Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Role of Technology in India's 2024 Elections


India's 2024 general elections, commencing on April 19th, are once again setting the stage for a formidable demonstration of democratic spirit and technological sophistication. With the country's nearly 970 million eligible voters called upon to cast their votes, the role of technology remains pivotal in orchestrating the successful execution of the electoral process.

The colossal task of gathering votes from a populace that exceeds the combined voter base America, Europe and Australia combined is a testament to India's logistical prowess. Around one million polling stations have been meticulously established, ensuring adherence to the rule that no voter should have to travel more than 1.2 miles from their home to vote. This network spans across congested urban landscapes to the most secluded rural locations, bridging distances with an array of transportation means that goes beyond the conventional.

For these elections, authorities will deploy some 5.5 million electronic voting machines (EVMs), facilitating a smoother and more secure voting experience. The initiation of the voting process on April 19th sets into motion a carefully structured six-week electoral period where the seven phases of voting cater to different regions systematically.

EVMs, engineered by public sector units under the Election Commission's guidance, represent a monumental step forward from paper ballots. In addition to mitigating the risk of fraudulent activities that were a concern with paper ballots, EVMs have streamlined the voting process by enabling faster, more efficient counting and reducing the likelihood of human error.

With the integrity of elections at stake, VVPAT systems serve as a critical layer of transparency, allowing voters to verify their cast votes. Initially trialed in 2014 and subsequently mandated for all elections post a 2019 Supreme Court ruling, VVPATs accompany all EVMs, their slips subject to meticulous scrutiny. This ensures that a tangible, auditable paper trail complements the electronic count.

Beyond the palpable benefits such as cost savings and expeditious counting, the use of EVMs has fortified election integrity. These machines, devoid of internet capabilities, stand as bastions against cyber threats while providing a reliable, user-friendly interface for India's diverse voter base.

As the final votes are cast and the polling stations close, the EVMs' stored data awaits the nationwide counting process. Votes will be tabulated and cross-verified with VVPAT slips where necessary, ensuring the sanctity of every single vote. India's Election Commission, armed with hi-tech tools and robust procedures, promises to deliver fair and swift election outcomes.

With the votes poised to be counted in the aftermath of the six-week-long electoral marathon, the world is set to witness not just a political transformation, but a landmark event where technology unites a billion voices in the symphony of democracy.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Philippine lawmakers grill Miru over controversies surrounding the bidding process and its spotty track record

South Korean voting firm Miru Systems is grappling with mounting controversy following a recent $322 million contract with the Philippines’ Commission on Elections (Comelec) – the nation’s largest-ever polling deal.

The contract has triggered a series of investigations by both houses of Congress, prompted by vocal concerns from election oversight bodies and civil society organizations. These groups have highlighted numerous alleged irregularities within the procurement process, notably that Miru was the only company to submit a bid, supported by the Comelec's previous actions to evade competitors.

Central to the dispute is Miru’s proposition of a prototype voting machine, a submission that Philippine law prohibits. Critics have raised concerns over a potential contravention of the Automated Election Law, which mandates the deployment of systems with a demonstrated track record of success in previous elections. There is unease surrounding Miru's technology, as it amalgamates Optical Mark Reader (OMR) and Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) components, which have not been jointly utilized in past elections, casting doubts on their reliability and legality.

Furthermore, international reports have surfaced detailing issues with Miru’s technology in other countries. Incidences such as faulty voter ID cards disrupting elections in Congo and significant machine malfunctions reported in both Congo and Iraq have only fueled skepticism.

Miru contracts in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been under increased scrutiny after a report by the Center for Research in Public Finance and Local Development, funded by the European Union, revealed malpractices linked to the Congo's Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) and Miru Systems, including corruption and signs of money laundering. The report highlighted that Miru secured nine contracts in the DR Congo worth over $321 million, with just one undergoing a competitive tender. Notably, the electoral commission procured excess voter cards and ballots and prematurely classified functional voter registration kits as obsolete, leading to unnecessary increased procurement costs and casting doubt on the integrity of contract allocations.

Even worst, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned three senior CENI officials ‘following persistent corruption’. According to the US Treasury Office, Congolese election officials inflated by as much as $100 million the costs for the electronic voting machine contract (signed with Miru) with the intent to use surplus funds for personal enrichment, bribes, and campaign costs to fund the election campaign of Kabila's candidate.

“(…) CENI officials, awarded an election-related contract and doubled the award amount on the understanding that the winning company [Miru] would award the extra funds to a DRC company controlled by CENI leadership.”

