Thursday, December 26, 2013

Remote voting growing in the Philippines and Australia

Source: Google images
Voting technology can offer a number of potential benefits over a traditional, paper-based election: it can be used by voters to cast their ballots, and can also to expedite the vote counting process so the results of the election can be reported faster and with a greater level of accuracy. Remote voting is another area where e-voting shows a great advantage since it allows the inclusion of the electorate that has migrated from its nation or is located in hard to reach zones.

When a citizen lives in a major city, he or she is usually in relatively close proximity to the voting place for municipal, district or national elections, but this may not be the case for residents who live in rural areas. Absentee ballots are one way to handle this, but when it comes to overseas citizens, there are other challenges to overcome. E-voting technology can help to address some of these issues surrounding remote voting.

A great demonstration of the technology was recently witnessed in the 2013 midterm elections in the Philippines. In a mere ten hours, over 766 million votes were cast in the Philippines to elect over 18,000 local and national officials. Of these, several thousand citizens were able to participate in the May elections remotely from the different precincts, facilitated by the use of electronic voting technology.

The Philippine Commission on Elections (Comelec) recently won the Accessibility Award at the International Electoral Awards in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The International Centre for Parliamentary Studies (ICPS) recognized Comelec's efforts in making the election as accessible as possible to a range of voters, including those with disabilities. They were particularly impressed with how the election handled overseas absentee voters with the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines deployed in major international locations, like Hong Kong and Singapore, where there are large concentrations of Filipino workers.

With the aid of electronic voting technology, remote ballots can be more easily cast and counted more quickly than ever before.

Elections in Australia, where there can be substantial segments of the population that live in more remote and rural areas, are moving in a similar direction. The government of New South Wales (NSW) is investing $3.6 million on iVote, the voting system it will be using for the 2015 state general election. This is an expansion on the system that was already used in the 2011 general election, utilized by over 46,800 voters representing approximately one percent of all ballots cast. This number is expected to increase to 100,000 in 2015.

One of the advantages to the growth of iVote relates to accessibility for remote votes to be cast by citizens who live more than 20 kilometres away from a polling booth, including those away from the state on the day of the election. “Postal voting is becoming increasingly problematic as an effective channel for remote voters,” said the NSW Electoral Commission in an official statement. “It can be expected that in the not too distant future, reduced postal service delivery schedules will challenge the feasibility of completing postal vote application, ballot distribution and return within election timetables to the point where, for many electors, postal voting ceases to be a viable voting channel.”

The iVote system will also allow citizens with vision or physical impairments to more easily cast their votes over the phone or via a computer, rather than having to make the physical journey to a voting place or completing an absentee ballot through the mail.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Estonia continues to innovate with new I-voting modalities

Most people likely would not name Estonia as their first choice of countries that are cutting edge, technologically advanced, but the demographic republic in the Baltic region of Northern Europe is actually one of the most forward thinking, particularly when it comes to the technology implemented in its government agencies and national voting paradigms.

While Estonia still offers a more traditional way to cast a ballot, it also has a long standing history with the adoption of Internet-based voting. It has even gone so far as to open up its “server side” source code to the public. For security reasons, the client side code remains secret and protected, but the server side is open to public scrutiny. And the Estonian population has embraced the I-voting revolution.

In the most recent parliamentary election in October of this year, over 133,000 voters cast their ballots electronically rather than using the more manual method. This represents over 20% of all the ballots cast in the election and what's even more interesting is that voters had the opportunity to vote online using their choice of no fewer than three different modalities, including one that involved mobile phones.

Measures were taken to ensure that all three of the online voting options were as secure as possible, authenticating the ballot while not necessarily connecting it directly to any individual voter. This worked in much the same way as a double-envelope method may be used with a more traditional ballot; the paper ballot is placed in an unmarked “inner” envelope, which is then placed inside of an “outer” envelope with the voter's information. A clerk can verify the outer envelope information, removing the sealed inner envelope to place it into the ballot box. For the purposes of the online ballot, a digital signature and PIN served a similar purpose.

