Monday, March 25, 2013

Automation in Kenya: a hurried implementation is never a good idea

Image: EveryStockPhoto

Although it is true that automation solves many problems in the electoral field, this does not mean that just about any e-voting system will work. Taking the leap to automation requires a close examination of the potential providers, and one of the main aspects to keep in mind for choosing one is the provider’s experience. Kenya’s electoral blunder serves as an example why.

As mentioned on an earlier post, the bout of violence Kenya endured in 2007 prompted the country to hastily adopt an electronic voting system. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) set up an election’s results transmission system based on SMS that was meant to speed up the final stages of the electoral process and enhance security. Biometric authentication was also incorporated into the modernization process. This year’s election was expected to be the most modern in Africa and beyond.

However, this new platform proved to be no better than the manual method from earlier years. Kenyans’ fears of a new round of chaos materialized when every single stage of the automated process failed. First of all, the conditions under which elections were generally held in the country were not taken into account. As a result, not even the most basic of requirements for automation, electricity, were available, as some of the classrooms used as polling stations were not equipped with power sockets.

Then the biometric authentication kits failed to recognize voters’ fingerprints, forcing officials to turn to paper records and manual registration to carry on with the election and slowing down the electoral process considerably. As if this were not enough, the server employed to transmit results to the central tallying center from 33,400 polling stations became overloaded and crashed, and the electoral body had to revert to manual counting. Safaricom, the communications supplier hired for this final stage, had advised IEBC to hold a large-scale drill before going live, but the electoral body disregarded the recommendation with dire consequences. In the end, the announcement of Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory took place over a week after the elections.

It is commendable that a country wants to resort to e-voting to stop fraud and make its elections more agile and transparent. However, automation is a very delicate procedure that is prone to failure when not carried out properly. There are many points where Kenya’s providers incurred in negligence and aggravated an already fragile democracy. The lack of previous infrastructure studies and the lack of drills and pilot tests in minor electoral events are amongst the most serious mistakes made by the e-voting providers. In short, Kenya’s botched election was an example of sheer improvisation.

Electronic elections in the Philippines, Brazil, and Venezuela have been successful because their providers have been conscious of the need to analyze a country’s infrastructure and idiosyncrasy before incorporating automation into its electoral system. The implementation process in these countries has been gradual and supported by numerous pilot tests and audits, thus being able to offer smooth elections that gain people’s trust in the new technology. The urge for automation cannot win over the urge for an electoral system that works.

Kenya’s electoral catastrophe is a lesson for other countries to learn: When it comes to modernizing a country’s electoral platform, there is no room for haste.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Promoting inclusion and participation with e-voting

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos

One of the numerous advantages of a properly implemented e-voting system is that it promotes inclusion and broadens the range of citizens that can partake in Democracy, since its technical characteristics make it easier for the electorate to exert their right to suffrage. Paired with educational campaigns, e-voting can help to increase voter turnout. E-voting’s achievement in encouraging inclusion and participation can be reflected in three important stages: implementation, registration, and the act of voting itself.

Successful implementation of a new electoral platform relies heavily on properly stimulating participation and overcoming resistance to change. Some people might find a new technology confusing and therefore not vote, but such an effect should disappear as soon as they become familiar with the new system. This is why it is vital to set up campaigns to familiarize the electorate with the voting technology and cast away myths or any apprehensions. The Philippines are a good example of a successful implementation campaign. In 2010, the country embarked on a voter education journey to familiarize the electorate with tits newly implemented electronic voting platform. The nationwide campaign permeated all media, both traditional (press, radio, TV) and new (social networks, cartoons), and it pointed at traditional Filipino cultural values to make citizens feel identified and included. This stimulated people to vote, as they felt identified with the new technology and did not perceive it as something incomprehensible and alien to them.

At the voter registration level, biometric authentication solves the problem of registration deadlines, which pose a significant barrier to voting. 87 percent of Americans live in states that shut down registration two or more weeks before Election Day. Some voters are completely unaware of these deadlines and believe they still have time to register and vote even as the polling stations close. With biometric authentication, voters just need their thumbprint to be scanned by the biometric device in order to enable their voting session. The use of biometric authentication also solves another critical problem at polling stations: the requirement for an ID for voters, which is considered a form of disenfranchisement for minorities.

Finally, when it comes to the act of casting ballots, no method equals e-voting in inclusion and equality. Some models of electoral technology nowadays are equipped with functionalities that enable suffrage for voters with sensory and motor disabilities. This guarantees that no voter is left behind for any reason.

