Monday, July 30, 2012

Highlights of EVOTE2012

Source: EVOTE2012 Facebook Page

The fifth International Conference on Electronic Voting (EVOTE2012) was one of the most anticipated events in the year for the world of electoral technology. The conference, held in Bregenz, Austria from July 11th to the 14th, was deemed a complete success by participants and organizers alike. Hundreds of researchers, developers, government representatives and business people from all around the world gathered at Castle Hofen to share experiences and breakthrough discoveries in e-voting.

This year’s theme for the convention was “Challenges for Electronic Voting – Transparency, Trust and Voter Education”. In this respect, speakers presented various cases of best practices in auditing, testing and verifying elections held through voting machines. Some new technological developments for e-voting were also proposed during the conference.

One of the features that distinguish this prestigious event among the academic community is that in order to be a speaker it’s necessary to enter a paper to apply for a spot. After submitting it, the organizers’ committee evaluates them and approves participation with a conference

Among the many activities and forums held during EVOTE2012, on July 13th there was a workshop about the “Venezuelan Electoral Technology”, in which participants were able to get to know more about the multiple benefits that this platform offers to voters in terms of auditability, accuracy and transparency. Developed by the multinational Smartmatic, and deployed more than 10 times in different electoral events in the country, for the first time the electronic voting solution will include during the upcoming National Election to be held on October 7th, a brand new biometric identification system to perform voter authentication and guarantee the principle one voter - one vote. 

Another interesting conference was offered by Carlos Vegas who talked about “The New Belgian E-voting System”, developed for the upcoming elections of Flanders and Brussels-Capital Regions to be held on October. According to the several academic speakers and experts who exposed about this case, the new system was based on a proposal presented in a comparative study on e-voting requested by the administration to a consortium of Belgian universities. Among the various advantages offered by the system –besides the fact that it was designed and conceived by Belgium academics- is the incorporation of a printed vote receipt that allows the voter to confirm its selection.

Mark Phillips gave another interesting talk: “Testing Democracy: How Independent Testing of E-Voting Systems Safeguards Electoral Integrity”, in which he explained the importance of independent certification for automated voting systems using as an example the successful automated elections of Philippines in 2010. Mark Phillips is President and Chief Executive Officer of SLI Global Solutions.

EVOTE2012 probably the most important event in the year for those involved in the development, implementation, and analysis of electronic voting. The fact that such a great convention has been assembled around electoral technology is a testimony of how much has been achieved in this area, and how promising the future looks for these technology solutions.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Hidden Costs of Manual Elections

Image by Jeff Stahler

One of the arguments most frequently used by detractors of electronic voting is its alleged high cost. Although automation certainly implies a significant initial investment in voting machines, critics often fail to see the economies of scales that electoral automation generate, which make electronic elections cheaper than manual elections when several electoral cycles are taken into consideration. Moreover, inaccurate and murky manual elections bring to the surface enormous “hidden” costs that need to be taken into account in order to fairly compare electoral systems.

In the presidential elections held in Mexico in 2006, according to the official numbers of the Mexican Electoral Court of the Judicial Power, candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) lost to Felipe Calderon by a narrow margin of nearly half percentage point. AMLO refused to accept the results alleging that a massive fraud was carried out, and commanded a series of street protests in the Federal District for more than two weeks. After such traumatic incidents, the only losers were not AMLO and his followers; paralyzing parts of one of the biggest metropolis in the world meant a strike to the Mexican economy beyond imagination. Manual elections, besides inaccuracy and little transparency, carry with them a series of latent costs that appear when this sort of “unexpected events” occur.

In spite of all efforts made by Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) to improve the administration of elections, the presidential elections held in Mexico a couple weeks ago lead to a very similar situation. AMLO, again in the second place, is refusing to accept results and assures to be able to prove multiple irregularities like pre-marked ballots, and purchase of votes, which question the accuracy and transparency of elections. Also, in light of the narrow difference between the first and second candidates in some jurisdictions, the IFE had to recount votes in about 68.000 (50%) polling stations. Even though we do not know the cost of the recounting process, it is probably an amount not easy to

In the last six years Mexico has witnessed, first hand, how expensive it is to have an inefficient, murky, and outdated voting system. Cost analysis to compare voting systems should take into consideration these types of expenses to truthfully reflect the economic convenience of electronic voting.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Mongolian tale and the strange preference for PCOS

On June 29 Parliamentary Elections took place in Mongolia in the midst of an unprecedented mining boost that is driving the public agenda, and also pushing an incredible economic growth that last year reached 17.5%.

During the elections, Mongolians used a new voting system to distribute the seventy six parliament seats. Forty eight seats were chosen at the local elections, and twenty eight were chosen proportionally by party. However, that was not the only nuance of the electoral process. A new automated voting system developed and deployed by Dominion Voting Systems was used. It is was part of an attempt to improve transparency levels of elections after the manual counting fiasco that lead triggered deadly riots four years ago.

Mongolians had big expectations regarding election automation. 2,446 Precinct-Count Optical Scanners(PCOS) were used across 1,905 precincts to count the 1,198,086 votes of the 1,833,478 Mongolians registered to vote. In spite of the simplicity of the election, the promised early result publication turned to be a fairy tale, as voters had to wait more than a day for the results. Moreover, important discrepancies were found between the electronic results in some precincts and the manual audits carried throughout. Nine political parties, including the ruling Mongolian People’s Party are challenging results and demanding a recount of votes. Yangug Sodbaatar, secretary of the MPP party stated "We are demanding the traditional system of counting votes by hand in every election constituency across the whole country to end this confusion that the population has about the voting machines and automated systems".

