Saturday, November 16, 2013

The role of a paper trail in an automated election

Source: Google images
Much of the discussion surrounding the use of e-voting technology necessarily focuses on the actual electronic equipment being used. There are a variety of different direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, some of which are equipped with touchscreen monitors. Debates on e-voting also discuss how the votes are being recorded, how they are being transmitted and how they are being tabulated. However, there is another large component to electronic voting technologies that is not completely digital.

A paper trail can be positively invaluable during electoral processes. Opponents to e-voting technology oftentimes cite the apparent lack of transparency and accountability with digital records and digital transmissions, as the data can potentially be corrupted or tampered with. By having the paper trail as backup, acting as proof of the legitimate ballots being cast and the votes being properly counted, there is a better sense of accountability. The digital records can be checked against their paper counterparts to ensure that there are no inconsistencies or discrepancies.

Indeed, the Supreme Court in India has ruled that the country's Election Commission must introduce a paper backup of all votes cast via electronic voting machines. The primary argument is that a running paper record of all the ballots being cast can then be used to verify the digital votes in the case of an audit. This wouldn't necessarily defend the system against being hacked, but it would mean that even if the digital record were compromised, the paper record could be confirmed.

The India Supreme Court ruled that such a paper trail would be an “indispensable requirement of free and fair elections.” Since the roll-out of such technology can be complex, the Court is allowing the Election Commission to introduce a Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail system in “gradual stages” throughout the country, starting with general elections in 2014. Electronic voting machines were first tested in India in 1982 and gained large scale deployment in the 2004 general election, processing over one million ballots.

While a paper audit trail can improve transparency, accountability and fidelity of elections, not all electoral bodies feel the same way about their use. The November 2013 municipal election in New Hanover County in North Carolina, USA abandoned paper ballots altogether. Part of the motivation was for the streamlining of data and communication, but the county also saved an estimated $20,000 by not printing or using any traditional paper ballots.

Indeed, the New Hanover County election is one of the most digital to date. Candidates submitted their financial reports digitally, voter registration took place on computers without paper forms, and only direct-recording electronic voting machines were used for casting ballots. This followed in the example set by neighbouring Brunswick County where paper ballots have not been used since 2006, with the exception of votes cast by mail-in absentees. Pender County also only used DRE machines in its November election.

When an election is run in a fully electronic and digital manner, extra safeguards must be put in place to maintain the security and integrity of the results. While some may argue that a paper trail is not necessary, as appeared to be the case in North Carolina, a voter verifiable paper record to backup the original digitally-cast votes may be in the best interest of voters. This way, there have the efficiency and flexibility that comes with an automated voting platform, while ensuring the transparency and verifiability of results.