Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Worldwide acclaim of Venezuelan e-voting

Flag, by Guillermo Esteves

All eyes were set on Venezuela last October 7th as its citizens elected their president for the next 6 years through electronic means. With 55% of the votes, Hugo Chávez was declared winner against Henrique Capriles. The event received the biggest citizen participation in history: 80% of Venezuelans voted at this election. After this massive date with democracy, media outlets all around the world gave their approval to electoral technology, as Venezuela proved that nationwide automated elections are possible.

“Venezuela and its society are leading the Latin American electoral processes and technology,” were the first words from Prensa Latina, a Cuban press agency, after the elections. Meanwhile, the Dominican newspaper Hoy announced that e-voting was “the key to peaceful elections in Venezuela.” The Jamaica Gleaner pointed out the difference between the Latin American secure e-voting system and that used by the US, which has proved controversial over time: “Venezuela's electronic voting system is secure, transparent, and auditable - with multiple audits, involving all political parties, being carried out at each stage in the process. Unlike the controversial 'Diebold' machines used in recent US national elections, each vote yields a tangible paper receipt for verification or recount, and there is no 'electronic back door' to permit manipulation of the tallies.”

US media outlets also had their say about Venezuela’s electoral technology. CounterPunch, an American political newsletter, declared: “Free and fair elections are only one feature of a democracy, but in Venezuela, elections have become something more—a national project which knows no party and constitutes a major investment.” The media outlet added that “CNE’s anti-hacking and multiple transparent audit and identity authentication systems have put to rest past opposition claims of fraud.”

The news traveled all the way to Asia, where voices of approbation were immediately heard. In the Philippines, The Manila Standard Today expressed admiration for the positive way the elections turned out in Venezuela.

To see that a Latin American country is teaching the world how to hold a successful automated election is truly remarkable. Venezuela certainly has given a lesson on democracy and become an example to follow. We hope it will be only a matter of time until other nations understand it and apply it as well.

Monday, October 29, 2012

WTO, other big issues to decide Vanuatu polls

Vanuatu Flag.
Source: Wikipedia
In previous posts we have highlighted the important role automation played in the past national elections held in the Philippines in 2010. We have also mentioned the clear path to e-voting that Indonesia is taking. However, Vanuatu, which is another Asian archipelago, is heading towards a new general election in which technology will not play any role. We will see how the process unfolds and the level of legitimacy voters confer to the announced results in theses rather simple elections.

Voters in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu go to the polls on October 30, 2012 to elect their representatives in the 52-seat parliament. A number of issues could influence this year's vote, chief of which is the country's recent admission into the WTO.

The opposition, along with civil society, business chambers and church groups, is alleging that the government has made too many compromises in exchange for the WTO admission.  

Many fear that the deal would forbid Vanuatu from levying tariff on imports and has significantly reduced its ability to protect its own industries. 

The apprehension is by no means universal as some groups have expressed approval of the accession to the international trade body. However, Astrid Boulekone, general manager of the Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce and Industry said that the prevailing sentiment in the business sector is that of mistrust due to the lack of consultation before the accession.  She added that most people are unaware of what the WTO membership entails.  

"It's almost like the negotiations were conducted at the national level among senior government key officers, and that the private sector was not closely involved in the negotiation process," she said.

Aside from WTO, another important issue that could swing votes is Vanuatu's runaway cost of living which has outstripped salary levels. With prices of commodities spiraling upwards every quarter, middle and low income workers are finding it difficult to provide for their families. 

The phenomenon of urban migration is also causing an unexpected complication. An increasing number of people are moving into urban areas and yet with inadequate education, they are not able to get employment.  Education and job creation policies are shaping up to be another election battleground. 

With many young people turning voting age this year, Principal Electoral Officer Lawson Samuel said he expects a higher number of registered voters this year compared with the 152,043 registered in the 2008 polls. 

Voter turnout in Vanuatu is traditionally high, with the 1987 polls chalking up a record 83% turnout.  The last elections saw a voter turnout of 70.38%, still one of the highest in the world.  This year, with more young people getting involved in issues that affect them, election officials are projecting an even  higher number of voters will actually cast their ballots. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Electoral audits in the US: good, but not perfect

Auditability is one of the elements that makes e-voting attractive to institutions looking to ensure that their elections processes are transparent and accurate. According to Joseph Lorenzo Hall, senior staff technologist at The Center for Democracy & Technology, post-election audits are “the single most important development in election technology in recent years.” Many states in the US use some type of electronic voting, and so some of them carry out audits as well. 

