Wednesday, September 26, 2012

USA vs. Brazil – Two models of election administration

Brazil will have municipal elections next month
(Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)
Brazil and the United States of America are the two most populated countries in the Western hemisphere. Between them, they add up to more than 510,400,000 million people, out of which approximately 380,000,000 are of voting age. Together with India, they formed the pioneering triad in the adoption of voting technology during the last score of the previous century. Another curious similarity is the fact that each of both nations is a federation of states with a republican form of government, which implies that the different states forming these republics have a considerable amount of sovereignty.  

In spite of coincidences, the way these republics conduct elections is radically different. The long debate between centralization vs. decentralization of the public administration is easily palpable when analyzing the way in which elections have been carried in Brazil and the US for the last twenty years. 

Since its founding fathers joined efforts to declare independence in 1776, the United States has made of the empowerment of each province, county, jurisdiction, or state to decide its future a point of honor. As a result of the decentralization of decision making, the nation has approximately 4,600 jurisdictions administering elections. Each State has its own rules as to how to best register voters, who is eligible to participate in elections, what the voting system is to be used, etc. Ten years ago, the country was using simultaneously all of the available technologies across the 51 States: punch cards, lever machines, optical scanners, and direct recording electronic voting machines. Vendors had scarce parameters to follow, and election officials lacked the preparation or necessary training to properly manage their relations with technology providers. As time passed, the US electoral administration system showed significant weaknesses. For example, during the 2000 General Election, the country had to wait over a month to have the Supreme Court declare the winner.  This incident triggered considerable reforms from Congress and the White House. To enhance accuracy, efficiency and transparency of elections, the Help America Vote Act was signed into law by President Bush in 2002. As a result, punch cards and lever machines were replaced with better technology; access to voting was improved for citizens with disabilities, and the Electoral Assistance Commission (EAC) was created. This step towards centralization (EAC) has rendered positive results, but since the EAC can only make recommendations to jurisdictions and states, and cannot force them to comply, the impact has not been sufficient. 

In the other side of the spectrum appears the giant from the South. Brazil chose to centralize decision making for election related matters as early as 1932. Since, a single authority has overseen the compliance with laws and regulations across the 16 states that comprise the federation. This high degree of discretion paved the way for seamless election automation in Brazil. The Tribunal Superior Eleitoral (TSE), Brazil's highest election administration agency, introduced computerized tallying of results in 1982, automation of voter registration in 1985, and adopted a unique Electronic Voting platform for the entire nation in 1996. Critics of the Brazilian election administration system point out the lack of sufficient citizen participation in decision making. Several studies have been signaling the need to upgrade voting machines to include a Voter-Verified Paper Trail. The printing of a receipt reflecting what a voting machine has recorded, would allow voters to verify that their choices are duly registered and counted accordingly.

The centralization vs. decentralization debate is far from over.  However, when it comes to election administration, the general tendency is to centralize decision making. Venezuela, which is another country with remarkable developments in terms of automation and conducting elections, can be an interesting case to study. The Consejo Nacional Electoral is a government agency with a rank theoretically as high as that of the Judiciary, Legislative, or Executive powers. With such preeminence of the electoral agency, and due to the highly auditable end-to-end automated election system in use, Venezuela has dramatically improved the transparency, accuracy and efficiency of its elections.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Auditability of e-voting strengthened by vote receipts

Image: FreeStockPhoto

Auditability is one of the main characteristics of a safe and reliable e-voting system. Some say that the main advantage of manual voting over electronic voting is that there is physical evidence of each and every ballot cast, but the truth is that the best electoral technology not only stores the electronic record of each vote, but also includes a printed version of it. This makes e-voting even more auditable than any election carried out through manual methods.

A Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), or vote receipt, is the printed version of the ballot cast by a citizen over the touchscreen on the voting machine. Voters can check that the vote marked on the vote receipt matches the one given on the machine before introducing it into a box. The stored vote receipts will be used to manually verify electronic results when closing audits are performed. This way,
manual voting’s possibility to physically account for every vote is combined with all the benefits of e-voting.