A properly implemented e-voting system not only eliminates the risk of fraud, but it also ensures that Democracy is perpetuated. With e-voting, all citizens feel included and are thus compelled to participate more. This way, no matter the outcome, the whole country wins.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Comelec: Philippine election managers in the spotlight

Filipinos successfully automated its elections on 20120.
Image: COMELEC - EID
With the Philippines in the grip of another elections fever, the spotlight is once again aimed on the Commission on Elections (Comelec), the constitutional body tasked to manage the polls in the country. While administering polls is always a challenging task anywhere in the world, it can prove especially difficult in a country like the Philippines where emotions have been known to run high every time poll season sets in. The agency also has had to deal with massive electoral fraud and prevention of election-related violence.

The commission is currently in the thick of preparing for the automated elections in May 2013. Aside from overseeing the technology component, the poll body also finds itself busy enforcing campaign rules. In past elections, candidates and political parties have been known to flout such guideline as common propaganda poster area, airtime limit in the media, campaign expenditure ceiling, and the like.  

This time however, the Comelec is taking a much more hard-line stance in enforcing the strictures and prosecuting the violators.

The poll body has also employed the help of social media to crowd-source the monitoring of poll offenses. Within days of launching the Twitter hashtag #SumbongMo (Report Poll Violations to the Comelec), users have sent in countless photos of violations. Buoyed by the public’s enthusiastic participation, the Comelec has issued stern warnings against erring candidates and political parties and has vowed to penalize repeat offenders.

The current Commission is headed by Sixto Brillantes, a seasoned election lawyer. He presides over the Commission en banc composed of six other commissioners. Under his administration, the Comelec has purchased some 82,000 Precinct Count Optical Scanner (PCOS) machines which the poll body had initially leased from technology company Smartmatic during the 2010 elections. The machines were sold at greatly reduced prices enabling the Comelec to save the Philippine government several billions of pesos.

For most Filipino voters, the Comelec’s stewardship of the automated polls of 2010 has done much to restore their faith in free and impartial elections. The speed, accuracy and transparency with which the election results were revealed to the public has earned the approval of millions of voters.

Electoral fraud was a big headache that had plagued the Comelec for decades, abetted mainly by long-drawn out counting and canvassing. Yet almost overnight, automation has eliminated such unscrupulous activities, earning the Comelec the praises of a grateful nation.

In the 2nd automated elections in May 2013, the Comelec has a lot riding on its shoulders. It is determined not to disappoint.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Kenya: a poor implementation of voting technology


Kenya longs for peace. Photograph: Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images

On March 4th, Kenya, East Africa's largest economist held its first general elections since the new constitution was approved in a national referendum in 2010. As part of this deep legal transformation, robust electoral reforms were introduced to set the new grounds for credible, and legitimate elections. 

Kenya has been under intense scrutiny by national and international organizations since the 2007, when the losing candidate in the presidential elections, Raila Amollo Odinga, refused to concede defeat alleging a massive fraud had been conducted. His supported rioted the streets and ethnic violence erupted. More than 1,200 killed and hundreds were displaced. The political, social and economic consequences of such episodes are still fresh in the memory of all Kenyans.

To avoid the recurrence of a similar tragedy, and conduct peaceful and more transparent elections, Kenya embarked on a project to modernize its voting system by automating certain phases of the election cycle. Biometric technology was introduced to increase accuracy of the voter roll and minimize the impact of vote impersonation. Also, an electronic transmission of results was implemented to speed up the result consolidation and publication process. 

Unfortunately, the newly formed Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) came short of accomplishing their noble goals. Both automation processes were poorly managed, causing a cumbersome voting experience for most voters, and delaying result publication for almost an entire week.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga is again playing a role that is becoming familiar to him, claiming fraud. He laments that the billions spent in technology for voter identification and vote tallying claiming rendered poor results. "Two days after the vote, the electronic tallying process was discarded and counting began afresh, manually. That too turned out to be flawed exercise in which, among other things, there was massive tampering with the IEBC voter register" he stated. 

Although it is early for international observers to conclude that a massive fraud was carried out, they have acknowledged the technical problems and delays. The biometric platform, developed by a partnership between the Government of Canada and a subcontractor, Morpho Canda Inc, reported numerous failures causing voters to wait in line for hours before casting a vote.

Also, the system in charge of the transmission of results and processing the data broke down forcing a manual count of the votes. The services used to provide the tallying and result publishing services were provided by different companies. 

Utilizing an mobile App designed by IFES and installed on cell phones distributed to each polling stations, authorities were supposed to use Safaricom (a leading mobile network operator in Kenya) telecommunication company) SIM cards to send results transmitted via a Virtual Private Network  (VPN). Servers in consolidation centers, managed by Next Technologies, were supposed to process results and upload them to a Google hosted website. 

