Friday, May 31, 2013

The Colombian race for election automation

Bogotá. Photo: Miguel Vaca

A very important deadline is coming up in the Colombian electoral calendar: by 2014, e-voting should have been implemented for the upcoming Senate and House of Representatives elections. However, so little has been done to that end, that the chance of meeting the goal is slim.

For many Colombians, the fact that their government set a deadline for the implementation of e-voting might come off as a surprise. This is because there is not enough information about this project available to the public, as it seems to have been left stagnant by a lack of budget stemming from the disinterest shown by the central government so far. However, the National Registrar, Carlos Ariel Sánchez, stated that e-voting is necessary to simplify the country’s complex multiple election system used to elect senators, house representatives, and members of the City Council of Bogotá.

At least some steps have been taken to advance the project, though. In recent days, the National Registrar presented three options to the Electronic Voting Advisory Commission for the potential method to be adopted: paper ballots with automatic scrutiny, touchscreen devices with no vote receipt, and touchscreen devices with vote receipt. The commission will evaluate the three models in terms of their reliability, accessibility, precision, and auditability. It goes without saying that in terms of voting machines, those that emit printed voting receipts will always be preferable to those that don’t. According to Barbara Simons, member of the Election Assistance Commission Board of Advisors, all computers used in an election must be audited, and for that reason “there must always be physical records [of the ballots cast electronically], that is, paper receipts.”

E-voting is ideal for multiple elections, as it enables the display of the equivalent of several paper ballots on a single touchscreen, thus reducing costs and making it easier for voters to participate. In fact, it has already proven successful in different countries, even recently. Therefore, it would be absolutely beneficial for the Colombian authorities to step up their game and raise the level of importance of e-voting in their agenda and budget.

It is highly plausible that Colombia will delay the implementation of e-voting, but this is preferable to hastening the process just to meet the deadline, which can lead to completely undesirable results. As for now, the South American country is already implementing biometric authentication in its upcoming elections, and pilot tests for voting machines will be held during political parties’ internal referenda. Fortunately, it seems the road to automation for Colombia has not been completely forsaken, after all.