The first of the Internet voting options involved the voter using the government-mandated ID card with its two public key infrastructure (PKI) based digital certificates. With this secure card and a card reader (available nationwide in many stores), the voter inserts the card and enters their PIN codes while on the government e-voting website and downloads and runs the voting application. They can confirm their identity with their first PIN, select their preferred candidate, and confirm the vote with their digital signature by entering the ID card's second PIN. After that, the person receives the confirmation that the vote has been registered on the system.

The second voting option involved the use of an alternative “digital ID card”, also issued by the government and used primarily for online purposes. Just as the first method, the voter navigated to the government e-voting website using the credentials and security afforded by the digital ID card and its corresponding codes.

The third and newest method of I-voting in Estonia involved a mobile phone and a PC computer. The user registered for a mobile ID by providing the government with the SIM card from their phone, along with their government-issued secure ID card. The two were linked and the user was provided with two secure PIN codes via text message. The voter then navigated to the e-voting website on a computer, entered their phone number and first PIN code, and cast the vote. The second PIN was entered on the corresponding mobile app on the phone and the ballot was then authenticated.

Another innovation tested at the October election was a verification system of I-votes, developed to detect with a device (in this opportunity only Android mobile phones or tablets) if the computer you used to vote was infected with any malware that changed the I-vote or blocked the I-voting.

While there are certainly concerns surrounding Internet voting, Estonia's comprehensive system demonstrates how it can be implemented to great success. Other countries and governments around the world may benefit from collaborating with and learning from Estonia's example.

Monday, December 16, 2013

E-voting technology and economies of scale

Source: Google Images
There are numerable benefits to the adoption and expansion of electronic voting technology for a range of governmental and organizational elections. For instance, the electronic ballots can inherently be more accessible to people with physical disabilities or limitations, because the voting machine can be setup to accommodate such challenges. The font on the touchscreen can be increased for the visually-impaired, for instance, and having larger buttons can be easier for those who may lack the fine dexterity to mark a traditional paper ballot. Another major advantage to e-voting technology is that it can help to save tremendous amounts of money.

Indeed, this has already been demonstrated in many elections around the world. We recently wrote on the thousands of dollars saved by the Irish Medical Council when it replaced the printing of paper ballots, along with the associated postage costs, in favour of an electronic ballot instead.

That being said, it is clear that there may be significant costs in the beginning when first making the shift from a more traditional paper ballot to a fully automated election. The government or organization would need to invest in the appropriate DRE voting machines, for example, and the appropriate software and infrastructure to handle such an election. A single DRE machine back in 2005, according to the State of Texas Elections Division, “costs between $2,500 and $3,500 and represents a major economic investment.”

It is very important to note, however, that these costs are hardly linear. There is tremendous value in adopting the electronic ballot, because the initial investment put forward by the government or organization lays the groundwork not only for the upcoming election, but also for many future elections moving forward. The acquisition of software and code is a one-time purchase and its maintenance is not related in a linear fashion to the initial investment.

What results instead is the ability to capitalize on very favourable economies of scale. As a city, district or country grows its population and gains a greater number of voters, the cost of the ballots on a per-voter basis are reduced over time. As The News Tribe's Mirza Abdul Aleem Baig put it, “the increase of the dimensions of the electoral roll doesn’t increase the price linearly.” The election becomes even more cost effective as the electorate continues to grow and mature.

Additional ballots do not necessarily cost any more money the same way that a paper ballot would in terms of printing, distribution, and tabulation, because the digital ballot can be simply displayed on a terminal screen or via some other electronic means. Having 20 copies of a document on a hard drive does not cost any more money than having just a single copy of a document.

By going with an electronic ballot, the “single” ballot can be far more flexible than its printed counterpart. A single ballot can inherently be multilingual, allowing the voter to select his or her language of choice. This is far superior to having an overly crowded single paper ballot (with the added expense of ink used) and decidedly better than printing multiple ballots in multiple languages.

Absolutely, there are initial costs and investments to be made when switching to an electronic voting paradigm, but the initial investment in hardware, code and infrastructure pays for itself in the long run with future elections and an increased need to handle a growing number of voters. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Philippine election set e-voting example for Southeast Asia

Source: Google Images
In 2013, the popularity of e-voting technology continued to expand across all corners of the globe, including notable countries as India and The Philippines. In fact, the election held last May in the latter could serve as a great example for e-voting in other Southeast Asian countries.