Audits in the US examine the equipment and procedures used to count the votes. The aim of these audits is to make sure that both the election yielded the correct result and everyone involved in the process followed proceedings according to law. To this end, in most cases, one percent of the ballots are recounted by hand in order to compare the result to what was reported on election night. Also, aspects such as poll worker training and chain-of-custody protocols are assessed. 

When it comes to verifying results, recounting one percent of the ballots by hand can be cumbersome in some cases, as some counties are large enough to have 1% represent about 200,000 votes. Besides, one percent is a pretty arbitrary number that could be too much for a large victory margin or too little for a tight match. Thus, new statistically-based techniques have been developed to offer more accurate audits. One is called a “risk-limiting audit” (RLA), where the number of ballots to recount varies depending on the margin of the election. More votes should be counted where victory was attained by a small margin and only a small number of incorrectly counted ballots could make the difference. 

Some election officials don’t agree with having to run post-electoral audits due to budget cuts making it difficult to pay those who perform them and the fact that most of the times nothing irregular shows up at the inspections. What these people are not taking into account is that even if irregularities are uncommon, when they do happen it takes a great amount of money to perform a total recount, so in the long run, audits actually represent cost savings for the governments running them.

There are some flaws in the current American audit system. For example, two states that use DRE technology do not emit vote receipts (also known as paper trails), so it is unclear how they audit their polls. Besides, only 25 states out of 50 make post-election audits a requirement. This is because the choice on whether to make audits mandatory or optional is in the hands of the state legislator. Some say that audits will not stop identity theft, but people need to know their intent is reflected in the results of the elections they have participated in. 

E-voting is finding its way into the American voting system, but it needs to be understood and used well in order for it to solve the problems that manual voting is not solving. Some of the benefits of e-voting come from its auditability, no doubt. A well-implemented e-voting platform guarantees secure, transparent, and accurate elections, but for this to happen the auditability element cannot be removed nor only marginally implemented. 

Find more information about post-election audits in the US here.

Monday, October 22, 2012

E-voting, ready for any contingency

Image: xandert

Countries with an automated voting system can always trust that their election days will run smoothly. Millions of people attending thousands of polling stations all throughout the nation may sound like an uncontrollable situation, but the reliability of voting automation makes it possible to turn elections into a safe and easy exercise for citizens and authorities alike. Moreover, if something unexpected happens shortly before the event and a modification in schedules or candidate lists becomes necessary, e-voting is ready to adapt to these abrupt changes. This is one more of its many advantages over manual voting methods.

A country’s political panorama is not exempt from contingencies that can alter the course of its electoral calendar. For example, a candidate could be abruptly forced to abandon the electoral race, or a major event could force the government to suspend elections and hold them on another day. For manual voting, this would be a tragedy, as logistics demand enough anticipation for the printing and deployment of material in the different polling places. A sudden change would translate into the loss of millions of dollars in wasted material, and reprogramming the event would take a long time before everything is ready one more time.

E-voting, on the other hand, offers alternatives that are adaptable to last-minute changes. DRE machines do not need paper ballots, as voters make their choice on a touchscreen and information is stored electronically. Therefore, if something were to change in terms of options for candidates, the only thing to do would be to reprogram the voting machines with the new candidate list. This obviously takes much less time than having to produce a whole new batch of paper ballots, not to mention its cost-effectiveness.

It is worth mentioning, though, that the ease with which voting machines can be tailored to emergency modifications does not mean that the information they carry after ballots are cast can be modified as well. Voting machines are equipped with advanced encryption software that shields them from any attempt to interfere with elections. Besides, after the machines are delivered at the polling stations and tested for zero votes, they can only be activated by each voter through a biometric authentication device. This way, security and transparency are always guaranteed.

Elections carried out through manual voting must somehow trust that nothing will deviate from the established plan in order to keep their schedule and material intact. Unforeseen events that become a threat to manually performed polls are mere bumps on the road for electronic voting, always reliable and up to any challenge.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Technology makes it easier for youth to register to vote

Registering to vote is the first step every citizen must take in order to exert his or her right to suffrage. Now that general elections are coming in the US, it is important that people register to choose their next president. It is worth noting that people under 30 constitute the largest group of unregistered voters in most states. In order to close this gap and engage the youth in politics, there are different initiatives to bring them closer to the polling stations. 

