Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Technology makes it possible to vote from space

Sunita Williams at the International Space Station. Source:
Last November 6th, Sunita Williams cast her ballot for the US presidential elections, just like millions of other Americans did. There is a small detail about this apparently mundane fact, though: she had the option to do it in outer space.

Sunita Williams is an astronaut on board the International Space Station. While she and her colleague Kevin Ford chose to vote from Russia before heading to space, other astronauts don’t have to fret over not being on Earth to cast their vote. This is thanks to a 1997 bill, which has made it possible for astronauts to use technology to exert their right to suffrage even when they are away in orbit. This measure has benefited several people already, and the effectiveness of its implementation points out at the need to modernize voting in order to make it easier for everyone to vote, no matter how geography or mobility affects them. There has been some advancement toward this goal with the implementation of the absentee ballot, but it’s not enough yet.

Absentee ballots have been the answer to citizens’ potential mobility problems. Sometimes it’s impossible for a citizen to reach his or her appointed polling station due to health problems or to being abroad. In order not to lose this potential voter’s ballot and increase voter turnout altogether, various nations have enabled different models of absentee ballots: proxy voting (someone is appointed to vote in the elector’s stead), postal voting, and e-voting.

Voting in outer space is carried out through a form of e-voting involving secure e-mail connections. Mission control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston beams up a digital version of the ballot card for the astronauts to fill up, and they beam it back to Earth via secure e-mail. It wouldn’t be crazy to think that it won’t be long before voting technology is adapted to space stations in order for astronauts to vote exactly the way they would on our planet. 

With e-voting, the right to suffrage reaches out to citizens in such a way that even those in outer space can vote. If the most extreme scenario for accessibility is already possible, why aren’t we making it easier for people in less remote areas to vote? They, too, have the need for voting technology in order to make their voice heard.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Nigeria, electronic voting for a transitioning nation

An electoral official arranges ballot papers in Uyo, Nigeria, on April 26, 2011.
(Photo: AP/Christian Science Monitor)
On September 20, 2012, Kofi Annan, Chair of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, and former Secretary-General of the United Nation, published in CNN an article titled Why we should grade countries on their elections.

Kofi Annan stated "Democracy is a universal value and aspiration, unbound by region, ethnicity, culture or religion. In the last two decades, it has spread across the world in unprecedented ways.

Elections are fundamental to the ethos and principles of democracy. They provide citizens with a say in the decisions that affect them and governments with a legitimate authority to govern. When elections are credible, free and fair, they can help promote democracy, human rights and security.

But when elections are fraudulent, as we have seen in a number of countries, they can trigger political instability and even violence. This means that for democracy to fulfill its potential as a means of peacefully resolving social and political conflict, the integrity of elections is crucial."

Nigeria is a great example to illustrate the ideas Mr. Annan vividly expressed in his article. Since 1999, the nation has been experiencing a difficult transition process, from a 30-year dictatorial military regime that ruled the nation to a functional democracy. Although democracy became the preferred governing system around the world during the last few decades, nations are still struggling to conduct fair, free and transparent elections. Nigeria is no exception.

Throughout time, Nigerian elections were marred with all sorts of irregularities. Not too long ago, in 2007, Human Rights Watch researchers found evidence of vote-rigging throughout the country. "Instead of guaranteeing citizens' basic right to vote freely, Nigerian government and electoral officials actively colluded in the fraud and violence that marred the presidential polls in some areas," said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "In other areas, officials closed their eyes to human rights abuses committed by supporters of the ruling party and others."

In spite of the long history of government abuses, Nigeria has made some progress in election administration. In April 11, the most populous nation in Africa, held a series of electoral process deemed by international observers as a great step forward.

A clear determination to hold credible elections, and strengthen their democracy, allowed Nigeria to conduct a process in which, the ruling party and opposition won seats in the parliament, and some incumbent congressmen lots theirs. Just like in any modern and civilized democracy.

Julia Hedlund, IFES Program Manager in Nigeria, stated in an interview, that the outcome was well received by Nigerians and observers. The INEC, Nigeria's electoral body, undertook certain steps that made the difference. Two of those steps that stand out were the revision of the voter register, and the inclusion of Biometric technology. Technology, a factor bringing accuracy, efficiency and transparency to election administration throughout the world, was key to what might be considered Nigeria's first truly democratic elections in this new era.

