Thursday, September 7, 2023

Voters with vision disabilities push for e-Voting right away

A group of voters with visually disabilities in Switzerland have been pressing the government to act swiftly in making e-voting available to them. Lamenting how the lack of digital accessibility excludes hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities, the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (SBV) said that the immediate implementation of e-voting is just the solution to make voting accessible for voters with sight challenges.

“One of the most objectionable deficits is the lack of accessibility for blind people and people with visual impairments in terms of exercising their right to vote and to be elected, as well as the protection of their voting secrecy,” said Roland Studer, SBV president.

He urged politicians and elections authorities to seize the opportunity to remedy these issues before the 2023 parliamentary elections. “The 2023 parliamentary elections must be the last elections that are not barrier-free,” he declared.

To backstop the group’s demands, Studer cited the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified by Switzerland in 2014, and the 2004 Disability Equality Act, which both underscore government’s duty to provide accessibility to handicapped people. Studer also emphasized the importance of extending accessibility to signature collections, advocating for electronic options. 

Voters with visual disabilities outside Switzerland face similar challenges. In the US, studies have shown that people with disabilities are less likely to vote than people without disabilities. This is likely due to several factors, including accessibility challenges, lack of transportation, and lack of information about the voting process.

Traditional voting modalities such as in-person voting and mail-in voting, can pose difficulties for people with certain disabilities. Sight-challenged voters may have difficulty reading the ballots or marking their choices while people with mobility and motor disabilities may find getting to precincts and physically filling out ballots nearly impossible tasks.

E-voting is well-poised to address these accessibility challenges. Electronic ballots can offer large print, high-contrast text, and audio output to get around sight impairment. Internet voting allows people with mobility disabilities to cast their ballots from anywhere.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Experts warn of dire consequences if election management boards not funded enough

During the recent US National Conference of State Legislatures, the director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab dropped a bombshell about the United States’ 10,000 local electoral management boards (EMBs), majority of which he said are being “woefully underfunded,” leaving them ill-equipped to address a raft of problems that has vexed US elections in recent years.

Election expert Charles Stewart III, who heads MIT initiatives to conduct scientific analysis on election technology, election administration, and election reform, placed the cost of nationally administering a presidential election somewhere between $2 billion-$5 billion.

Stewart III stressed the imperative for state and local governments to pony up the funding for EMBs, which are grappling with a host of concerns such as a high turnover rate among poll workers, harassment of poll workers by radical groups, and intensified cybersecurity threats.

The Cost of Conducting Elections

In his 2022 paper “The Cost of Conducting Elections,” Stewart suggested how election officials themselves could be abetting the problem by “making do” with what they have.

“They often express pride in pulling off the complicated logistical maneuvers necessary to conduct elections on a shoestring budget. One consequence of the frugality imposed on election administration is that services provided to voters vary considerably across the nation,” Stewart said.

“Some states and localities flood mailboxes with voter guides, use the most up- to-date equipment, and deliver information and services on sophisticated websites. Others provide only minimal services to voters, rely on voters to figure out the details of voting on their own, and use equipment that is no longer manufactured or is incapable of being updated with the latest security patches,” he added.

Underfunding also a global concern

A paper by ACE Project suggests that EMB underfunding not an exclusively US phenomenon but is also a growing concern worldwide. The paper posits that EMBs from Afghanistan, Cambodia, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, and Liberia, among others, are not getting the needed funding from their governments and are merely relying on international donors for substantial amounts of budgetary support, as well as technical assistance.

The report is critical of this dependence on external help. Apart from sustainability issues, the report cites how reliance on external funding could be problematic as conditions that donor agencies impose on EMBs could hamstring their work. Moreover, requirements from their own governments may make it dif´Čücult for EMBs to do a proper accounting of the donated funds.

The report goes on to state that, while inadequate funding may not necessarily trigger violence directly, inadequate resources may force EMBs to make concessions that can compromise the integrity and security of elections, leaving them vulnerable to disputes that can in turn feed violent conflicts.

“For example, core cost deficiencies may affect an electoral process’s technical integrity; lack of diffuse funds will limit the engagement of supporting agencies, especially those with the task of providing security; and a lack of integrity funds at the disposal of an EMB may harm the legitimacy of the process,” the paper said.

What can be done? 

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) perhaps summed it up best when it made this reminder: “Elections are an investment, not an expense.”

In an article on its website, the intergovernmental organization said that for all citizens of the free world, election costs should be thought of as the public investment that sustains democracy.

“The ‘return on investment’ that is associated with democratic and inclusive elections, supported by other key components of a democracy, can be measured in terms of social stability within a nation,” it said.

“By contrast, countries that underfund investments in their democracy tend to be associated with ineffective public administration (including election administration); low levels of voter turnout; high levels of election fraud, manipulation and voting irregularities; limited freedom for news media to scrutinize the exercise of power; inconsistent access to justice, civil liberties, social rights and equality; corruption and unequal enforcement of laws; and public dissatisfaction with political parties, legislatures and governments,” it added.

For International IDEA, the funding of national electoral processes is the sole province of the national government, and that donations, either from donor countries or the international community, should be shunned.

