Monday, July 23, 2012

The Hidden Costs of Manual Elections

Image by Jeff Stahler

One of the arguments most frequently used by detractors of electronic voting is its alleged high cost. Although automation certainly implies a significant initial investment in voting machines, critics often fail to see the economies of scales that electoral automation generate, which make electronic elections cheaper than manual elections when several electoral cycles are taken into consideration. Moreover, inaccurate and murky manual elections bring to the surface enormous “hidden” costs that need to be taken into account in order to fairly compare electoral systems.

In the presidential elections held in Mexico in 2006, according to the official numbers of the Mexican Electoral Court of the Judicial Power, candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) lost to Felipe Calderon by a narrow margin of nearly half percentage point. AMLO refused to accept the results alleging that a massive fraud was carried out, and commanded a series of street protests in the Federal District for more than two weeks. After such traumatic incidents, the only losers were not AMLO and his followers; paralyzing parts of one of the biggest metropolis in the world meant a strike to the Mexican economy beyond imagination. Manual elections, besides inaccuracy and little transparency, carry with them a series of latent costs that appear when this sort of “unexpected events” occur.

In spite of all efforts made by Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) to improve the administration of elections, the presidential elections held in Mexico a couple weeks ago lead to a very similar situation. AMLO, again in the second place, is refusing to accept results and assures to be able to prove multiple irregularities like pre-marked ballots, and purchase of votes, which question the accuracy and transparency of elections. Also, in light of the narrow difference between the first and second candidates in some jurisdictions, the IFE had to recount votes in about 68.000 (50%) polling stations. Even though we do not know the cost of the recounting process, it is probably an amount not easy to

In the last six years Mexico has witnessed, first hand, how expensive it is to have an inefficient, murky, and outdated voting system. Cost analysis to compare voting systems should take into consideration these types of expenses to truthfully reflect the economic convenience of electronic voting.