The Philippines have received kudos from FutureGov, an online and print publication that looks for trends in relation to e-commerce, information technology and the governmental initiatives that support their development. Publisher James Smith commended the Filipino community for “putting technology to new and better use.”

This remark was related to the recent midterm elections held in May 2013 where the Philippines employed an automated e-voting platform to streamline and secure the electoral process. Optical scan machines were used to count the votes and canvass the results, working far faster than the manual method. The increased speed also meant that results could be reported sooner and with greater accuracy, giving the whole electoral process more transparency and validity.

Taking the Philippines as a case in point of how to successfully adopt and implement an automated voting technology, other countries in Southeast Asia should evaluate the Philippine example to improve their own electoral methods and fortify their Democracies.

The current electoral process in Malaysia appears very archaic by comparison. In addition to using manual voting with paper ballots that are then folded and inserted into a ballot box with a ruler, people who have voted are marked with indelible ink on their left forefinger to prevent them from casting a second ballot at another voting booth. If a biometric authentication system was employed to check the voter’s identity against a central database before he/she casts his/her ballot, the indelible ink mark would no longer be required. Electronic ballots could also simplify the selection of multiple candidates and offer far greater security and secrecy than a folded paper ballot in a ballot box.

Meanwhile in Indonesia, the presidential election is scheduled to take place around the middle of July 2014. For this event, the government and electoral officials are working toward an implementation of a new e-voting system. E-voting had been used previously in certain districts, like Denspasar (Bali) and Yogyakarta (Java), but this would represent the first time that such a system would see widespread usage throughout the country.

Marzan Aziz Iskander, head of the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT), has said that the successful use of e-voting would require the full introduction of e-KTP. These are the electronic identity cards that would have to be issued to every eligible voter. Then, additional infrastructure is also needed, like the ballot scanners and other equipment. To ease their way toward e-voting, Indonesian officials are considering the electronic counting of ballots first. This would at least expedite vote counting and reduce certain costs in the interim.

By learning from and following the example set by the Philippine election, Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries can be better prepared to face some of the challenges that may arise with the implementation of electronic voting systems.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The role of a paper trail in an automated election

Source: Google images
Much of the discussion surrounding the use of e-voting technology necessarily focuses on the actual electronic equipment being used. There are a variety of different direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, some of which are equipped with touchscreen monitors. Debates on e-voting also discuss how the votes are being recorded, how they are being transmitted and how they are being tabulated. However, there is another large component to electronic voting technologies that is not completely digital.

A paper trail can be positively invaluable during electoral processes. Opponents to e-voting technology oftentimes cite the apparent lack of transparency and accountability with digital records and digital transmissions, as the data can potentially be corrupted or tampered with. By having the paper trail as backup, acting as proof of the legitimate ballots being cast and the votes being properly counted, there is a better sense of accountability. The digital records can be checked against their paper counterparts to ensure that there are no inconsistencies or discrepancies.

Indeed, the Supreme Court in India has ruled that the country's Election Commission must introduce a paper backup of all votes cast via electronic voting machines. The primary argument is that a running paper record of all the ballots being cast can then be used to verify the digital votes in the case of an audit. This wouldn't necessarily defend the system against being hacked, but it would mean that even if the digital record were compromised, the paper record could be confirmed.

The India Supreme Court ruled that such a paper trail would be an “indispensable requirement of free and fair elections.” Since the roll-out of such technology can be complex, the Court is allowing the Election Commission to introduce a Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail system in “gradual stages” throughout the country, starting with general elections in 2014. Electronic voting machines were first tested in India in 1982 and gained large scale deployment in the 2004 general election, processing over one million ballots.

While a paper audit trail can improve transparency, accountability and fidelity of elections, not all electoral bodies feel the same way about their use. The November 2013 municipal election in New Hanover County in North Carolina, USA abandoned paper ballots altogether. Part of the motivation was for the streamlining of data and communication, but the county also saved an estimated $20,000 by not printing or using any traditional paper ballots.