As Nigeria moves forward, and continues transitioning towards a more stable, representative and fair democracy, authorities from INEC must consider expanding the use of technology to grant the elections with the level of transparency and legitimacy needed to build trust in institutions and the overall system. Legitimate results are paramount to any country trying to build a democracy in the wake of a long dictatorship.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The importance of biometric authentication today

Biometric authentication strengthens the security of e-voting
(Photo Smartmatic)
“One voter, one vote” is a principle central to the preservation of democracy. Based on it, governments have strived to improve their electoral systems. With the advent of electoral technology, biometric authentication has become a solution that prevents identity theft and vote stuffing. This system has already been used in Venezuela with excellent results, and it could be employed as well in the US.

For the past decade, Venezuela has been at the cutting edge of electoral technology and has continued to gain the admiration of the world with the implementation of new tools to reinforce its advantages. The technology used by the Latin American country at the presidential election this year guaranteed that the ballots cast reflected the intent of each real citizen who attended the polling stations. With the Integrated Authentication System (SAI), each voter had to be identified through a fingerprint scan in order to activate the machine and exert his or her right to suffrage. The procedure was always explained to each and every voter by a delegate from the polling station, and there were extensive drills before the elections to get citizens accustomed to the use of the machine.

Biometric authentication is not a terribly complex procedure, and yet it strengthens the security of e-voting and safeguards its transparency. As we’ve stated in previous posts, the simplest benefit of biometric identification is that it helps prevent dead people from voting, which is the oldest form of identity theft. For this reason, other countries have also begun to think about implementing this form of technology. In the US, the debate is on.

In spite of the recurring cases of fraud in US elections, some political sectors are convinced that requiring an ID at the polling station is equivalent to disenfranchising the minorities, who represent a significant portion of the voting population. As discussed here, it all boils down to a problem of balance between access and integrity. Are governments meant to grant access to suffrage to as many people as possible, even if many of these people will not be alive or even real when they are not required to confirm their identity in order to vote? If so, how can countries guarantee their citizens that their intent is being reflected in the results of their elections? How could the unrestricted access to vote—and fraud—aid in the construction and preservation of democracy?

Biometric authentication is not meant to be a weapon to disenfranchise citizens. On the contrary, it is a tool to give citizens the certainty and relief that it is their real voice that is being heard when election results are revealed. Now that Venezuelan elections using biometric authentication have been carried out with positive results, the US might want to look up how simple yet effective voter identity authentication has been.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Audits guaranteed transparency in Venezuelan elections

Diplomatic body accredited in Venezuela audited voting machines
(Photo AVN)
We’ve emphasized many times how important it is for elections processes carried out with e-voting to be audited in order to offer maximum reliability to both governmental institutions and citizens. Venezuela is a great example to follow in this matter, as this year it celebrated its presidential elections for the 2013-2019 period, and the voting platform used was subjected to multiple audits both before and after the electoral exercise.

According to the National Electoral Council (CNE), the highest electoral authority in the country, audits were performed on the following aspects of the election: voting machine manufacturing, e-voting software, machine pre-delivery check, infrastructure, biometric authentication system (SIA), production of the biometric authentication system, data transmission network, vote tallying, election closure, voting minutes, post-election phase, printed registries, and indelible ink. These inspections guaranteed the transparency of the election where incumbent President Hugo Chávez was reelected with 54% of the votes.

Pre-election audits were conducted from August 13th to October 6th, one day before the big event. The audits were performed by CNE representatives and delegates from the political parties. Some sectors were concerned about whether the voting machines would guarantee vote secrecy, but electoral technology is one step ahead, and audits proved that there was nothing to fear. The random reallocation of votes is the mechanism the machines use to maintain this crucial part of suffrage, and the auditors put it to the test exhaustively. Another noteworthy ingredient to add to the advantages of e-voting regarding its auditability is the fact that the voting machines print vote receipts on paper, which are used to confirm the results obtained electronically. Vote receipts also served as tools for citizens to become auditors as well. Post-election audits were carried out on October 8th, 15th and 16th.

Jimmy Carter, former US president and founder of the Carter Center, remarked that there is no electoral system in the world with as many audits as Venezuela. According to Carter, Venezuela’s electoral system is the world’s safest and most transparent, as its high-security mechanisms block any outside attempts of manipulation and citizens can verify through the vote receipts that their selection was stored in the machine.

The multiple guarantees regarding auditability that e-voting offers are, among other benefits, the reasons why it should be the cardinal method to carry out an election. The South American nation is a role model of democracy adopting technology.

