Thursday, November 30, 2023

Election Modernization in the Philippines at Crossroads


The Philippine Commission on Elections (Comelec) made a very risky and surprising move on November 29, when it banned its long-time technology provider Smartmatic from bidding on the 2025 contract for election technology in the Philippines. The move could spell the end to one of the most successful examples of election modernization in the Asia Pacific region.

Comelec’s new leadership has chosen to sever ties with Smartmatic, despite the company's longstanding role improving Filipino elections and the integrity of the outcomes, which have held up to every audit and legal challenge. Petitions by political activists calling for Smartmatic's disqualification have been dismissed by Comelec, which has cited a lack of evidence to justify such measures.

In the weeks preceding the rulings, Comelec Chairman Garcia firmly stated that the committee would only consider disqualification if substantial evidence was introduced in a legal setting. On September 22, Garcia affirmed, "The presumption of innocence prevails. We will meticulously observe the progression of this matter, particularly the nature and substance of the evidence presented in court.” Additionally, in a PhilStar interview, the Chairman underscored, "The Comelec cannot disqualify on the basis of speculation, rumors, or mere allegations." Despite the absence of such evidence and the lack of a judicial proceeding, Comelec nevertheless moved forward with the disqualification of Smartmatic.

Responding to the disqualification, Smartmatic pointed out that Comelec failed to follow the standard legal process for disqualification and never gave the company a chance to prove its innocence. “This ruling is made without any legal basis and appears to be an excuse for what was clearly a pre-determined decision to exclude Smartmatic from the bid, irrespective of merit. Our reputation and goodwill have been unjustly besmirched and the right to join the bidding withheld unjustly,” reads the company’s statement.

Since its first participation in Philippine elections in the Mindanao province in 2008, Smartmatic has continuously supplied election technology and services to Comelec. The company won open bids for subsequent national and local elections from 2010 through the most recent elections in 2022. During this period, the country saw marked improvements in both efficiency and accuracy, as well as citizen safety from post-election violence.

Barring further explanation from Comelec, the committee’s decision is curious and may, indeed, backfire on it. Comelec’s choice was, supposedly, driven by its desire to maintain the integrity of its processes and elections. Yet by sidestepping its own rules and due legal process, Comelec is opening itself to those who would question its integrity and thus, the integrity of the elections in its charge. At a time when the committee is being heavily scrutinized for yielding to political and economic pressures, choosing to circumvent due process seems to be an odd choice that may irreparably harm the cause of election integrity Comelec works so hard to protect.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Insider's Insight: Kenya's Journey to Modernized Elections


Wafula Chebukati, the former Chairman of Kenya's Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), recently gave an insightful speech at the 19th International Electoral Affairs Symposium and Awards in Lisbon, Portugal. In his address, he emphasized the transformative impact technology had in preserving the integrity of the historic 2022 Kenyan elections.

As explained by Chebukati, the elections were significant, not only in Kenya's history but also in demonstrating the potency of technology in supporting credible democratic processes. Amid immense challenges long associated with Kenya's electoral landscape, and with the specter of the annulled 2017 elections still looming, the country achieved a milestone: highly credible elections that were recognized both nationally and internationally.

The successful integration of technology played a critical role in this achievement. The IEBC harnessed biometric technology to enable poll workers to validate voter identities and to digitally capture tally reports. Digital copies of tally reports were automatically published online in real time. The prompt publication of tally reports on the night of the election boosted transparency.

Despite the ensuing defamation campaign post-results announcement, where certain factions attempted to discredit Chebukati, the IEBC, and the technology, the legitimacy of the results was upheld by the Supreme Court. Broadcast online, these hearings made it evident that the deployment of technology materially contributed to transparency and integrity in the 2022 Kenyan elections. "The transparency with which Form 34As were transmitted and the bullet-proof technology systems utilized resulted in no single point of failure," stated Chebukati.

This landmark voting event coordinated over 460,000 poll workers across 22,229 polling stations, serving 22 million citizens. The technological advancements adopted not only ensured a smoother voting process but also offered a robust defense against claims of irregularities.

Chebukati's address at the Lisbon Symposium serves as a beacon of promise for other countries grappling with similar challenges in their electoral systems.

The International Centre for Parliamentary Studies (ICPS) is an organization dedicated to enhancing policymaking and governance by facilitating interaction between parliaments, governments, and societal stakeholders. The Symposium and Awards ceremony was held on November 13 – 16 and election specialists from the world over.

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.”