Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How to encourage innovation with e-voting technology

Source: Google Images
Technology continues to evolve and develop at a breakneck pace, quickly generating new products and services that far surpass the capabilities of previous generations. The smartphone that most people carry around with them today is more powerful than full desktop computers from only a few years ago. As such, it is of paramount importance that all facets of government similarly keep up with this quickened pace of advancement and one area in particular where this need is pressing is with electronic voting technology.

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration (EAC) produced a lengthy report titled The American Voting Experience in January 2014 where it outlined several recommendations that it had for electoral reform in the country moving forward. In its investigation into the voting process in the United States, the Commission was particularly concerned with “the impending crisis in voting technology.” Indeed, many of the voting machines currently deployed across the nation are at least a decade old. Many of these machines on the market fail to “meet the current needs of election administrators.”

A large part of this struggle has to do with the bureaucratic red tape involved with the standard-setting and certification process for voting machines. This process has become far too cumbersome, stagnating any innovation in the space and acting as a significant barrier to entry for new companies who wish to develop newer and better e-voting machines that utilize better technology and can offer many benefits.

The current crop of voting machines in the United States came about from the Help America Vote Act of 2003, transitioning the country away from punch card ballots and mechanical lever machines and toward Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) and optical scan machines. This aided in efficiency and reliability, but even these machines are now outdated.

The current certification process for new electronic voting machines is too costly and too time-consuming. As a result, the different jurisdictions across the United States have neither the time nor the money to invest in new machines. The resources simply are not there and a reformation of this process is absolutely warranted, as recommended by the Commission.

Yes, a certification process is still needed, as the e-voting machines need to adhere to certain standards for the elections that they will manage. They still need to be reliable. They still need to be secure. There needs to be measures in place to make the voting fair and unbiased in its presentation, as well as protecting the machines against hacking or tampering. However, a reformation of the process needs to open up the market for e-voting machines to companies beyond the incumbents. The certification process needs to be faster and less costly.

To this end, the Commission recommended that the setting of such standards and the management of the certification process should not be dependent on the EAC itself. Instead, it says that “either some other body within or apart from the EAC must be in charge... or the states should adapt their regulations such that federal approval is unnecessary.” By streamlining the process, greater competition is encouraged among the e-voting machine vendors and this will help to encourage better and faster innovation in the industry.

One technology that the EAC recognizes could have a significant impact on the voting experience is the ability for voters to “pre-fill” their sample ballots at home. This will speed up the voting process, thus reducing long lines and improving the overall efficiency of the electoral process. Even the use of an adapted off-the-shelf device like a tablet or computer can be worth exploring, as long as proper precautions are taken to ensure its security.

A better, more efficient, and more secure electronic voting experience can be enjoyed by voters, administrations and governments alike. It's time to revamp the certification process for these machines and move forward. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

An optimistic outlook on Nigeria’s e-voting future

Source: Google Images
Following thirty years of being ruled by a military dictatorship, Nigeria is now a country in transition. They are struggling to conduct fair, free and transparent elections in a nation that has been riddled with irregularities and corruption. Although the country and its democracy continue to be in transition, a big part of the push is to help modernize Nigeria and bring it ahead into the 21st century. And electronic voting technologies are expected to play a critical role in achieving the goal of fair and open elections.

Unfortunately, the forward momentum has faced its fair share of speed bumps and road blocks. Indeed, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) of Nigeria has officially ruled out the use of e-voting systems ahead of its general election in 2015. It's not that the INEC doesn't see the value and advantages of using such technology in its upcoming elections, but rather than the commission “currently does not have the capacity to conduct elections using the scheme.”

Indeed, the INEC Act has a provision that effectively prohibits the use of electronic voting and until that restriction is lifted, there is nothing the commission can do. However, there is some optimism on the horizon.

The youth of Nigeria support the use of electronic voting. Several groups in the country have bandied together to campaign for the use of an electronic voting system in the 2015 election, pointing out that such a system would allow and ensure a far higher level of transparency. The groups involved in this campaign include the Leaders of Niger Delta Youth, the Arewa Youth Vanguard, the O'Odua Youth Forum and the Ohanaeze Progress Youth. This support of electronic voting is irrespective of political party affiliation, saying that e-voting will help to “get rid of thugs, loss of lives, election malpractices and all sorts of malpractices during the 2015 general elections.”

In speaking at a press conference, Com. Solomon Adodo asserted that an e-voting system “will also make our elections free, fair and credible.”

And it's not just the young people, the future voters of Nigeria who are backing the use of electronic voting. The Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE) has also recommended to the INEC to use an e-voting system for the country's elections. More specifically, the society is calling for the adoption of the Nigerian Communication Satellite (NigcomSat) e-voting system, saying that it would be willing to provide technical support for its implementation. The platform has already been used successfully to elect executive members for the NSE on two occasions.

The solution is described as “workable,” requiring voters to pre-register with biometric data like photographs and fingerprints. Using this system, NSE saw an increase of over 20% in the number of voters for its own executive elections compared to the previous year.