Acknowledging all difficulties experienced by voters to cast a vote, and knowing results, James Oswago, Chief executive of Kenya's IEBC, stated "none of those reasons is malevolent, none of those reasons was intended to keep you here needlessly. We tried our best." 

In the light of such complex political landscape, and with the 2007 chaos fresh in everyone's memory, we hope the technical glitches do not assume political dimensions.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The implementation of e-voting in Israel: the need for openness in the process of election automation

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos

Israel, a country known for its fast and continuous development of technology, had the chance to implement e-voting as early as 2008. However, in spite of general approval from the political class, this did not happen, and today the country is still stuck with an outdated voting model. Why? Israel is an example of the risks a country runs when its electoral modernization process is not transparent and open to the people.

In 2008, the Israeli Ministry of Interior published a law proposal for the implementation of electronic voting in upcoming electoral events after a successful trial in parallel to a 2007 local election. Nevertheless, this proposal posed two problems: first, there was no public discussion on the matter, and everything was done behind closed doors; second, the voting machines the country wanted to use did not emit vote receipts, which made the electorate suspicious of its inauditability. 

It is worth noting that people in Israel were open to the possibility of modernizing their electoral exercises. After the positive outcome of the 2007 pilot test, the government assigned TEHILA (a subdivision of Israel’s Ministry of Finance) the task of developing the country’s new electronic voting platform. However, aside from not giving the citizens a proper chance to follow the system’s development process and keeping it in the shadows, the organism completely disregarded the experts’ recommendations to include printed vote receipts to increase the auditability of the electoral exercise under the new method.

Furthermore, TEHILA’s technology was proved to be vulnerable to attacks, and the lack of means for physical auditability only underscored its unreliability. In the end, after protests from the citizens straining the importance of openness in the implementation process, and most importantly, of adopting e-voting only with a highly auditable platform, the e-voting initiative was called off. All the effort was squandered thanks to TEHILA’s stubbornness, and Israel had to go back to manual voting.

Still, hope is not lost yet. On occasion of this year’s presidential election, the Green Party of Israel made a new call for the abolition of paper ballots and the automation of the Israeli electoral system. The party proposes the use of DRE machines, with touchscreens and verifiable vote receipts printed on paper. If Israel learns the lesson from its past blunder, a truly reliable electoral modernization process could be on its way.

Friday, March 8, 2013

How Internet Voting challenged the Oscars

Photo: Miss Karen
As we mentioned on an earlier post, this year’s Academy Awards have been used lately as a cautionary tale against the implementation of Internet voting in precinct voting. So what’s the story of this blunder, and why has it become so significant for larger elections? The damages are weightier than you might think. 

Big productions like “Les Miserables” or “Lincoln” were expected to be favored this year, as had been the case traditionally. However, 2013 unexpectedly opened the doors to independent and foreign movies such as “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and the French “Amour.” This happened not because of a sudden change of mind from the Oscar committee, but because of the new electronic platform that had been adopted for the election. It was denounced that the older members of the Academy—a vast majority—were altogether unfamiliar with the platform and therefore had great difficulty casting their ballots. The Academy moved the voting deadlines, but it failed to provide proper training to these baffled voters. The effect was a list of nominees made of votes that were initially associated to the younger voters’ thinking, and to how these young voters had been able to understand the new system.

However, it surfaced later that even the younger members had problems voting due to a terribly faulty Internet Voting platform. By then, though, it was already too late to recall the results.

At first glance, this looks like a minor mishap, even a welcome one for pop culture. After all, the public would definitely want to see a more progressive Academy instead of watching the same blockbusters win over and over again. However, no matter how positive the result seemed, the fact is that most of the Academy members had been disenfranchised. This does not mean that electronic voting shouldn’t have been implemented altogether, but that the implementation of electoral technology should have been gradual and inclusive, and the Academy failed to accomplish both aspects. Not to mention that the most important poll in the world of cinema was handled with an online voting system of substandard quality.

It goes without saying that a reliable e-voting platform is easier to use than any manual electoral method, and certainly easier than a botched online-based system, which is why blaming the failure to cast an e-ballot on old age is terribly irresponsible. The liability clearly lies on the authorities in charge of its implementation. Not only is it important to know how to choose a proper electoral technology platform, but it is also vital to instrument it gradually in order for everyone to understand it. It does not matter whether the implementation is for small elections, as was the case with the Oscars: a slow immersion with drills and active participation from the electorate defines the success or failure of an automated election. 