Indeed, the New Hanover County election is one of the most digital to date. Candidates submitted their financial reports digitally, voter registration took place on computers without paper forms, and only direct-recording electronic voting machines were used for casting ballots. This followed in the example set by neighbouring Brunswick County where paper ballots have not been used since 2006, with the exception of votes cast by mail-in absentees. Pender County also only used DRE machines in its November election.

When an election is run in a fully electronic and digital manner, extra safeguards must be put in place to maintain the security and integrity of the results. While some may argue that a paper trail is not necessary, as appeared to be the case in North Carolina, a voter verifiable paper record to backup the original digitally-cast votes may be in the best interest of voters. This way, there have the efficiency and flexibility that comes with an automated voting platform, while ensuring the transparency and verifiability of results. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Estonia opens i-voting source code to the public

It has been demonstrated time and time again that electronic voting systems result in thousands of dollars in savings for elections and this is also true with the paradigm of Internet-based voting systems. However, one of the biggest expenditures needed to run an election that supports i-voting protocols is the development of the election software. A bold move by the government in Estonia could help to not only reduce costs for future automated elections, but it could also help to improve transparency and security as well.

The Electronic Voting Committee in the country of Estonia released its electronic voting software to the open source community for viewing and scrutiny. The source code for this software is now available through GitHub, a popular open source platform on the Internet. It is important to note that Estonia is only releasing the server side source code to the public and not the client side.

This is not the first time that Estonia has made the source code of its online voting system available to the public, but in the past, people had to sign a confidentiality agreement before they were offered the privilege of viewing the code. By allowing the source code to be viewed openly and freely on the Internet, Estonia has given a boost to transparency in its election system.

The country has been using its e-voting system since 2005, implementing in five elections to date. Voters use the country's mandatory identity card to cast their vote online. The voting platform can be accessed from any computer and the voter can submit and change the vote all the way up to Election Day. The identity card contains an electronic authentication system that is at the heart of the security and integrity of the e-voting protocol.

While it is still unclear whether online voting improves voter turnout, it has been noted by Estonian Public Broadcasting (Eesti Rahvusringhääling) that 24.3 percent of all votes cast in the 2011 general elections were cast using the electronic online voting system.

“This is the next step toward a transparent system,” said Electronic Voting Committee chairman Tarvi Martens. “We welcome the fact that experts representing civil society want to contribute to the development and security of the e-elections.”

Nevertheless, there have been allegations that the 2011 general elections were tampered with, as Tartu University student Paavo Pihelgas found a security hole that would allow a virus to block votes to certain candidates. The voter would not be aware that any tampering had been done. This was never proven, but it did point out a potential problem. American computer scientist Barbara Simons agrees that malware, insider threats and other security risks make i-voting systems inherently vulnerable to attack

While some opponents to i-voting may say that opening the source code to the public could open up even more vulnerabilities, the open source approach will likely act more in the favor of Estonian elections. Just as major companies like Microsoft and Google host “hackathons” that challenge programmers to find security risks and flaws in their systems, the open source nature of the e-election software will allow programmers and experts from the general public to scrutinize the code, finding and reporting bugs and flaws back to government officials. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

None of the above: Exercising the right to reject

The right to choose leaders is one of the most cherished freedoms in a democracy.  

A voter casts his vote for the candidate he wants and hopes for the best. But what is a voter to do if none of the candidates catches his fancy? Does the right to suffrage include the right to reject too? 

The issue has, in fact, attracted considerable attention recently. In India, the Supreme Court has come out with a landmark ruling granting voters the right to reject. The High Court has ordered the Election Commission to provide a “None Of The Above” (NOTA) button on the e-voting  machine, commenting that negative voting would help cleanse the political system in the country.

In the decision, the high court said that "Democracy is all about choices and voters will be empowered by this right of negative voting." 

It added that such a right to reject would lead to a “systemic change in polls and political parties will be forced to project clean candidates".

Aside from India, negative voting is also a fixture in the election systems of Greece, the US State of Nevada, Ukraine, Spain and Colombia.  Russia experimented with negative voting but abolished such in 2006. 

Pakistan also had a None of the Above option in the ballot until the government  dropped it in 2013, saying that elections were meant to "elect and not reject".

