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.