Friday, August 31, 2012

Benefits of electronic poll books

SAI will eliminate any possibility of double voting or that third parties
might vote by stealing the identity of registered voters (Image Smartmatic)
As technology continues to improve our overall life quality by automating processes related to all aspects of our lives, one specific development is consistently becoming more relevant and essential to perform even the simplest task: biometric authentication. From border security, to banking, and even more recently, voting, biometrics are being successfully applied to different industries. In the electoral arena, which is the main interest of this blog, biometrics is also making possible some ground-breaking transformations.

We've all heard numerous times the old adagio: every vote counts. Well, that can only be asserted when authorities succeed in ensuring that every citizen who wants to express his opinion casts a vote, and that every cast vote is properly accounted for.

The managing of poll books is an area where Biometrics is starting to play a key role. Normally, and in order be given access to cast a vote, voters go through a process of authentication, which involves handing an ID to the poll station worker so they can confirm that the person in the polling station is in fact eligible to cast a vote in that precinct. During this process, and for decades, all sort of irregularities such as double voting and impersonation have occurred. Biometrics are making it impossible for fraudsters to actually impersonate another voter and in some cases, it is avoiding unscrupulous voters to cast more votes than allowed.

A solution to eradicate the problems regarding voter authentication is being implemented in Venezuela. Developed by Smartmatic, the Integrated Authentication System (SAI for its acronym in Spanish) uses the voters' biometric authentication (through fingerprint scanning) to verify the identity of the voter and allow him or her to cast their vote. The device receives each voter's ID number and fingerprint, and validates this data against the electoral roll. Only a valid identity from someone who has not previously voted, and is in fact eligible to vote, will activate the voting machine. This prevents identity theft and double voting, and guarantees the One Elector = One Vote principle. The system is a step forward from the automated electoral rolls being implemented in countries like Ghana and Cameroon.

Governments have an enormous responsibility towards their citizens and the overall democratic system when it comes to election administration. They must offer effective tools and technologies to ensure maximum levels of transparency and efficiency. Given the latest developments, biometric authentication is the next logical step to follow when election integrity is at stake. A manual poll book simply does not offer the levels of security and reliability that elections need. The example Venezuela is setting by using technologies like SAI, needs to be followed as it will shield the right to vote of the Venezuelan electorate.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Indonesia sets sights on automated elections in 2014

Indonesian Flag
In 2014, some 170 million people of Indonesia will troop to the polling precincts to elect their next president. For the first time, they will no longer be writing the names of their candidates on a paper ballot but would merely be pressing a button on a machine to cast their vote.

Indonesia hopes to be the second Southeast Asian country (after the Philippines) to shift from a manual elections to automated. While automation works for every country, it is many times more beneficial for a country as vast, hugely populated and as topologically-diverse as Indonesia. The General Election Commission (KPU) of Indonesia is leading the charge for automation, convinced that it would result to cost-effectiveness, faster vote-counting, increased auditability, and greater transparency.

While it requires a considerable amount of initial expenditure, automation is an investment the Indonesian government is well-advised to undertake. It would send a clear and strong signal to the electorate and to the international community that the country is determined to eliminate electoral fraud and ready to embrace the future of democracy.

Map of Indonesia
Indonesia’s last presidential election in 2009 was marred by allegations of fraud with at least two civil groups—Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, and Indonesian Women's Association for Justice—filing suits against the KPU and the government. Many national political parties have also branded the elections as unfair.

At the moment, election laws and regulations are being reviewed. Once the guidelines are in place, the KPU is set to embark on a massive information campaign designed to make the voters accept the changes.

Indonesia is currently looking at a number of suppliers to provide the technology for the ambitious automation project.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Once Again, Bulgaria Studies the Possibility of Adopting E-voting

Sofia. Image by Podoboq.

Bulgaria has been trying to implement e-voting in its electoral system for a long time. Trials were first announced in 2009, when e-voting was tested in nine polling stations in Sofia during the Parliamentary elections. However, it wasn’t introduced to the electoral system due to the ruling party’s shortsightedness, as they deemed the initial costs of its implementation too expensive. And even though the costs are indeed high, they should have kept in mind that in the long run the investment proves to be more beneficial and cheaper than the traditional manual systems due to elimination of paper ballot costs, transportation expenses and other services that are automated and don’t require hiring people to execute them.