Just how significant is this ruling giving voters the right to reject? Many analysts say that such a mechanism puts political parties on notice that voters would no longer put up with mediocre candidates. Voters hitherto resigned to choosing the “least evil” among the lot could suddenly find themselves with the power to reject.  

Yet advocates are apprehensive about the development noting that the right to reject would only be truly efficacious if it materially affects the outcome of elections. They ask, for instance, about the effect of NOTA getting the most number of votes. Will it result in forcing the government to conduct other elections with better candidates? 

Some note with concern that while India e-voting machines will now feature the NOTA button, the candidate who gets the second most number of votes will still be declared winner, rendering the whole effort moot.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A psychological approach to election administration

Source: google images
Human psychology plays a role in all aspects of everyday existence. Industrial psychology may look at the layout of controls in an airplane's cockpit, for example, placing certain displays, buttons and levels in specific locations to best accommodate the natural tendencies of pilots. In sales and marketing, advertising executives look closely at the psychology ramifications of their marketing efforts, capitalizing on how to best influence their prospective customers. And psychology also plays a critical role in elections. 

Indeed, there is not only a whole branch of psychology dedicated to this study – appropriately called electoral psychology – but there are also organizations that work closely to best understand what elections mean to voters and how to devise elections such that they are the most efficient and the most fair. One such organization is the International Centre for Electoral Psychology (ICEP), which has put forth several reports and presentations on the subject of a psychological approach to election administration.

The goal of the ICEP is to “help decision-makers to better understand the psychology of voters in a bid to make elections as effective, trusted and democratically fulfilling for citizens as possible.” To this end, the ICEP studies several factors related to the psychology of the voter as he or she heads into the voter booth to cast his or her ballot.

For example, the ICEP recognizes that casting a vote can be a very emotional experience and one that is not taken lightly. Up to 30% of voters do not decide on their vote until the final week before the election with 29% of Americans and 40% of French voters changing their minds on Election Day itself. When administrating an election, it is important to recognize that a voter's choice can be heavily influenced right up to the final moment before casting a ballot. 60% of voters feel excited in the polling booth and 74% feel a sense of pride.

Memories and early experiences also play a very critical role. It is important for election officials to approach youth about elections and democracy, ensuring that they do cast a ballot when they become of age. Early experiences significantly increase the likelihood of participation in future elections. Young people who do not vote in the first two eligible elections are likely to become citizens who habitually do not vote moving forward. That is why early experiences, like accompanying parents to the polling stations and participating in elections when they become of age, are so important. Indeed, 48% of those who accompanied parents to a polling place have voted themselves, compared to 30% of those with no memory of going to a polling station with parents.

Voting is habit-forming and habitual voters are likely to continue voting, even when they shift allegiances or partisanship. Social pressure also plays a role.

These memories and early experiences color all future perceptions of future elections too. If a young voter experiences fraud, organizational problems or other issues related to the legitimacy and professionalism of an election, that citizen will likely recall that problem in the future in a very vivid way. This citizen could become disenchanted and become distrustful of the electoral process.

Deciding on the actual vote itself can also involve many different factors. Some voters have sociotropic thoughts, considering social responsibility and the impact of the vote on the rest of the country. Others may have more egocentric thoughts, focusing more on family and the impact of the vote on their personal situations. Past elections, current emotions, and previous voting behavior can also impact the vote.

There are many responsibilities that fall on the shoulders of election administrators. They must ensure that the logistics of the election are properly carried out, they must hire staff that will be impartial in front of the voting public, and they also have to consider the psychology of the election to make sure the results are fair, unbiased, and democratically fulfilling. The integrity of the election must be upheld and all psychological factors must be addressed to allow for a nonpartisan election.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Electoral Ergonomics: Enhancing Voting Experience

Ergonomics is a discipline that studies the design and arrangement of things in order that humans may be able to use them more efficiently, comfortably and safely. Known also as human engineering, ergonomics has found wide application in the design of furniture and equipment for homes, offices, factories and vehicles.

Recently, the science has also been applied to elections in the hopes of understanding what makes voters vote and how to enhancing voter experience. Electoral ergonomics as defined by pioneers Bruter and Harrison, is “the optimization of all relevant electoral procedures and mechanisms to provide the best possible electoral experience for voters.”