Although these types of inconveniences might come as a surprise to some, the difference between PCOS results and manual counts is the source of a big debate. The underlying fact is that PCOS rely on interpreting the voter’s intent they do not record it directly. To further complicate things, when auditors try to corroborate the results, they also interpret the marked option. Contrasting two interpretations lends itself to discrepancies.

As a blog dedicated to automation of elections, we strongly support and encourage nations around the globe to utilize the available technology to better serve citizens. Nonetheless, we believe DRE are a much better option as there is no interpretation of the will of the voter.

Friday, July 13, 2012

E-voting Technology Development, in the Hands of the Youth

A group of engineering students in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh came up with a system that could drastically change the way locals exert their right to suffrage. This new technology would allow people to either register and vote from their mobile phone through text messages or get a unique ID and password to cast their ballot from their personal computer.

The system was developed as a response to the low participation percentages shown by the educated urban class. “Our system is intended to provide flexibility to such people to vote, contributing to a matured mandate,” said Karj Soma Sekhar, project leader, who is only 21 years old. The students have been demonstrating their invention in different college events and would welcome any opportunity to bring it to the Indian electoral authorities. 

This is not the first time that Indian youths work to have technology broaden the scope of citizen participation in local elections. In 2005, a group of engineering students from the city of Pune envisioned a voting system based on biometric authentication, much like the one used in Venezuela nowadays. India implemented e-voting in 1999. But given the fact that biometric authentication has been a fairly recent adoption worldwide —Venezuela’s Integrated Authentication System (SAI) will be used nationwide for the first time this year—, these students’ vision is truly remarkable. 

In a very prophetic manner, Abhishek Bhalerao, one of the team members was quoted as saying, "If India is to be a developed country by 2020, this system will be a must.” Seeing Venezuela’s progress in voting technology matters, we can say that Bhalerao was absolutely right. 

The emphasis young people are putting on technology, as a means to foster citizen participation, is a clear demonstration of the bright future of electronic voting. “With urban India growing and more people coming under the techno savvy class, the concept of electronic voting makes great sense,” stated Jayaprakash Narayan, president of the Lok Satta party. 

On a slightly unrelated note: faith in e-voting isn’t just a thing of the youth. It has been so successful in India that it is spreading to neighboring countries. Pakistan is planning to use electronic voting machines (EVM) for its next general elections. . Muhammad Afzal, spokesman from the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), declared, “With Pakistan, India and Bangladesh having similar cultures, all should help each other. We must learn from each other. We are trying to use EVMs in our elections.”

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Diffusion of Innovations and Resistance to Change

The ordinary 'horseless carriage' is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.—Literary Digest, 1899.

If we were to compare our lives to those of our ancestors a hundred years ago, what would we say has improved? Almost everything. Our modern society is full of inventions, which we now take for granted and that have made our lives much easier. Cars, computers, commercial flights, to name just a few; they all share a similar story.When they were first created and marketed, some people—even experts—were reluctant to accept them. Lord Kelvin declared in 1897 that radio had no future. Television was thought to be a fad and a Fox movie producer believed that people would soon get tired of staring at a box. But we know very well what happened to these two novelties: we can no longer conceive a world without them.

Some of us think about what we have and not what we need. We think evolution has taken us this far and nothing new could ever come up in the future. The beauty of new inventions is that they solve problems that we think we didn’t have because we are so used to working with our current inconveniences. In other words, we don’t know any better. Thus, since we are wired to expect certain difficulties from what’s already out there, we tend to distrust things that disrupt our current mind frame,
things that could —and will— change our lives for the better. The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall in 1957 said about computers, “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year.”

But then, how is this solved, and how do we jump from invention to adoption? According to Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations (1962), people progress through 5 stages: knowledge (first exposure to the innovation), persuasion (active search for information on it), decision (acceptance of the concept of change, advantage/disadvantage weigh-in), implementation (employment of the innovation, determination of its usefulness), and confirmation (final decision to continue using the innovation). If the innovation is finally adopted, it spreads via various communication channels.

An important part of this process is the acceptance of change, and this comes along with the acceptance that the previous technology is indeed inconvenient. For example: people are still discussing whether e-books will ever displace the heavy and burdensome paper books we’ve grown up with for generations. Once they accept the fact that printed matter could and should be a lot lighter than it is, the path to the new technology is open.

The automation of processes is another aspect of progress that has been subjected to the same cycle of distrust and acceptance of change. Our modern society keeps trying to facilitate things for everyone and at the same time increase productivity. Voting is a clear example of this. Some people resist the idea of exerting their right to suffrage through electronic means simply because all they know is manual voting.
However, most people are finding it “easy” or “very easy” to cast their ballot using voting machines, and this recognition of convenience is one of the turning points for the general adoption of this new technology.

As we see, the only way for our society to progress is to stop resisting change. The good thing is that once convenience is recognized within an innovation, its adoption is guaranteed. Having said that, given the strong positive reviews from the common people, manual voting is on its way to being considered an uncomfortable thing of the distant past.