Monday, November 12, 2012

“We have to fix that”

Long lines at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library
on Election Day in Washington, DC (Getty Images)

During his acceptance speech on early Wednesday morning, reelected President Barack Obama addressed the need to fix the US electoral system. Speaking before a crowd of cheerful supporters, he said "I want to thank every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time, or waited in line for a very long time, by the way, we have to fix that."

Although this was probably one of the few times the electoral system has been part of an acceptance speech, the problems encountered are not new. Since the Butterfly Ballot scandal in 2000, hundreds of incidents have been reported by authorities of all levels, election watchdog groups, media and citizens.

These elections were marred by long lines across the country, but especially in Florida, Ohio and Virginia. Poorly trained election officials were misguiding voters in relation to ID requirements to vote. Deficient voting machines, like the one caught on a video in Pennsylvania giving Romney votes cast for Obama, also made the voting experience cumbersome.

Although President Obama’s intent is quite plausible, the road in which he is about to embark might turn bumpier than expected. HAVA, the Electoral Assistance Commission, Universities across the nation, ONG’s, have all made considerable efforts to improve the US electoral system, yet they have been unsuccessful confronting the conflict of interests that exist between States and the Federal Government, and the inconvenient level of partisanship that electoral bodies have shown across the nation.

In a recent interview by Rachel Maddow, Rick Hasen, Professor of Law and Political Science at UC Irvine, and author of "The Voting Wars," made it quite clear. Although the constitution provides the mechanisms to create a national authority to advance the reforms needed, the political will from all stakeholders to produce such transformation is still missing.

Rachel Maddow articulately stated “voting is a Federal issue, with federal laws to protect it…. Elections are a state affair”. Congress has on its hand the possibility to transform the system, however, letting congress, or any other institution conduct elections, would mean letting go some power and attributions the States hold at the moment. Looking at recent history, both parties have been imposing over the population all kinds of laws and regulations to affect the voter base of the other party. It is part of the Voting War Hasen mentions in his book. For example, and according to Professor Hasen, long lines were a deliberate effort by Republicans to depressing democratic turnout. By cutting back on the number of days and hours early voting was available, Republicans were, allegedly, hurting democratic votes.

In Florida, Republican Governor Rick Scott, signed a law shortening the number of days for early voting to eight from 14. This was one of the main reasons it took Floridians so long to vote and to obtain results.

If Obama is to take Mr. Hasen’s recommendation, he has to create the political momentum to have Congress assume the authority granted by the constitution to set rules for congressional elections. Then, he could proceed to ask States to follow the path of Congress.

In spite of the threat posed by a possible fiscal meltdown, a nationwide debate on the healthcare reform, and a lagging economy, Obama must find the time and energy to impose the political agenda needed to fix the electoral system, if the US is to continue showcasing its democracy as an example to follow.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Pre-electoral audits, a missing piece in the integrity of the US election system

The 2000 elections were a turning point in the way elections are administered in the US. After the contested race between Al Gore and George W. Bush had to be decided by the US Supreme Court almost a month after Election Day, numerous initiatives such as the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), the creation of the Electoral Assistance Commission, and the proliferation of watchdog and electoral transparency groups, dramatically improved the electoral landscape of the US.

In spite the progress, there is still room for improvement. Audits, a crucial step to certify the correctness of election outcomes, are still scarce and do not cover, in most cases, the electoral process in its entirety.  

At the moment, audits standards and procedures refer mostly to the process of hand-counting a sufficiently large random sample of the cast paper ballots and contrasting it with the digital record electronic voting machines provide. Although post-electoral audits are important, instead of focusing only in detecting fraud, a greater emphasis should be placed on preventing malfeasance of any kind of error from happening.

According to Verified Voting, the most important benefits of a thorough audit processes are:
  • Revealing when recounts are necessary to verify election outcomes.
  • Finding error whether accidental or intention.
  • Deterring fraud.
  • Providing for continuous improvement in the conduct of elections.
  • Promoting public confidence in elections.
Voting technologies, which continues to gain popularity across the 3,600 jurisdictions of the US, provide numerous opportunities to review the components of the voting systems, and guarantee that the outcome of the electoral processes exactly reflect the will of voters. Those opportunities should be exploited. From the configuration of the electoral roll and electronic pollbooks, passing through the creation of voting instruments, source code of voting machines, and post electoral audit, every step of the election should be audited.

