Wednesday, June 27, 2012

From Greece to Venezuela: A Brief History of Democracy and Voting Methods

Parliament Building in Athens. Photo: Wally Gobetz.

Suffrage is the cornerstone of modern democracy. Ever since its early manifestations in Ancient Greece, voting has been the act that guarantees the voice of citizens to be truly heard. However, although its purpose remains unchangeable, its means have evolved over time and continue to do so nowadays.

In Ancient Greece, ordinary citizens were allowed to participate in some government offices and the courts, but the definition of “citizen” excluded women, slaves, foreigners, and men under 20 years old. Later on, suffrage was reserved for men who could prove their wealth, but the idea of public participation grew to include all sectors of society. The Corsican Republic was the first country to grant universal suffrage to all of its citizens over the age of 25, and the first major countries to grant this right were New Zealand (1893) and Finland (1906). Woman suffrage was adopted in most countries after World War I, and disenfranchisement on the basis of race disappeared even later (1965 in the US, 1994 in South Africa).

There are still places where the path to democracy has a long and difficult way to go, but it can be said that for the most part, people are able to voice their choices in order to get the government they want. So now that all sectors of the population have been covered, the quest for the improvement of democracy has extended to another realm: voting methods.

Manual voting using paper is considered the traditional way of exerting suffrage. It was probably used for the first time in Rome in 139 BCE and involves paper ballots, where citizens mark their desired candidate, and ballot boxes, where these marked papers are deposited. Once voting is finished, members of the electoral body count the votes and a winner is proclaimed. Although it sounds like a convenient and easy to organize procedure, ballot stuffing and other forms of fraud, are an ever
present threat to this voting method. The numerous frauds discovered throughout the history of manual voting, plus some major inconveniences inherent to its implementation, have prompted societies to seek other methods to guarantee fairness, efficiency, and reliability in elections.

Believe it or not, the first voting machine was put to use in 1838. It involved dropping a brass ball into a hole, which would advance a clockwork counter. The one voter, one vote principle was guaranteed since each voter received only one brass ball. In 1875, voting machines with push button systems were patented. This shows that the concern over human error is not recent at all, and it has been
addressed for almost two centuries already.

Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the evolution of voting machines has followed closely the development of automation systems, specially those involving computers. Thus, when punched cards made their debut in the 1960s, they were quickly adopted into e-voting systems. The Votomatic system, which used this technology, was so successful that some variations of it were used up to 1996.
Optical scan voting systems, on the other hand, are slightly earlier, dating back to the fifties. At first, they were used for standardized tests such as college entrance exams, but their use became more generalized over time. The employ optical mark recognition scanners, which look for darkened rectangles, circles or ovals previously filled by the voter with a pencil. This system prevents errors such as under voting or over voting, but the verification of paper ballots takes time.

The true revolution in voting technology came in the 1990s with direct-recording electronic (DRE) machines. This new system replaces paper ballots with buttons or a touchscreen. Not only does it represent a cost-effective improvement, but security and fairness are also guaranteed, since ballot stuffing and other forms of fraud are eradicated.

In recent years, Smartmatic, one of the leading voting technology companies, has taken DRE systems to the next level with the implementation of biometric authentication in its machines. This new enhancement will be used nationwide for the first time during the presidential election in Venezuela. Thus, it is the South American country who is currently leading the world in terms of voting

Democracy has evolved over thousands of years to guarantee that everyone has their say in the way their homeland should be ruled. We have achieved equal suffrage for everyone, but now the challenge is to ensure that this right is protected. That is what e-voting is meant to guarantee.