Generally speaking, in order for an American citizen to vote, he or she must fill an application and mail it to the Supervisor of Elections at the voter’s county, and wait for a voter information card. This whole procedure takes a couple of weeks—give or take, depending on whether the application was mailed or submitted personally—, and varies from state to state. It is indeed cumbersome, and it constitutes one of the reasons why many people opt out of their right to elect and leave decisions to fate or chance. Of course, this is a bad mistake, and not few organisms are trying to change this condition. There are many campaigns out there trying to appeal to potential voters, especially the younger ones, and invite them to register to vote. However, publicity alone doesn’t always do the trick. Students and young workers are not as patient as to fill out paper forms, put them in an envelope, pay postage, and wait, nor they have the time to go to an office and do paperwork there. Fortunately, in some states, technology is on people’s side, and it is increasingly appealing to the younger population.

This year, a new law makes it possible for residents of California to register online. The effect of this new legislation has been immediate: since September 19, more than 25,000 people have registered to vote through the state website. More impressive yet is the fact that the first day the online application became available, 10,000 people registered to vote. As expected, the younger voters have dominated the use of the new tool. 

Image: FreeStockPhotos
Washington State, on the other hand, has released a Facebook app through which voters can register online. When asked about privacy issues, the co-director of elections for Washington, Shane Hamlin, explained that Facebook does not have access to users’ social security number nor their driver’s license number, and that Facebook is merely the tool that connects voters to the State Elections page.

Much of the advocating for young voters to register has been done by Rock the Vote. Rock the Vote is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization whose main objective is to engage young people and build their political power. Using the alluring power of music, popular culture, and new technologies, Rock the Vote seeks to give young voters tools to learn and take action about issues that affect their lives. The most important way they can do this is by voting. Right now, Rock the Vote offers a customizable voting registration tool that anyone can install on their website. This way, young bloggers become an active instrument in the exercise of democracy. 

There is no doubt that online tools are an effective way to get young people to come closer to their right to suffrage. However, the efforts must not stop at registering. The next step is getting people to actually vote.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Post-coup Maldives optimistic on e-voting

Image Source: www.freeflagicons.com
The island paradise of Maldives was rocked early this year by a political upheaval which forced its president Mohamed Nashed to resign.  The interim government took over amid extreme restiveness from the general populace and from the camp of the ex-president.

Nashed has accused the new leadership of bad faith, claiming that they have no intention to relinquish power and are, in fact, working to entrench themselves. The new government, however, had repeatedly reassured the nation that elections would be held in 2013. 

While majority of Maldivians are hoping that the new government makes good on its promise, the more progressive groups are optimistic that the leadership goes one step further and takes the Maldives elections to the digital age as to assure that the coming national elections are free and fair.  
There are hopeful signs that e-voting could happen soon in the Maldives.  According to various reports, the Maldives Elections Commission (MEC) is already seriously looking into the possibility of using the electronic voting machines (EVM's) from India for its next elections.

Fuad Thaufeeq, who heads the MEC, said the Indian-made voting machines could be suitable for the country with proper enhancements in the law.

“So far, we have been getting information from many countries in Europe, South America and Asia which have used these. Regionally, India, Nepal, and Bhutan have used the machines and we are also getting advice from them. Hopefully the system will work, but some laws will have to be changed and the public must support the decision,” said Thaufeeq.

As a matter of fact, India had offered Maldives a few hundred EVM's several years ago. Maldives, however, refused it at that time, saying that the timing wasn’t right yet as the Indian-made machines still had no printing capabilities. In addition, there were alarming claims made by University of Michigan researchers that they were able to manipulate results simply by sending text messages from a mobile phone to the machines.

As expected, Indian election officials vehemently contested such claim averring that their machines are some of the most tamper-proof EVM's in the world.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Venezuela pulls it through

Photo: (AP /Fernando Llano)
Last Sunday (October 7, 2012) Venezuela held a presidential election featuring six candidates. Since the very beginnings of the official campaign, three months ago, the voters’ intent was polarized towards two contenders, the incumbent President Hugo Chavez Frias, and Henrique Capriles Radonski, representing the Coalition for Democratic Unity (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD).

In spite of a heated campaign, which included radically contrasting proposals, and even physical violence between the opposing sides, the election ran smoothly and voters were able to cast votes in a peaceful and civic environment. Moreover, official results were published only minutes after last precinct closed. Around 10 pm, on Election Day, Hugo Chavez was declared winner with approximately 54% of the votes, and immediately after, Henrique Capriles conceded the defeat and congratulated the re-elected President.

Besides the fact that President Chavez, and his 14-year revolution, were in for review, the Venezuelan election caught the attention world-wide as the inclusion of the biometric identification system that initiates the voting session, made of this, the first end-to-end automated national election ever. The robust platform used in Venezuela comprised 39.018 Smartmatic voting machines, with its corresponding electronic ballot and fingerprint reader device. Also, the hardware was complemented with software solutions to create electoral instruments, monitor the development on Election Day, and consolidate and publish results.