During the 2012 general elections, more than half of the states conducted post-election audits, however, authorities have not agreed on how to enforce pre-electoral audits. The focus of authorities has been on certifying that the technology in use complies with the minimum standards, but little or no attention has been given to each election and especially to the numerous steps of the electoral cycle preceding the event.

As voting technologies continue to spread around the world, a considerable body of knowledge is being developed. The US should take advantage of this by sharing experiences with Brazil, Belgium, the Philippines, Venezuela or Estonia, and every other nation trying to improve election administration through the adoption of technological solutions. Venezuela stands out as an example of what can be done in terms of pre-electoral audits. In a recent article published, available at, Eugenio Martinez (a seasoned Venezuelan reporter) points out that for the Presidential Elections in Venezuela, before Election Day, more than 17 audits were performed to certify all elements of the voting platform worked properly. This was one of the main reasons why a contested election, in the midst of a heated campaign and a highly polarized political environment, ended with immediate official results being accepted by all parties minutes after polls closed. Reviewing the Venezuelan voting platform and developing ties with Venezuelan electoral authorities and its technology provider Smartmatic could be a great start. The US cannot afford another electoral meltdown as it has all the means to avoid it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The 2012 US general elections, a historic view

This marked the 57th quadrennial presidential election for the United States
Doug Mills/The New York Times
Yesterday, November 6th, 2012 Barack Obama became the 15th US President to be reelected for two consecutive presidential terms. Only Franklin Delano Roosevelt has had more than two terms (1932-1945). 

CNN’s preliminary data shows a turnout of approximately 56% of the voting-age population. Although, this reflects a decrease in relation to the 2008 general elections, the overall trend showing a steady increase prevailed. Two demographic groups that seem to have played an important role in Obama’s favor are young voters and Hispanics. According to the most recent information available, young voters (ages 18-29) and Hispanics increased their participation in 1% as compared to 2008. Obama managed to capture 60% of young voters and 71% of Hispanics this time around. 

Joe Biden was again Obama’s Vice President candidate. From all Presidents US has had since George Washington’s first presidency from 1789 to 1797, 37 were chosen in elections. John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Chester A. Arthur, Andrew Johnson, Calvin Coolidge, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald R. Ford, succeeded incumbent Presidents following their abandonment of office due to illness, death, or in the unique case of Ford, Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.

According to USA Today, President Obama won by a margin of 97 electoral votes (303 to 206). In 1936, Franklin Roosevelt defeated Alf Landon by the biggest difference ever recorded in a US election, 515 electoral votes. The smallest difference in electoral votes occurred during the 1824 presidential elections in which Andrew Jackson had only 15 electoral votes over his closest contender. The decision was taken into the House of Representatives which decided to appoint John Quincy Adams as President.

In terms of popular votes, President Obama obtained an approximate 2% margin over Mitt Romney. Only 5 presidents have received a greater number of popular votes but lost in electoral colleges. The last one being Al Gore during the 2000 elections. In 1876, Rutherford Hayes defeated Samuel Tilden with a difference in popular vote of 1 vote.

Obama is the 21st Democrat President. Republicans have managed to win the presidency with 22 candidates. Only 4 presidents in the history of the US have lead this nation coming from parties other than the Democratic or Republican parties. It is important to mention that two independent candidates, Angus King and Bernie Sanders, managed to obtain seats in the Senate.

In spite the difficulties presented by Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast Cost, the US managed to pull out another successful election. Mitt Romney, the losing candidate from the Republican Party conceded defeat around 1:30 am on November 7, 2012.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Technological solutions to the problems of voter authentication

Voter authentication was successfully
used in the last Venezuelan elections. Source: EFE
A report called What Has Changed, What Hasn't, & What Needs Improvement, covering different topics on the state of the US voting system, and how technology can contribute to improve election administration, was recently made public by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. The pool of authors, which includes scholars, students and prominent guest participants, compiled a vast amount of research material which we will review in future posts as we find it to be perfectly aligned with our vision of what technology can do to guarantee transparency, accuracy and efficiency in elections.

To begin with, we would like to go over two topics mentioned in this research project: Voter registration and authentication. Both issues, in light of the upcoming November 6th, 2012, US presidential elections, and their importance in guaranteeing the integrity of any election, are currently under public scrutiny.

According to the study, in the 2008 presidential elections, "between 1.5 million and 3 million votes were lost due to problems related to voter registration". Such low accuracy levels should be unacceptable for the US voting system or any consolidated democracy.  

