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.