When it comes to elections, no matter their scale, choosing an adequate technology is key. It is the duty of the authorities in charge to make sure the electoral platform employed is actually useful, so that nobody is left behind. There are no excuses.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Latin America has a central role in the electoral year 2013

Photo: Eneas
2012 was a very exciting year for those who follow the world’s electoral affairs. Venezuela, Brazil, and the US were some of the most remarked elections, especially with the implementation of biometric authentication in the first two countries’ polling stations. With the advent of 2013, the electoral calendar did not come to a stop: in Latin America alone, Ecuador, Honduras, Paraguay and Chile are stepping into the spotlight this year, and other countries like Colombia and Peru are getting ready to modernize its electoral platform for next year.

Ecuador inaugurated the Latin American electoral calendar with Rafael Correa’s victory at the February 17 presidential election. In order to offer faster results in this occasion, the country adopted a technology platform for the rapid counting of votes with the support of the Dominican Republic. It is worth noting that Ecuador is not new to the use of electoral technology, as it employed voting machines for a small election last year.

Meanwhile, Paraguay has been preparing for the election of a new president after Fernando Lugo was impeached in June last year. This will take place on April 21, amid fears that Mr. Lugo’s impeachment was a disguised coup d’├ętat planned by the right-wing Colorado party to establish a new dictatorship after its 61-year rule came to an end with Lugo’s ascent to power in 2008.

Meanwhile, elections in Honduras will become the arena for the first testing and eventual gradual implementation of e-voting. This is fueled by the nightmare that took place during the November 2012 elections, where people had to wait more than two weeks for the final results. The political class itself called for the modernization of its electoral platform after this fiasco.

Chile will hold presidential elections on November 17. This will be an event worth watching closely because it may set the final precedent for the modernization of this country’s electoral platform. Chileans have been demanding the implementation of e-voting after the alarmingly high abstention rate that marked last year’s elections. Local authorities have remained stubborn against automation, arguing that manual voting is a cultural legacy, but the increased voter absenteeism signals otherwise. If the trend continues, it might be time for the government of Chile to finally listen to the citizens and set forth on the path to automation.

Meanwhile, other countries are gearing up for their future elections: Colombia keeps pushing for the implementation of e-voting for its 2014 presidential election, while Peru is already carrying out e-voting drills in spite of it not having formally adopted electoral technology yet.

After the success of the Venezuelan and Brazilian elections with electoral technology in 2012, we are expecting to see new Latin American countries add up to the roster of nations that have made the choice to modernize its electoral platforms. 2013 is already showing us the progress these nations are making.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

And The Oscar goes to: Precinct voting

Image: All Things Media
Rush Holt, U.S. House Representative for New Jersey's 12th congressional district and Star-Ledger guest columnist, just published an article titled "Oscars put online voting problems back in the spotlight", in which he uses the ongoing online voting process for the 85th edition of the Oscars, to showcase the challenges Internet voting is facing.

In many respects, Representative Holt coincides with our views on Internet voting - expressed in the post Internet Voting, Strike Two. According to his words, "The fundamental problem is that online election systems must serve many contradictory ends. The system must be easily accessible to every registered voter, yet prevent unauthorized access by hackers. The system must credibly determine a voter’s identity, yet maintain the anonymity of each ballot."

The system also must be accessible to a variety of computer hardware and software, yet not be vulnerable to malware or bugs on any user’s computer. The system must use cutting-edge cryptographic tools, yet be simple enough that my 99-year-old mother can use it. And it must be accessible 100 percent of the time, though it will be a tempting target for denial-of-service attacks".

Another important point made in the article comes from a senior adviser at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who said, “Internet voting systems cannot currently be audited with a comparable level of confidence in the audit results as for those for polling place systems. Malware on voters’ personal computers poses a serious threat that could compromise the secrecy or integrity of voters’ ballots. And the United States currently lacks an infrastructure for secure electronic voter authentication.”

So, the very same attributes that make Internet voting so appealing, are hampering its adoption. Internet is a sexy offer, yet there are many issues that need to be addressed before its use can expand: Secrecy of the vote, security, freedom of speech, etc. 

Although we agree with Representative Holt on many issues, we draw a line when he favors the paper ballot over an electronic memory as the record of the vote. Any form of manual voting implies someone, or something interpreting the intent of the voter. Ultimately, that leads to potential controversies as auditing become less reliable. The 2000 Presidential election recount of 175,037 votes in Florida became a nightmare when auditors had to interpret the will of the voters expressed in the butterfly ballots.

Direct-recording electronic voting machines that provide voter-verified paper audit trails are the most advanced and reliable existing method to capture the will of voters. There is no interpretation necessary, and the printed version of the vote stands as a safeguard for post electoral audits.