Still, the National Assembly reconsidered e-voting and introduced an ad hoc interparliamentary group in order to draft a new Electoral Code that would be discussed in the Parliament. In 2010, the Parliament rejected the introduction of electoral technology again, but once more, it was a matter of wrong perspectives. The organization Voting Without Borders proposed an e-voting model to the Parliament that was met with snide comments. "I can predict, having in mind the problems in the current electoral process in Bulgaria that some municipalities will have a mayor elected a few days before the Election Day," said legislator Maya Manolova. Irregularities like this would not be a problem rooted in technology itself but in corrupt officers who are already mishandling political processes. What a fully auditable electronic voting system does is actually eliminate the risk of such mishaps.

Now, in 2012, the discussion has been brought up again. Bulgaria’s Blue Coalition is planning to back the petition for a referendum seeking e-voting since appeals to the Parliament have fallen into deaf ears. "The Blue Coalition has been demanding the introduction of electronic voting for years, but it has never happened. The main argument against it is that anonymity cannot be guaranteed, as well as whether one person will account for one vote," explains Asen Agov, once again showing how the lack of information has worked for the worst in Bulgaria.

Those in favor of e-voting for Bulgaria have sustained that it will make the country more democratic. Bulgaria is seeking desperately an end to its electoral corruption problems, and automating their voting system may be part of the solution to this burden. Many countries have already taken the big step toward safe and fair elections, it is about time Bulgaria loses its fear of change and does so as well.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Speed of automated polls counters fraud

The longer it takes for election results to be determined, the larger the window given to fraudsters to tamper with the results. While accuracy is the primary benefit of e-voting, speed is another compelling reason for automating a country’s electoral system.

Prior to its first automated polls in 2010, a prolonged period of indeterminacy was the norm in Philippine elections. Counting took days, and canvassing weeks or even months. In the precinct level, this encouraged fraud tactics such as ballot box-snatching. In the canvassing level, the problem got even worse where a tactic called “dagdag-bawas” (vote padding-vote shaving) was frequently employed by corrupt politicians to dramatically alter the results in their favor.

Dagdag bawas is the process of increasing the votes of a candidate by shaving the votes of the other candidates. This usually happens when canvassing precinct level counts into municipal counts, municipal counts into provincial counts, and from provincial counts into national counts. Since the alteration is exponential, the results can indeed be radically altered.

The slow manual system likewise put the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) at great risk of intimidation, injury and even murder.

The introduction of the PCOS machine in 2010 gave the Philippine electoral system a major credibility boost. Initial results were delivered just mere hours after the polls closed and many local officials were proclaimed as winners soon after.

The morning after the elections, Filipinos already had a clear indication of who their next president would be. A major presidential aspirant conceded two days which came as a pleasant surprise for Filipinos used to bitter wrangling which dragged on for months.

A few months after the elections, the survey firm Social Weather Station reported that an overwhelming 75% of Filipinos were satisfied with the automation project, citing speed as one of the major factors.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

From Manual to Automated Voting: How the PCOS is making the transition smoother for Filipinos

C├ęsar Flores, CEO of Smartmatic Asia Pacific, delivers PCOS machines in 2010 (Reuters)

Voters in countries undergoing a shift from manual to electronic voting often feel a deep ambivalence towards it. On the one hand, they are eager to embrace automation, knowing that it is the future of democracy. On the other hand, their long familiarity with the paper ballot has conditioned them to be more demanding in terms of the system’s auditability.

Because of this, many regard the Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines to be too big of a leap. DRE presents voters with a touch-screen which displays the names of the candidates. Voters do not write or shade anything but simply press an onscreen button to select their candidate. Even with a Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) which gives a printed interpretation of the voter’s choice, voters who are used to recording their votes indelibly onto a tangible paper ballot may still feel a little uneasy.

It is for this reason that the OMR or the Optical Mark Reader has found favour among countries in transition. This system involves the voter shading ovals on a paper ballot which he then feeds into an optical scanner. The tangible paper ballot may be used in a manual audit which imbues the whole process with the needed layer of credibility.

This phenomenon has been observed in the Philippines, which in 2010 held its very first automated general elections. While the Filipinos realized the need to go automated to eliminate the decades-old problem of electoral fraud, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) believed that Filipinos were not yet ready to give up the paper ballot. As a compromise, the election body decided to lease from Smartmatic a variety of OMR called the Precinct Count Optical Scanner (PCOS).

In spite of some minor technical details that need to be addressed, the elections were widely regarded as a success with many voters considering it to be most credible polls the country has ever had. The Commission was so impressed with the performance of the PCOS that it has decided purchase the machines, intending to use them for at least ten more years.