fake news problem. In the Philippines, for example, Facebook has started to crack down on pages and accounts peddling fake news.
Election experts, on the other hand, recommend two key actions to strengthen security of voting machines:
- Implementing voting machines that print a VVPAT: The use of paper vouchers allow voters to verify their votes and give auditors an easy way to compare electronic results vis a vis a printed copy.
- Allow audits after the close of voting: auditors should be able to randomly select voting machines, paper vouchers and other elements involved in the election to confirm that the votes agree with the printed minutes.
The Government of the United States is already taking actions to modernize its electoral system. Congress has recently awarded 380 million dollars to states for this purpose.  
This is a big step in the right direction. Yet the task of protecting the vote must include everyone – electoral authorizes, technology companies, civil society, and the general public.
Only in this way can a secure, transparent, and credible electoral system can every be truly realized.