Research has revealed that seemingly inconsequential things such as where a vote is cast, what method is used, at what time polling stations open, how the ballot is designed,  all matter greatly in shaping voters´ experience. Electoral ergonomics, although still in its infancy, may help us understand “who votes, how they vote, why they vote the way they do, and how they feel about it”.

Studying electoral ergonomics and its effects is one of the most scientifically complex tasks in the field of elections. It entails a complex and highly-nuanced interaction among psychological, technical, and sociocultural variables.

So far, electoral ergonomics has observed that voting is a highly emotional act that carries with it a lot of memories, pleasant and otherwise.  Voters attach various positive and negative emotions to the act of voting.

Emotions are significantly more positive for people who go to vote in person as compared to those who use postal voting. They feel prouder, happier, and more excited about the vote than those who use postal voting. Moreover, voters in person also end up feeling more reassured and more relaxed than those who use postal voting.

More importantly, as can be gleaned from the 2010 British General election, it was determined that voters aged 18-25 were nearly twice more likely to choose an extremist party if voting by mailing their ballots than at a polling station. Among 25-45 year old voters, the likeliness to vote for the extreme right also increases by 24%.  For the first time, the method of voting is being proven to have an effect on the choice of the voters.

Another interesting case study is one where advanced voting in polling stations was compared with mailed-in balloting , the two methods employed by the US to allow people who cannot go to vote on election day to participate in elections. Interestingly, it was revealed that voters who opted for advanced voting in polling centers perceived the elections to be more efficacious, trustworthy, and important as compared to those who selected mailed-in voting.

It may be deduced that the mere physical act of going to a voting center, hitherto not regarded as noteworthy, may be an important part of the voting experience, and may, in fact, influence the outcome of elections.

Electoral ergonomics is still in its infancy and much more research needs to be undertaken to validate assumptions. Yet initial findings are promising and may lead us to finally be able to tweak the many factors comprising an election to give the voter the best experience.  

Monday, September 30, 2013

Voting systems in the US and around the world

After the 2000 voting chads scandal in Florida, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) promoted better practices in election administration and e-voting became the preferred voting method across most counties in the US. However, experimenting with digital-recording electronic (DRE) did not yield the expected results in many counties as much of the technology available at the time did not meet minimum quality standards. In practice, voting numbers did not match up to the actual number of voters, and some people reported votes “flipping” as they submitted their ticket. A few years after HAVA´s signing into a law (2002), DRE's became largely perceived as unreliable.

By the year 2006, and in light of the problems DREs faced, the US electoral commissions began opting for the optical-scanners at precincts to scan paper ballots. While the technology still presented many issues, like security flaws in tabulation and accessibility problems, at least the paper ballots offered a chance for counting or possible recounting, increasing voter confidence.

The evolution of the preferences of electoral commissions in the US has had a unique pattern. Other countries are much more homogeneous in their use of voting technology. Since the day Brasil, India, and Belgium began automating their elections, they have used DRE sytsems. Canada, Mongolia, and  the Philippines, use precinct count optical scanners.

Now, recent developments in the industry have put DREs back in the radar of those commissions planning to introduce technology based voting solutions. Under the concept of End to End E-voting, a new generation of voting machines have emerged. End-to-end auditable voting systems are those with strong tamper resistance and stringent integrity procedures. The new breed of DREs come with a printer which provides the voter with an opportunity to attest his/her vote is recorded properly.  

Since 2004 Venezuela has been using an End to End E-voting solution that prints voting vouchers. More than twelve national elections, certified by experts in the field put this South American nation in the forefront of election automation.  During the recent 2013 Presidential elections held in April, more than 80 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote. Additionally, the election result was certified after a challenge and total recount of the vote, which a 100% accuracy rate.

End-to-end implementation will lead to greater transparency, increased accuracy, greater voter confidence and turnout. Through the use of continual auditing, careful selection of field personnel, cryptographic builds, appropriate telecommunications and infrastructure, along with electoral accuracy tests and a final wrap-up audit; true and accurate results will be quickly certified. Peru, Colombia, Argentina, Georgia, are some of the nations in line to adopt E2E solutions.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Can e-voting solve the oversized ballot papers problem?