Electronic voting likely will not be a part of the 2015 general elections in Nigeria, but if the Nigerian people continue to support and lobby for its adoption, the outlook is hopeful that such technologies will be adopted at some point in the very near future. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Students vote via cellphone and laptop in Namibia school elections

Source: Googel Images
The traditional paper and pencil elections, which has been used all over the world to elect presidents, parliaments, or student councils are slowly changing.

One of the more notable examples of late has to do with the Polytechnic of Namibia. At that tertiary educational institution, students have been given the opportunity to utilize a cell phone and laptop-based voting system. More specifically, the tests were conducted with a mobile election system developed by AdaptIT. This provides a far superior level of flexibility for the students, because they are not bound to specific voting locations at specific times of the day.

Instead, according to Polytechnic of Namibia computer services department manager Juanita Frans, students were “afforded the luxury of casting their votes via cell phones or laptops, from wherever they were and at any time during the stated election period.”

When a traditional paper ballot-based election is held at any other school, students would normally need to take time away from class and other educational activities in order to cast their ballots. This takes away from valuable school time that could otherwise be spent. With the mobile election system, students can easily cast their ballots from home, during a meal break, or just about anywhere else. Unsurprisingly, the young people are very much embracing technology in elections as technology is increasingly becoming a part of everyday life for youth all around the world.

Perhaps even more notably, because an e-voting system was used where ballots were cast electronically, the tabulation of the votes was far more expedient. We should mention Accuracy. People make mistakes, computers don´t.

Also, manual counting implies somebody interpreting what the voter marked. It is not always obvious. When elections are electronic, no interpretation is needed. The intent of the voter is recorded directly. In fact, the results were available immediately after the election period officially closed. By contrast, the physical counting of paper ballots in the same election the previous year took several days to complete and this was with the electoral committee and the various staff members working through the night to complete the process. Instant results are naturally far preferable to waiting for days to get the results, not to mention the added expense and use of time by staff to tabulate the votes with paper ballots.

During the three and a half-day voting period, a total of 2,600 students at the Polytechnic of Namibia were able to cast their votes via the mobile system. This system can be similarly used at other institutions for any kind of election. Adapt IT's Amanda Lubbe says that the results “are updated immediately and displayed in a dashboard format” too.

Some have said that online voting may not necessarily increase voter turnout in general elections, but the overall use of electronic voting technology is continuing to grow through 2014 and beyond.  The youth of today embrace technology, particularly mobile and online technology, and this “beta test” in Namibia clearly illustrates the many benefits of using such a system. As schools move toward having more online resources, as well as the use of technology like sending exam results to students directly via SMS or through an online portal (as the Polytechnic of Namibia has been doing since 2006), the same evolution and transition should be made with student elections as well. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

How online voting worked with the 2014 Oscar awards

Source: Google Images
The increasingly widespread use of technology for voting systems is being witnessed not only when it comes to electing officials to varying levels of government, but also under other circumstances like electing a new student council at a school or when citizens can vote on a new referendum that directly affects their everyday lives. And even long standing organizations, like the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), are moving forward with the adoption of more advanced voting technology.

Voting for the Academy Awards, better known simply as The Oscars, has traditionally been with a conventional paper ballot, but that changed to online voting for the 85th Academy Awards in 2013. This seemed like a genuinely good idea, as members of the Academy could then vote remotely at their leisure and the ballots could be counted almost instantaneously, the online voting system faced a number of problems, particularly with older members of the Academy who were not as familiar with technology.

It is important to note that the vast majority of the voting members are of the older generation, they were “altogether unfamiliar with the platform” and had great difficulty casting their votes. This may have had a tremendous impact on the results, but this does not mean that the idea of using e-voting or online voting is a bad idea. It simply means that a better system has to be implemented in a better way, helping to educate and train the members of the Academy in how it all works.

And indeed, considering all the complaints that it received, AMPAS rolled out an “upgraded and simplified” system for voting in the 2014 Oscar Awards. Members register for their account online and do not require a separate username and password for the voting session; for the 2013 Oscars, members had separate passwords for the registration and voting process, not to mention a complicated series of checks and balances. Changing passwords could also be done online independently, whereas members had to phone into the support system last year. The Academy also worked to improve the overall user interface to make the system easier to use.

While the aftermath of the voting session has not yet been completely revealed, it appears that online voting in the 86th annual Academy Awards went far more smoothly than the first year of online voting. With over 6,000 voting members of the Academy, the administration of the voting process for these awards is understandably simpler than if a similar system were implemented for a larger government election, but this experience should be revealing for jurisdictions and organizations that are considering the use of online voting for their own referendums and elections.

To help aid in this transition toward the greater use of technology, particularly with online and mobile voting, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences still allows members to vote in person with a paper ballot, but most of the voting is online. This is in line with the growing movement toward fast-tracking younger applicants, providing a younger and more representative body of voting members than the older and more traditional demographic that has historically dominated the Academy and its ideological leanings.

By providing an online system as the primary method for voting, the Academy is helping to encourage greater voter turnout among its members. The Academy, as one voting member told David Gritten of The Telegraph, “is trying very hard to be fair and to be seen as fair.” This is not dissimilar from just about every government and organization in the world.