2004 marked the first time that vote receipts were used in a national election, when the referendum to remove President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela was carried out. The addition of vote receipts to the automated electoral solution provided by Smartmatic was essential to monitor and confirm results from this electoral exercise. Later in 2007, the citizens of Curacao were able to exert suffrage through
electronic voting using Smartmatic’s auditable solution in a speedy and secure way, backed up by vote receipts to ensure complete auditability. Of the 74,342 registered votes at the election, not one was voided due to technology failures.

A robust e-voting platform already has many benefits that make it dependable: the protection of voter anonymity, the impossibility of it to be tampered with due to its strong data encryption software, and the speed of its automated precinct count, which yields results the same day the election is carried out. However, when it comes to shielding democracy, there is no such thing as too much security. Auditing must be done at all instances, including if possible one where electors can participate and serve as witnesses of the accuracy of results. This way, the exercise of democracy is validated not only by international representatives who act as electoral monitors, but also by the citizens themselves.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The US voting technology market

Cartoon: John Cole
At this point in time, only a few nations still question the importance of market competition to nurture a challenging environment that stimulates creativity, inventiveness, new processes, new methods, new technologies, and ultimately better products. Over the course of history, and especially during the last century, countries that have implemented market oriented economic reforms have seen substantial economic growth and developed a healthy private sector. 

However, history has also proven that markets do not always work efficiently when left to themselves. Since the early beginning of the oil industry during the last decades of the 19th century, the United States of America understood the need to create a proper framework of policies and legislation to foster the kind of competition that promotes thriving economies. Nowadays the United States' federal government enforces competition through the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission.

The US voting technology market has seen in recent years a worrisome tendency towards industry consolidation. There are two major competitors; ES&S and Dominion Voting, which when combined hold at least 70% of market share. By means of aggressive acquisitions, and propelled by the $ 3.2 billion the US Federal Government infused into the market, these companies have enjoyed unprecedented growth. As a consequence of all of these rearrangements, competition has been significantly reduced and customer freedom of choice hampered. Nowadays there is little innovation, and service quality is far from what election administration deserves.

A study conducted by Lauren Norden in 2010 for the Brennan Center for Justice titled "Voting System Failures" points out dozens of scandals involving some of the most important vendors of voting technology in the US. The grim picture depicted has not changed much since. Just recently, in March 2012, a software glitch by Dominion Voting's platform gave the victory to the wrong candidate.

In the hopes of improving the voting market condition, and expressing antitrust concerns, the U.S. Department of Justice repealed the purchase of Premier Election Solutions (PES) by Election Systems & Software (ES&S) in 2010. PES was later sold to Canadian firm Dominion Voting Inc. In June 2010, Dominion acquired Sequoia Voting Systems and then put that company into bankruptcy after absorbing its proprietary technology. 

At the moment, and despite the Federal Government's efforts, innovation and service quality are lacking due to an uncompetitive market. Hopefully, in the years to come the United States will manage to lower market barriers and promote the healthy competition that has helped to make this country a world economic superpower.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

US Election 2012: What’s at stake

The Capitol. Source: FreeDigitalPhotos

The choice of a new president for the US is not just one between two candidates, but one between two different visions of the country. Two visions that point at a bleak outlook. The problems—an almost stagnant economy, high unemployment rates, the deplorable state of the education system, troops still in Afghanistan—are obvious and unavoidable. America is in desperate need for real solutions, and
hopefully whoever gets chosen between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will provide some, if not all of them. Let’s take a look at the current panorama.

Economy and Unemployment
Americans consider this the main trouble burdening the country. The recession ended in 2009, but the economy does not seem to grow yet, three years later. Total national debt is larger than it has ever been since WWII. Unemployment rates, which are already high, are on the verge of rising even more. Obama intends to keep taxes low for everybody except the wealthiest, give tax breaks to businesses, and spend on public works and clean energy. Romney, on the other side, proposes cuts in tax rates for all income levels and cuts in corporate rates, as well as encouraging oil production.

