Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Scytl in Ecuador: how to jeopardize an entire election

A simulation on the February elections
was carried out last February 9 in Quito
using the Scytl system.  (Image: Ecuador Times)
On April 18 the president of Ecuador's National Electoral Council (CNE for its Spanish acronym), Domingo Paredes, announced a series of legal actions to be taken against Scytl, a digital voting services company, for failing to meet their contractual obligations during the February 23 Sectional Elections.

More specifically, Paredes proclaimed the unilateral termination of the contract and the immediate collection of the bank guarantee, further, he demanded the return of advance payments made, and officially declared that Scytl had not met the requirements of the contract.

This new chapter of the February 23 Sectional Elections has prompted a round of mutual accusations between the parts –the National Electoral Council of Ecuador (CNE) and Scytl-, as neither one wants to take the blame for the egregious delay of the national results. 

Among other things, the Barcelona-based company had been hired to process the tallying of the votes so that results could be announced within 72 hours after closing. However, it actually took nearly a month to complete the task of processing the votes and arriving at official results. Only Azuay and Santo Domingo de Ts├íchilas, the two provinces with automated voting for which Scytl did not offer its tallying system, announced results on Election Day. 

Besides the legal disputes that are likely to evolve from the public positions both parties are taking, one simple, yet very important question, needs to be asked: Why didn't Scytl warn this was going to happen?

Good practices in the Electronic Voting industry require that a series of tests and pilots be carried before any election occurs. In-house alpha, beta, and “real-world” pilot testing are crucial in any mission critical project of this kind.

Testing is the only way to guarantee minimal disruption in the flow of the process, and to prove that the applications logic and accompanying infrastructure are in working order. 

There are two possible answers to the question. Either the test runs were poorly planned, so they did not raise the necessary flags to avoid the catastrophe; or the tests did in fact serve to alert the problems ahead, but no adequate or sufficient action was taken. Time will tell, as the two parts explain their viewpoints. 

In a February 15th pilot, a group of technicians pointed out some weaknesses possibly leading to failures of the system. In an article published by Hoy, Enrique Mafla -Ecuadorian computer expert- pointed out that issues with the source code and the awarding system had been detected before E-day. He signaled Scytl as responsible for them. 

Fabián Auz, informatics delegate from SUMA, also claimed there had been poor planning of the technical audits prior to the election, and that several problems had been spotted.

During the days that followed Election Day, and while the entire nation was demanding results, Scytl representatives acknowledged problems with their application. However, they are now fighting back claiming their system performed as planned, that it provided timely results, and that they met all contractual obligations.

It is hard to judge at this point who will finally be blamed for jeopardizing the election. Every effort needs to be made to ensure zero delays occur. But a one-month delay is not acceptable. Not in the age of instant communications, not with the advanced election technology now available in the market.