Thursday, October 23, 2014

Why the New Brunswick election struggled with vote counting

E-voting technology, both in terms of direct-recording e-voting machines (DRE) and with technology used for the electronic tabulation and administration of the elections themselves, has been slowly gaining in popularity in many parts of the world. As with any new technology, however, it has been met with its share of growing pains.

A recent example of this is the election in the Canadian province of New Brunswick where some votes “disappeared” from the system. Opponents of e-voting quickly jumped at the opportunity to criticize the technology, saying how it can be unreliable and how further problems may come up in future elections.

In the case of the New Brunswick election, what happened was that the software program being used to tabulate the votes malfunctioned such that it failed to transfer the polling data correctly from the computer server in the city of Fredericton to the Internet website where journalists and media outlets could access the results of the election. The software, according to Dominion Voting president John Poulos, is designed to get the results to media in as fast a manner as possible. 

The problem that occurred was not with the election software or administration itself. The votes were never “lost” in the final, official tabulation, but rather they temporarily went missing for the media-facing website. The intense pressure from the media to receive results as quickly as possible hastened and exacerbated the issue. 

In the days that followed, it was confirmed that there was “never a problem with the tabulation machines themselves.” The integrity and legitimacy of the election results were upheld. There may have been a discrepancy between the results posted to the website and the results as tabulated from the machines, but that discrepancy was suitably addressed and rectified. It was merely a software glitch that caused the delays in reporting. 

There are several lessons from the New Brunswick experience that can prove valuable to other jurisdictions and governments considering e-voting technology in any form, as well as to the e-voting community at large. 

First, it is important to choose the right company to handle the automation of the election. The company that New Brunswick chose seemingly had some issues with its software and that is what effectively caused the reporting delay and subsequent controversy. 

Second, it is important to prioritize the legitimacy, integrity and security of the election over the need to provide the results in as timely a manner to the media as possible. If the commission overseeing the New Brunswick election didn't have to worry about the media website, the final tabulations would have held to be true and accurate.

Third, it is important to have a paper trail. The final results of the New Brunswick election were confirmed with a manual count and this may not have been possible had there not been a paper trail in addition to the automation system.

Fourth, it is important to have a robust audit system in place for before, during and after the votes have been cast. A good pre-election audit of the software may have revealed the glitch ahead of time and it could have been suitably addressed in a preventative manner.

E-voting technology offers many positives, like reduced costs, that far outweigh the negatives.