Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Voting technology to modernize Parliament elections

Source: Google Images
Discussion on the use of electronic voting technology is usually in the context of the population at large heading to the polls in order to elect government officials. In 2014, technology will play an increasingly integral role in many elections around the world, including Brazil, Indonesia, Belgium and the United States. However, e-voting technology should not be restricted solely to the realm of public elections. The technology can be effectively adapted and used in all sorts of scenarios, even with government itself.

In a recent article in the Canadian magazine Maclean's, political expert Aaron Wherry asks why the elected Members of Parliament (MPs) do not vote electronically. This is a notion that was put forth by the McGrath committee in its second report (PDF link), stating that the current system of manual voting on the individual bills, amendments, clauses and other acts of government is a poor use of time and resources.

Under the current system, each individual Member of Parliament stands in turn to orally declare his or her vote on a particular motion. In order for the vote to count, the clerks have to read out each of their names. What this means is that a lot of time has to be spent, as each vote is read aloud individually and is cast individually.

If e-voting technology were to be adopted in the House of Commons, then the Members could simply cast their votes from their seats in the House. This could be done via a mobile application on their phones, through a secure terminal at their seat, or via any number of other possibilities. This way, all the votes can be cast within a few minutes and the results can not only be tabulated instantly by a computer, but they can be publicly displayed just as quickly.

This saves a lot of time, which should help to make governments more effective and efficient in doing the work that needs to be done. E-voting can also have an additional benefit.

With the current system of standing up and publicly declaring the vote, the Member is held individually accountable for his or her vote. There is value in that, but it also means that the Member will also feel a great deal of pressure to vote the same way as the rest of his or her party, even if he or she disagrees with that particular vote. Party politics play too large of a role.

James McGrath says that it is “awfully difficult to stand up and vote against your party knowing you’ve got the whip breathing down your neck.” Patrick Boyer, a former MP with the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada agrees: “I think electronic voting could overcome some of the institutional weight that is suppressing a lot of MPs. They talk about free votes in Parliament. Well, the real way to make that happen is to bring in electronic voting.”

If private e-voting technology is implemented, the true opinion and view of the Member of Parliament can be better reflected, as he or she won't feel the same kind of pressure to vote the same way as the rest of the party. A more accurate representation of the will of the people, by way of the voting of the Members, can be reflected. Even so, if this notion is a problem, the individual votes of Members can still be accurately recorded and open to public scrutiny if needed.

Government needs to continually modernize in order to best serve the needs of the people. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

E-voting excels in Ecuador

Santo Domingo used technology
provided by Smartmatic. Image: El Comercio
Ecuador ran three electronic voting pilots yesterday as voters elected 5,651 regional offices in the 2014 sectional elections. 

In order to implement these technologies, the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE), Ecuador´s highest electoral office, reached agreements with electoral commissions from Venezuela, Russia and Argentina. Their experience in election automation proved key for the success of the project.

Two of the voting pilots -in Santo Domingo de los Ts├íchilas and Azuay- were binding. In La Morita, only 194 voters cast their vote in an experimental pilot using Russian technology. 

Smartmatic, a London based company, provided voting technology and services to conduct the entire process in Santo Domingo de los Ts├íchilas. This pilot ran smoothly. Only one hour after polls closed authorities had in their possession official results. For the voters, voting was trouble -free. They used touch screen voting machines which provide a physical vote receipt via a built-in printer. The company offered training, running a support center, preparing, deploying and collecting the electronic electoral kits, among other services. 

In total, in Santo Domingo, 1,221 voting machines were deployed in 53 polling centers to receive 326.932 registered voters. Among the technologies used in the pilot, this was the only 100% automated and verifiable voting experience in the pilot. 

In Azuay, the CNE of Ecuador managed the entire voting process. However, to capture the intent of the voters, they had Magic Software Argentina provide 3,022 voting machines. Some polling centers presented problems with this technology. In the Canton Ponce Enriquez , the voting had to be suspended  because the voting machines had not been properly configured. Authorities will announce today when the voting will be resumed.  

The Russian technology deployed in La Morita, Pichincha province, comprised only 4 Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines. 2 were intended for voters, one for training and one was kept for contingency purposes. Only 194 voters used this technology. 