“Election financial assistance by donors should always be considered temporary, even though it may be necessary during post-conflict or transitional periods,” it said.

The article exhorted those who support and wish to safeguard democracy to ensure that discourse around election costs is publicly debated and “placed in a context based on facts, law and agreed societal values.”

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Next up for the Philippines: automated grassroots polls


Photo courtesy of ABS-CBN News


Since 2010, the Commission of Elections (Comelec) has successfully used electronic counting for national and local elections in the Philippines. This time, the poll body has set its sights on bringing the benefits of automation down to elections at the grassroots.

The hyperlocal polls, which go by the official name of Barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan Elections (BSKE), is set for October 30 of this year. Under the law, the BSKE is to be held every three years to choose grassroots leaders in 42,027 villages (barangays) across the country. Currently, the BSKE is still conducted manually and is plagued by problems of slow count, human error, and fraud.

The BSKE modernization initiative kicked off recently with mock elections in three pilot areas in and around the capital city of Manila. The successful exercise saw the return to active service of the familiar vote counting machines (VCMs), following a massive nationwide deployment in the 2022 general elections.

During the mock elections, Comelec Chairman George Erwin Garcia noted how automating the BSKE would speed up the process and make results available an hour after the polls close. Manual count is known to take days or even weeks to finish.

E-voting is also expected to reduce the risk of fraud and errors hounding BSKE. While manual elections are vulnerable to vote padding miscounting of votes and other anomalies, automated elections are more secure and reliable, as the votes are cast and counted electronically.

In addition, automated elections prove to be cost-effective in the long run, as they require fewer personnel and resources. The savings brought on by automation should be a welcome development for the national government.

Moreover, the automation of the grassroots polls is seen to immensely benefit electoral board members. While manual elections can be a long and tiring process for poll workers, who often must work for up to 24 hours straight, automated elections are much less demanding on election workers, as they only must operate the voting machines and do not have to manually count the votes.

The citizen watchdog Namfrel (National Movement for Free Elections), which was present as an observer in the mock elections gave its imprimatur on the initiative saying that automating the BSKE is “doable.”

The Comelec’s initiative to automate the BSKE represents a major step forward in upgrading the transparency and efficiency of the grassroots polls in the Philippines. With the benefits of automation trickling down to the most basic unit of government, the Philippines bolsters its standing as a primary reference for election modernization.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

How Income Affects Voter Turnout in the US


A report by a non-profit group Washington Center for Equitable Growth has suggested a causal link between income and voter turnout in the United States, shedding light on how the longstanding income divide in the country could be derailing initiatives to ensure that all voices are heard in the political process.

The 2021 report titled “The consequences of political inequality and voter suppression for U.S. economic inequality and growth, ” which also discussed race-based voting gaps, revealed how higher-income citizens of the United States are more likely to vote than their lower-income counterparts.

“Between 1978 and 2008, wealthier Americans were 65 percent more likely to vote than those with low incomes. In 2016, a presidential election year, eligible voters with annual incomes of less than $50,000 voted at a rate of 55 percent, while 80 percent of those with incomes of more than $150,000 voted that year. Households earning less than $15,000 made up 13 percent of all households in 2009 but comprised just 6 percent of the electorate in the 2008 election,” the report said.

The authors cite how lower-income Americans might be less inclined to practice civic engagement due to the following reasons -- they are less likely get paid time off from work, are more likely to regularly move their places of residence, are incarcerated at higher rates, and are more likely to face unstable transportation and child care arrangements.

The report likewise discusses how voting behavior can actually influence the outcome of economic policy. Studies have shown, for example, that states with higher levels of income based voting divides are less likely to enact policies that benefit low- and middle-income Americans.

The existence of a feedback loop between economic inequality and voting inequality was also described by the report, detailing how economic inequality can lead to lower turnout among low and middle-income Americans, which in turn can birth policies that benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor. This can further exacerbate economic inequality, creating a vicious cycle.

“Those who enjoy market power are, not co-incidentally, often the same citizens who enjoy outsized political influence, creating a feedback loop that perpetuates economic inequality, instability, and slow growth. Stated simply, a healthy economy requires a healthy democracy,” the report said.

The authors of the report argue that reducing electoral inequality is essential to reducing economic inequality. To short circuit the deadly feedback loop, the study urges policymakers to consider reforms to the country’s voting system to equalize access to the polls and ensure the electorate is truly representative of the country’s economic and racial diversity.

Specifically, the authors propose to:

· Ease voter registration requirements, potentially even making them automatic

· Enact same-day voter registration in all states consistent with those states that lead the nation in voter participation, where average turnout was more than 10 percentage points higher than in other states in 2012

· Restore voting rights to those with felony convictions, reduce wait times, guarantee paid time off for voting, and reestablish federal oversight through a restored Voting Rights Act.

The report urges policymakers to study how the measures taken by some jurisdictions including the expanded use of vote by mail and ballot drop boxes, could work to reduce income biases in election participation.

Washington Center for Equitable Growth is non-profit research and grantmaking organization advocating evidence-backed ideas and policies to promote strong, stable, and broad-based economic growth.