The U.S. education system is in dire need of a transformation. The quality of primary schooling is not quite up to global standards, with less teachers and larger class sizes. On the other hand, higher education costs are leaving students buried deep in debt, that is, if they are able to afford college at all. State budget cuts have affected the quantity (and quality) of teachers, and are ultimately affecting students. The candidates are using this sensitive issue as a means to set philosophical distance from each other. Obama, for example, mentioned on a speech that he and his wife had only been able to pay off their student loans eight years ago, whereas Romney had advised a high school student in Ohio to borrow money from her parents, ignoring the fact that not all parents actually have that money to lend. It’s up to the government to step up and really help the American youth on their path to a professional career.

The increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan has gone on and on for years, and trillions of dollars have been spent to that end. Now, the deployment of American forces in the Asian country has entered a transition phase where power is being handed over to the Afghans, but this transition seems slow. Nevertheless, if everything goes according to plan, the troops should be going home by the end of 2014. Both candidates agree on the timeline proposed for troop withdrawal, although the question about possible future Al-Qaeda attacks still lingers in the air.

With these important points on the table, it is crucial that people register to vote and do so consciously. The winner of this election, no matter if it is Obama or Romney, must earn his post in a fair electoral process. Voting, as the cornerstone of democracy, is the first step towards a brighter future for a country in crisis. It must not be taken lightly.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

After successful pilot, future of e-voting in Bangladesh looks uncertain

In 2008, millions of Bangladeshis were eagerly queued to vote
on the country's first election in seven years. Photo: Abir Abdullah/EPA

Peaceful, credible and transparent elections. These ideals have eluded Bangladeshi voters who for decades have been resigned to poll fraud and the attendant violence. Last year, however, two cities have had a taste of a possible breakthrough.   

For the first time, voters of Chittagong and Narayanganj elected their new leaders using electronic voting machines (EVMs). Many voters regarded their first experience with automated elections very positively. 

According to the article entitled “EVM passes with flying colours” (Rizanuzzaman Laskar, Daily Star, October 31, 2011),  voters praised the machines as  “quick”, “convenient” and “easy-to-use.”

The article further reports about a 105-old man named Jahedul Haque Bhuiyan who exclaimed that voting using the EVM was the most fun he has  ever had in any election. A 19-year old first-time voter, Suraiya Islam enthused that voting was fun “like playing a video game!”

Aside from the high degree of voter satisfaction, the results of the automated elections in the two cities were widely accepted. This was in stark contrast with the unrest that marred fraud-ridden elections in the past years. These positive developments have led observers to hail the exercise a huge success.

Given the impressive results of the pilot implementations, EVM's seem to be a logical choice for the country’s next general elections. However, it is not smooth sailing for automated elections as the Elections Commission has seemed to have had second thoughts about using the EVM's countrywide.  

The reason? Dominant opposition party BMP, citing reliability issues, has manifested its strong objection against the use of EVM's for the general elections.

There might be valid reasons for the BMP to oppose the nationwide use of EVM's. After all, ensuring a level playing field is always of paramount concern among political parties.  But every stakeholder in Bangladesh would be well advised to keep in mind that electronic voting is in its infancy in their country.  Most likely, the issues being raised are nothing that cannot be remedied in time for the next elections.

The elections in Chittagong and Narayanganj have shown that automation works in Bangladesh. Before shutting the door completely on EVM’s the Election Commission should consider that the benefits of automated elections far outweigh the costs that might be incurred to make sure that a reliable and secure system is in place.

Monday, September 10, 2012

How to Successfully Automate an Election

When properly implemented, e-voting brings a substantial improvement of the government’s ability to serve its citizens with transparency and efficiency. Note the words “when properly implemented.”

