Monday, November 5, 2012

Technological solutions to the problems of voter authentication

Voter authentication was successfully
used in the last Venezuelan elections. Source: EFE
A report called What Has Changed, What Hasn't, & What Needs Improvement, covering different topics on the state of the US voting system, and how technology can contribute to improve election administration, was recently made public by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. The pool of authors, which includes scholars, students and prominent guest participants, compiled a vast amount of research material which we will review in future posts as we find it to be perfectly aligned with our vision of what technology can do to guarantee transparency, accuracy and efficiency in elections.

To begin with, we would like to go over two topics mentioned in this research project: Voter registration and authentication. Both issues, in light of the upcoming November 6th, 2012, US presidential elections, and their importance in guaranteeing the integrity of any election, are currently under public scrutiny.

According to the study, in the 2008 presidential elections, "between 1.5 million and 3 million votes were lost due to problems related to voter registration". Such low accuracy levels should be unacceptable for the US voting system or any consolidated democracy.  

The Caltech/MIT study listed some of the most crucial aspects of an election that are based on a thorough voter registration process and a sound electoral roll. They are: knowing the exact number of registered voters; developing basic administrative geographies such as legislative redistricting and the determination of voter precincts; distributing electoral material; and authenticating voters to deter fraud.

The study points out the necessity to upgrade electoral rolls by using advanced technological solutions and incorporating new technology available, such as the Internet, to comply with the increasing demand for fair and transparent elections.

The report stresses how the Internet has gained grounds as the preferred method to develop robust electoral rolls, and facilitating voter registration. Arizona and Washington have implemented successful internet-based registration systems and as consequence, they have given an impulse to registration rates, lowered costs and increased usability and accuracy.

Given the importance electoral rolls have, during the year 2002 the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) mandated that states implemented statewide computerized voter databases. Unfortunately, not all states have complied. Statewide electronic databases can prevent duplicity (having a voter registered in two precincts) and many other pitfalls usually found in registers.

Other technologies can also contribute enormously in this area. For example, electronic poll books can bring the electoral polls down to the precinct levels and facilitate information to the electorate and voter authentication.

Voter authentication, which is predominantly done by requesting voters to show an ID at the polling station, is at this very moment tangled in a partisan debate. Republicans demand a stricter control of who gets to casts a vote by requiring photo IDs at the polling stations, while Democrats argue that such measure undermines voter participation of minorities as they are less prompt to possess driver licenses or other forms of IDs. Authorities are confronting the challenge of getting the largest possible number of eligible voters express their opinion, without compromising integrity.

The study wisely states "the burden for preventing voter fraud should be placed mainly on the state, not voters". One solution to this dilemma is the use of biometrics for the authentication processes. Brazil, a nation with a robust electronic platform, used biometrics in some cities to authenticate voters with fingerprint based devices. Recently, Venezuela, another country leading the way in automation, became the first nation in the world to automate an election when included a biometric device to authenticate all the voters and initiate the voting session. The solution, provided by Smartmatic, guaranteed the quintessential democratic principle of one voter, one vote.

As a blog advocating for the implementation of the electronic technologies to strengthen modern democracies, we are convinced that, if a polling station has a reliable electronic poll book with a robust database which includes biographic and biometric information of every eligible voter in, and the voters are authenticated by means of a fingerprint-based biometric device, both problems can be solved and election integrity and legitimacy guaranteed.