As the Philippine Congress delves into the depths of Miru Systems' controversial multi-million dollar contract and the company's questionable track record, concerns raised by both domestic and international entities cast a long shadow over the upcoming 2025 elections. These findings underscore the critical need for transparency, due diligence, and adherence to the rule of law in election-related procurements—a call echoed by vigilant lawmakers and committed civil society advocates. The journey towards a free, fair, and credible election stands at a crossroads, with the integrity of democratic processes in the Philippines, and potentially in other nations, hinging on the outcomes of these rigorous investigations.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Philippine Commission on Elections Strikes Historic P17.99 Billion Automation Deal with South Korean Firm

The evolution of election processes in the Philippines has reached a new milestone as the Commission on Elections (Comelec) inks a groundbreaking P17.99 billion deal with South Korea-based Miru Systems Co. Ltd. for the automation of the 2025 midterm elections. This partnership signifies the Philippines' continued commitment to strengthening the democratic process through technological enhancements.

As the sole bidder, Miru Systems has clinched the contract to provide a Full Automation System with Transparency Audit/Count (Fastrac) to Comelec. The deal will encompass the lease of 110,000 automated counting machines, complete election management systems, consolidation and canvassing systems, in addition to delivering ballot printing services, ballot boxes and other necessary peripherals.

Reminiscing on the past electoral journey, the Philippines automated its elections in 2010, pioneering a transformative leap in its democratic processes. Since this pivotal change, the country has smoothly conducted five national elections, witnessing substantial improvements across all key performance indicators following each election cycle. A testament to the technological leap is the significant surge in trust among the populace; from a mere 30% confidence level in manual elections, trust has soared above 80% after embracing election technology.

In 2022, a poll by Pulse Asia underscored the public's overwhelming support for the automated system, revealing that an impressive 90% of Filipino citizens advocate for the continued use of technology in the archipelago's electoral system.

As part of this deal, Miru Systems is set to provide not just hardware, but also customizable systems and specialized software aimed at ensuring the transparency and security of the voting process. Furthermore, the firm will offer comprehensive technical support for the leased machines and systems, showing a full spectrum of support for the election's success.

Despite its innovative prospects, the awarded contract has not been without dissent. Several watchdog groups have voiced concerns over past controversies surrounding Miru Systems's involvement in elections across various countries including Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Russia.

In response, Comelec Chairman George Erwin Garcia has given his reassurance, stating the poll body’s Special Bids and Awards Committee took cognizance of the allegations but nevertheless advocated for the South Korean firm based on its merit. Supporting their decision, Comelec was equipped with positive certifications from the electoral bodies of Congo and Iraq.

This strategic partnership between Comelec and Miru Systems is poised to usher in a new era for the Philippine elections, empowering the democratic voice of its people with precision, transparency, and unwavering trust in their electoral system.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Pakistan’s recent election mess: A sign it is time to modernize its elections

As election results trickled in at a snail’s pace, allegations of rigging reached a crescendo and erupted into swaths of violence across the country. Pakistan’s most recent elections were a perfect recipe for disaster, casting an ominous shadow over the future of the young democracy.

It took authorities three days after the polls closed to announce the results, a delay that put democracy in danger amid bitter and impassioned cries of electoral fraud.

This recent episode is fueling fresh debate about election modernization, and how it could have averted the disaster. The country is not new to the idea, having mulled this initiative for years. Sadly, the plan was mothballed when political noise became too overwhelming.

President Arif Alvi, who is at the forefront of the e-voting advocacy, laments Pakistan’s missed opportunity to prevent the crisis. In a tweet, he rues:

“Remember 'our' long struggle for Electronic Voting Machines. EVM had paper ballots that could be counted separately by hand (like it is being done today) BUT it also had a simple electronic calculator/counter with each vote button pressed. Totals of every candidate would have been available & printed within five minutes of the closing of poll.

The entire effort which included more than 50 meetings at the Presidency alone was scuttled.

Had EVMs been there today, my dear beloved Pakistan would have been spared this crisis.”

Talk is rife about how automation could have led to a dramatically different result:

· Reduced Errors: While hand counting is notoriously vulnerable to human errors, leading to miscalculations and inconsistencies, automation greatly reduces these failure points, ensuring accuracy and transparency.

· Faster Results: Tallying millions of votes manually takes days, the perfect breeding ground for anxiety and speculation. Automation expedites the process by an order of magnitude, providing timely results and reducing post-election tension.

· Increased Integrity: Public skepticism about manual counting is rampant. A transparent, automated system with proper safeguards could bolster public trust in the electoral process, fostering stability and acceptance of the outcome.

· Improved Security: Allegations of vote tampering are less likely with a secure, audited electronic system. Blockchain technology could further enhance security, creating an irrefutable record of votes cast.

Pakistan does not need to look far and wide for successful references as its next-door neighbor India has had a largely successful experience with e-voting election automation. Though its electronic voting machines (EVM) are aging, the world’s largest democracy still uses them to mount large-scale elections with a decent level of credibility.

Despite their frustration, champions of election modernization need to bring every stakeholder to the discussion table one more time where it should be made clear that a peaceful and orderly transfer of power is imperative if Pakistan’s fledgling democracy is to survive.