It’s important to remember that the adoption of voting technologies is not limited to the mere usage of voting machines. In order for these devices to be used correctly, offer seamless performance during the electoral event, and yield accurate results, a good voting technology company requires a series of suitable actions and adequate software.. But what does this all mean? Let’s take a look at the process that will ensure a successful election when a country decides to implement e-voting.

Once the implementation of e-voting is approved by the government, a tender process begins to select the company that will provide the technology. Good e-voting companies should have a perfect track record that speaks for them. They also need to guarantee that their e-voting solution will be tailored to the specific needs of the country, as electoral activities and legal frameworks are different in every nation. Needless to say, transparency should be key in the bidding process, as it is precisely part of what the e-voting company is offering.

After a company is selected, it is expected that it prepares, executes and delivers the project on time and on budget. This requires skilled and experienced consultants and best practices to be proven effective. Here, the company’s past experience is critical to determine if it is up to the challenge of handling the elections they have been hired for.

A good e-voting company provides support and operation centers capable to solve any field contingency, information and communication systems and software for real time monitoring, well-defined logistics for deployment and withdrawal of equipment, and available training, documentation and course materials. Furthermore, the company must allow for audits to be performed before, during and after the election.

Now, what is needed in order to carry out a successful election, equipment-wise? The voting machine cannot operate on its own, so adequate software must be installed for a user-friendly voter experience. Also, an e-counting system must be integrated to eliminate manual vote counting, which is cumbersome and could be laded with human error. Additional features are an added value that an above-average e-voting company will offer. Some of these include biometric authentication systems, which enhance security and protect the one voter, one vote principle.

As we can see, many factors come to play when it comes to automating an election. Electronic voting is an important step for the benefit of democracy in which the quality of the electoral technology company selected will reflect on the quality of the electoral process.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

ID at the Polling Station

As the world moves towards greater levels of efficiency and transparency in election administration, electoral authorities have had to work with legislative bodies to accommodate the necessary reforms of legal frameworks to make those improvements possible. Such is the case of countries like the Philippines, Belgium, Mongolia, Estonia, Switzerland, which have introduced important technological solutions to their election systems lately.

Surprisingly, the United States of America, a nation which has been an inspiration to democracies around the world is still tangled in a political debate that is hindering progress on a much needed election administration transparency. The lack of a non-partisan centralized institution managing elections is hurting the nation’s ability to conduct fair and transparent electoral processes.

The voter ID requirement is a clear example of the faulty electoral system the US has and the problem of partisan election bodies represent. For decades, the country has struggled to strike a balance point between voter enfranchisement and election transparency, between access and integrity. The core of the controversy lies behind the tendency among Republicans to consider that requiring ID to citizens at the polling station before voting is a valid measure to prevent voter impersonation and increase voter confidence, while, on the other hand, many Democrats believe the measure is a political strategy to disenfranchise eligible voters and a form of vote suppression of the minorities, which “coincidentally” vote democrat.

For the last couple of decades, many Republican senators, congressmen and governors, have claimed that electoral fraud has occurred persistently in many US counties. However, they have failed to compile irrefutable evidence of such fraud accusations. Democrats believe fraud, although existing, is non-relevant and that the voter identification laws which Republicans favor will do more harm than good as they will not deter significant amounts of fraud.

In this regard, the United States of America, could very well look up to Venezuela, a country which has a central authority assuming the responsibility of granting everyone the right to vote (more than 90% of eligible voters are registered). Moreover, the South American country will become the first nation in the world activating the voting session by means of a biometric identification device. Venezuela will soon be able to guarantee the one voter one vote principle.

As a curious note, Venezuela and the United States will be holding Presidential elections only a month apart (October and November) between an incumbent president and a contesting candidate. However, the state-of-the-art solution (developed by Smartmatic) Venezuela will be using to authenticate voters is radically different from the authentication procedures used in the US.