While most major elections around the world feature no more than five major parties, it is not unheard of for a poll exercise to have a whole slew of parties slugging it out for votes.

In Australia, for instance, a total of 46 parties have already registered for the Australian Senate election in September. If the 11 additional applicants up for consideration are approved, that would bring to 57 the number of parties on a single ballot.

Given this scenario, it’s most likely that the ballot paper will measure an incredible 1.02 meters wide or over three feet across.  This makes the supersized ballot paper quite unwieldy not only for voters, but also for election staff who must handle, pack, transport, count and secure the extra large papers.

To make matters even worse for voters, the ballots use extra small six-point type.  The Australian Electoral Commission, in fact, is even issuing magnifying sheets to help staff and voters read the text on the ballots. The oversized ballots would also take much longer to count manually, as the staff would inherently have to spend more time reading and recording each of the votes.
Aside from problems an over-sized ballot causes on Election Day, it also entails many logistical challenges as the ballots must be properly secured and transported, and requires a much larger space than regular-sized ballots.

Yet as with most problems in this modern age, there is a technological solution to this particular challenge. For instance, Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines use voting pads which could display an infinite number of candidates, rendering supersized ballots unnecessary as voters could record their vote on a touchscreen display.   

E-voting is definitely a step towards the right direction in making elections more efficient and transparent.  Safeguards like the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), where the machine prints out a confirmation receipt, ensure that the voter’s true intent is what is recorded on the ballot. After all, transparency and accuracy can never be sacrificed for efficiency and speed. 

E-voting is not without its challenges and concerns, yet its many benefits make it increasingly attractive to election commissions all around the world. More work is needed, but e-voting can be a viable solution to the problem of supersized ballot papers in cases like this in Australia. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Biometric authentication vs electoral fraud gains ground in Uganda

Fraud is a problem that has bedeviled election managers since the earliest times. One of the more insidious forms of electoral fraud is identity theft where a voter passes himself off as another and casts his ballots at multiple locations, effectively skewing results of the election.

Fortunately, election commissions can now tap a rapidly-developing technology called biometric authentication to combat electoral fraud.

Biometric authentication is already widely used elsewhere. Some notebook computers  are equipped with fingerprint sensors that restrict access to its rightful owners. Security-conscious facilities have also relied on fingerprint, thumbprint or iris scan biometrics to restrict comings and goings of unauthorized entities.  Airports, too, have started utilizing biometrics to heighten security.

Recently, electoral commissions have started to explore how biometric authentication can make the electoral process more transparent and credible. In Uganda, for example, President Museveni has already declared that the 2016 general election in the country will utilize thumbprint machines to identify genuine voters, eliminating the possibility of anyone stealing of votes and double-voting.

This technology will finally allow Ugandan electoral staff to move away from manually authenticating voters –an unreliable and time-consuming process  that can, at its worse, serve as enabler for fraudsters. Obviously, a digitized thumbprint, or some other form of biometric authentication, is far more difficult to forge than a analog type of identification.

In an official State House statement, Museveni said that the election commission it will “use thumbprints to authenticate voters” and warns would-be fraudsters that “if you try to steal, the machine will throw you out.”   

Although procurement details of biometric thumbprint readers are yet to be released,  the  move is already gaining wide support from both administration and opposition parties, as well as cause-oriented groups.

Many are acknowledging that  a Biometric Voters Register (BVR) is the “most credible” protection against multiple registration and multiple votes.  

Uganda hopes that this strong multi sectorial support for biometric authentication will finally pave the way for cleaner and more honest elections in the country.  

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Online voting: Not a magic bullet for voter turnout


Low voter turnout is a huge problem; in many countries voters have been showing up at polls in very low numbers, especially when it comes to local elections and primaries. Many people, especially connected young people, wonder why they can't just vote online. There are many potential advantages to Internet voting; it would make election costs lower and be more convenient for voters. But would more people vote? The theory of implementing online voting, and every citizen engaging fully with elections is utopia; the reality may not be remotely close to that vision.