In our opinion, the transparency, efficiency and accuracy of the robust automated platform used, played a key role in shielding the vote of Venezuelans, and providing uncontested results. All parties involved in the process participated in the seventeen audits and five test carried out prior to the event. Above all the security features the system includes, the voting machines provide a paper trail record for post electoral audits. Each voter has the possibility to verify his/her vote is recorded accurately through the printed version of the vote. Also, after polling stations closed, citizens and authorities audited approximately 53% of the machines by comparing the electronic results with the paper trails deposited in the ballot boxes. In the US, voting advocates are fighting to achieve the audit of 3%-5%, this gives you an idea of how audited the results are. With such level of scrutiny possible, there was little room for shenanigans.

During the months preceding the elections, the traditional Venezuelan opinion research firms, forecasted contrasting results. A few weeks before the election, both sides were very confident of their victory. However, as with every election, the results favored only one side. The audits performed to approximately 15,000 voting machines after polls closed confirmed the accuracy of results in 100%. Both, the digital results coincided with the paper trails. The audit mechanisms gave no room for interpretation.

In these elections, automation proved to be the way to go when political and social stability at stake.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Belgium makes a new bet on e-voting

Image: European Journalism Centre
Since the 1990s, Belgium has been incorporating technology to its elections to guarantee greater levels of efficiency. Together with Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, and France, Belgium tried different companies which offered an array of technologies. After poor performances by the deficient technology available at the time, and irresponsible providers willing to make business at the expense of authorities' genuine desire to improve election administration, most of the aforementioned nations went back to the old paper ballot and pencils that, although inefficient, kept electoral watchdog groups calmed.
However, Belgium insisted with the automation, and after a rigorous bidding process, a certification by independent agency PricewaterhouseCoopers of the solution in hand, and an actual field test with real voters trying the proposed solution, the nation announced, in November 2011, the signing of a contract with Smartmatic to automate the elections for the next fifteen years.

The new voting platform will be used for the first time during the October 14, 2012 provincial and municipal elections. Approximately three million voters from 155 cities and communes of Brussels and Flanders will express their opinion using 17,400 Voting Machines deployed in 3,346 polling stations. These voting machines are part of a voting platform designed by Smartmatic under the specific directions of the Belgium electoral authorities. Besides the voting machines, it includes, 3,700 President Machines which serve as the information source of ballot definition, and accumulator for consolidating results, 3,700 electronic ballot boxes, and 17,300 Smart Cards.

A commitment for 15 years is certainly a sign of the confidence Belgium has on the solution it created together with Smartmatic. The company, which also automates election in Venezuela, the Philippines, and provides services to Brazil, and other countries, has a one-of-a-kind opportunity to demonstrate its ability to customize solutions while guaranteeing the levels of transparency and accuracy citizens deserve.

We will soon see if e-voting manages to make its way through this time around.

Monday, October 1, 2012

7 facts about the Venezuelan Presidential election

Photo: Birmingham Respect blog
1) On October 7, 2012, Venezuela will elect a President for the 2013-2019 term. Hugo Chávez Frias, Henrique Capriles Radonski, Reina Sequera, Luis Reyes, María Bolívar, and Orlando Chirino, are the six candidates that 18.903.143 Venezuelans registered to vote will choose from.  

2) In total, the Venezuelan Electoral Council (CNE) has made available voting stations for 13,810 polling centers which will serve 39,322 precincts. Of these voting stations, 304 are located in the 126 diplomatic offices Venezuela has around the world. All 100,495 Venezuelans registered to vote abroad, will vote manually. 

3) To accurately capture the preferences of voters, Venezuela’s electoral authority, in partnership with multinational Smartmatic, will set up and deploy 39,018 touch-screen voting machines. Each machine will be connected to a touch sensitive electronic ballot and a biometric fingerprint device. 

4) This will be the first national election in the world with biometric activation of the voting session. Using a biometric fingerprint reader, the system will automatically authenticate the identity of the voter and activate the voting session.

5) Previous to the election, the voting machine, its electronic components and the voting, summing, tabulating and adjudication software will have been subjected to the most demanding security tests and controls, totaling more than 17 audits and 2 simulation processes. The installed software is to be jointly certified by the electoral authority and the political parties. 

6) After the polls close, the CNE, the various political parties, international companions and national observers as well as representatives from the civil society are due to perform a closing random audit comprising 54% of the voting machines (matching each machine’s Precinct Count Report vs. the manual count of all paper ballots deposited into the respective ballot boxes).

7) After the CNE publishes a first bulletin with official results, all the data is broadcast over the Internet.