The Caltech/MIT study listed some of the most crucial aspects of an election that are based on a thorough voter registration process and a sound electoral roll. They are: knowing the exact number of registered voters; developing basic administrative geographies such as legislative redistricting and the determination of voter precincts; distributing electoral material; and authenticating voters to deter fraud.

The study points out the necessity to upgrade electoral rolls by using advanced technological solutions and incorporating new technology available, such as the Internet, to comply with the increasing demand for fair and transparent elections.

The report stresses how the Internet has gained grounds as the preferred method to develop robust electoral rolls, and facilitating voter registration. Arizona and Washington have implemented successful internet-based registration systems and as consequence, they have given an impulse to registration rates, lowered costs and increased usability and accuracy.

Given the importance electoral rolls have, during the year 2002 the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) mandated that states implemented statewide computerized voter databases. Unfortunately, not all states have complied. Statewide electronic databases can prevent duplicity (having a voter registered in two precincts) and many other pitfalls usually found in registers.

Other technologies can also contribute enormously in this area. For example, electronic poll books can bring the electoral polls down to the precinct levels and facilitate information to the electorate and voter authentication.

Voter authentication, which is predominantly done by requesting voters to show an ID at the polling station, is at this very moment tangled in a partisan debate. Republicans demand a stricter control of who gets to casts a vote by requiring photo IDs at the polling stations, while Democrats argue that such measure undermines voter participation of minorities as they are less prompt to possess driver licenses or other forms of IDs. Authorities are confronting the challenge of getting the largest possible number of eligible voters express their opinion, without compromising integrity.

The study wisely states "the burden for preventing voter fraud should be placed mainly on the state, not voters". One solution to this dilemma is the use of biometrics for the authentication processes. Brazil, a nation with a robust electronic platform, used biometrics in some cities to authenticate voters with fingerprint based devices. Recently, Venezuela, another country leading the way in automation, became the first nation in the world to automate an election when included a biometric device to authenticate all the voters and initiate the voting session. The solution, provided by Smartmatic, guaranteed the quintessential democratic principle of one voter, one vote.

As a blog advocating for the implementation of the electronic technologies to strengthen modern democracies, we are convinced that, if a polling station has a reliable electronic poll book with a robust database which includes biographic and biometric information of every eligible voter in, and the voters are authenticated by means of a fingerprint-based biometric device, both problems can be solved and election integrity and legitimacy guaranteed.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Electronic voting makes a grand return to Europe

Two men walk by election campaign posters in Antwerp, Belgium
Photo AP
During the 90's, the first wave of electronic voting spread around the world with Belgium as one of the nations in the forefront of a nascent industry. Brazil, the United States, India, Germany, Netherlands, are some of the countries that, along with Belgium, adopted the technological solutions available to automatically capture the vote and total the results in elections during those years.

As in the case of many immature industries, unfit providers with faulty technology inundated the market offering poor results. In consequence, a strong animosity towards e-voting grew, and small yet vociferous “electoral transparency” advocates veered the public opinion towards manual voting. Countries such as Germany and the Netherlands went back to caves.

Fortunately, Belgium persisted, and despite the obstacles and challenges, succeeded nurturing a relationship with a reliable provider that developed and deployed a tailored solution to effectively automate most steps in the electoral cycle. According to the results of the most recent electoral process carried on October 14, technology provider and operator Smartmatic, managed to deploy an electronic voting system in 151 communes in the Flanders and Brussels-Capital regions. This comprises approximately 51% of the electorate.

Even though lanes formed in some precincts, a rarity in this highly developed nation, most of the inconveniences found had to do with lack of preparation of poll workers and personnel directly controlling and supervising the technology. According to the Minister of Administrative Affairs Geert Bourgeois, most of the errors resulted from the incorrect use of the machines.

The voting platform included technological solutions spanning across several phases of the election cycle. Election management, which expands beyond Election Day and includes activities such as nomination documents of the candidates and the publication of results, was automated. Through the use of different software solutions, publication of the results to the media and on the election website  was possible.

In 2006, 143 municipalities voted digitally in the regions of Flanders and Brussels-Capital. This time around, those same communities, plus Aalst, Bruges, Grimbergen, Halle, Knokke-Heist, Kortrijk, Ostend and Roeselare did so with the new voting system.

In the near future, we will probably see a broader use of the acquired technology across the regions comprising this European nation. If this expansion is followed by proper training of poll worker officials, Belgium will probably retake a leading role in the automation of voting and e-voting will have managed to make a grand return to Europe.