Some critics of Internet voting think potential online voting systems will trivialize the importance of this crucial action. Tradition and symbolism are involved in going to the polling places, marking ballots and placing them in the ballot box. Critics worry that Internet voting would turn elections into online popularity contests at the level of Dancing with the Stars.

One nation leading the way in the adoption of Internet voting is Estonia. It has had Internet voting since 2005; however experts note that no positive effect on electoral turnout has been proven in Estonia or any other Internet voting so far. This seems to show that voters are still quite skeptical of this option.
While there are ample motivations to implement Internet voting, reasons to hesitate at this point are even stronger. There are many concerns that need be resolved before Internet voting will go mainstream and be thoroughly embraced by the populace. The biggest fear is hacking and manipulation of the vote counts. Other concerns are the possibilities of fraudulent votes and even vote buying.
A pilot Internet voting project in Washington, DC in 2010 was the target of an epic hacking by a University of Michigan professor and two teams of students. Within 36 hours, they attacked a vulnerability in the system and took over control of the votes. Even more troubling, the hacking went unnoticed until they revealed themselves by playing the UM fight song when a ballot was cast. The hacker extraordinaire, Alex Halderman, said that he can't imagine any current system that would be totally secure from hackers.  This experience clearly shows that we are not ready for mainstream Internet voting, and that most voters would surely be skeptical of Internet voting at this point as well. Until the problems are resolved, no increase in voter turnout can be expected by implementing Internet voting.

Resolutions to these problems will need to be found. Safety and transparency in the voting process are vital, so answering the important questions about how to ensure the reliability of the system are crucial.

Monday, August 26, 2013

E-voting saves elections thousands of dollars

Any sort of government or public expenditure is going to be met with a significant challenge. On the one hand, the expenditure has to adequately address a public need of some sort. This could be the construction of a new bridge, providing commuters with a faster and more direct way to get across the city. On the other hand, government funds are anything but unlimited and, thus, the cost of any project must be kept under control. This kind of balance must also be considered when it comes to any referendum or election, in addition to concerns about accessibility, fairness, participation and security.

One of the many potential benefits of changing from a more traditional paper-based ballot to an election that uses e-voting technology is that the latter can save the government a significant amount of money. There are some initial costs involved in purchasing the e-voting equipment and there are costs in maintaining them, but taken as a whole, e-voting is more cost-effective than its pure paper-based counterpart. This cost savings has been demonstrated in many places around the world.

For example, an election was recently conducted by the Irish Medical Council (IMC) and it was outsourced to Electoral Reform Services of the United Kingdom. The final figures are still being calculated, but a spokesperson for the IMC has stated that this election saved the Council approximately €10,000 (over $13,000 US). This savings was secured in the costs that would have otherwise been involved with the printing of paper ballots and the associated postage for mailing them out.

In addition to the cost savings involved in printing and postage, the IMC spokesperson said that the Council also saved money compared to its previous election in 2008 because that election involved "significant staff resourcing" to count all the ballots. With the e-voting technology in place, the counting of the ballots was far more efficient, expedient and cost-effective. There are staffing costs that must be considered for sorting ballots, counting ballots, and other administrative duties. If the paper ballots had to be mailed out, that would be another area in terms of cost for staffing that is saved because of e-voting technology. There are many hidden costs to manual elections.

Even in the relatively small town of Cobourg, located a little over one hour away from Toronto in Canada, significant cost savings were enjoyed in its 2010 municipal election. This election was completely paperless, allowing voters to cast their ballots either online or via telephone. For voters who did not have access to a phone or the Internet, e-voting booths were set up at two polling places in the town.

The total cost of holding the 2010 election was $52,460. By contrast, the election in 2006, which used paper ballots, cost the town almost $90,000. What this means is that by switching to e-voting, the town of Cobourg saved well over $35,000. A similar calculation was done for the town of Meaford--also in Ontario, Canada--and the projected savings were $25,000. These are two relatively small towns in Canada, so it is possible to see how these savings could be further amplified in large cities.

E-voting is certainly not without its share of challenges, but examples like those seen in Ireland and Canada clearly illustrate that e-voting can provide significant cost savings for jurisdictions that are willing to switch to automated elections.