In spite of the glitches in Azuay, the pilots can be considered successful. Hopefully, after this positive experience, Ecuador will move to full implementation in the near future.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Protecting against election fraud with biometric technology

Source: Google Images
The way that election officials verify the identity of voters varies widely from country to country, jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In some cases, voters can show any government-issued identification to receive their ballots. In other countries, an ID card may expedite the process, but isn't even necessary given some other supporting documentation or even the solemn promise of another registered voter. These kinds of systems inherently run the risk of voter fraud where a voter could potentially cast more than one vote. Technology, specifically biometric technology, can help to address this concern.

Indeed, this is the main reason why Tanzania will be adopting a biometric voter identification system for its national elections in 2015. While still in the early stages of planning, the proposal for this system calls for technology to capture the facial features of voters, in addition to fingerprints and identification documentation. This multi-factor approach is very robust and should guard against voter fraud.

In order for the biometric system to work during Election Day, voter registration will also involve the use of technology to match the facial, identification document and fingerprint data of voters. When entered into a central system, this data can then be checked by election officials when a voter comes to cast his or her vote. If the records show that a vote has already been cast, then the ballot can be denied.

As with the open nature of collaboration and transparency seen in Switzerland, Brazil and Estonia, the government in Tanzania also aims to be as open as possible regarding its introduction of biometrics in the 2015 election. The National Electoral Commission chairman said that the “whole decision was made by the government. As a result, there is no need of hiding the process from the public. Everything will be known after we complete the whole tendering procedure.”

This move toward biometric authentication in Tanzania follows in the footsteps of two other notable African countries where such technology was also used. Unfortunately, the elections in Ghana and in Kenya faced their share of issues. While they should be applauded for working to modernize its elections, the implementation of the technology was poorly executed. In Ghana, machines were stolen and documentation was set ablaze. Furthermore, the actual voting was still done manually with the results being sent via fax. This resulted in technical glitches and long delays.

However, similar biometric devices were successfully used to identify and authenticate 100% of voters in the Venezuelan presidential elections in 2012. Automation was used for the entire election, providing a greater deal of trust and transparency. The Integrated Authentication System, developed by Smartmatic, was used for the fingerprint scanning, verifying the identity against a central electoral roll.

Very successful electronic elections in countries like Brazil and the Philippines also demonstrate that the technology itself isn't to blame. Governments and providers just need to be more conscious about their implementation, ensuring that the infrastructure is suitably in place to prevent voter fraud and to allow for the smoothest and most efficient election possible.

Biometric technology can provide for far more reliable and accurate voter authentication in elections, particularly if multiple modalities are used as fail-safes against one another. By combining digital fingerprints with voter photographs and government-issued identification documentation, election officials can be far more assured of a voter's identity before allowing the citizen to cast his or her vote. It is important, as demonstrated by the experiences in Kenya and Ghana, that such technology is used with the context of a better organized and more comprehensive e-voting system as a whole. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

The importance of better election administration

Source: Google Images
With the United States preparing for its midterm elections later on in 2014, special attention needs to be paid to improving the overall election administration in many of the counties across America. While it is certainly important to discuss the pertinent issues of the day when it comes to public and foreign policy, healthcare, education and other vital topics, the election process itself is something that must also be addressed.

Indeed, following the horrendously long lineups to vote in the 2012 Presidential election, the re-elected Barack Obama thanked “every American who participated,” but he also said that “we have to fix that” in relation to the very long lines. The democratic process needs to be expedited and it needs to be easier for citizens to cast their ballots, because long lineups and unnecessarily complicated processes can act as a significant barrier to entry. When it is difficult to vote, some citizens may simply opt out of voting altogether.

There are many challenges ahead for election administration in the United States. Scandals have plagued the electoral process, from the “butterfly ballot” scandal in 2000 to problems with lost votes, lack of availability of online voting information, problems with voter turnout, and accuracy and reliability of the posted results.

In particular, one problem that keeps coming up with American elections surrounds the issue of provisional ballots. These are ballots issued when there are questions related to the eligibility of a given voter. This could be because of inaccurate voter roll records such that the ID provided does not match what election administrators have on file. It may also relate to the voter not appearing on the electoral roll at all or the possibility that the voter's ballot has already been recorded.

Ideally, the number of provisional ballots should be kept to a minimum, because the administration of the election should be such that the records are completely accurate and up-to-date. There should be minimal conflict. However, this has been an issue in many cities and counties across the United States, as recorded on Election Day in 2012.

For example, an incredible 37 percent of the votes cast in Maricopa County in Arizona, home to Phoenix, were provisional ballots. This could indicate structural problems at the polling sites. Similarly, Denver, Colorado saw the highest rate of absentee ballots rejected in the state. Some say these were based on false claims of voter fraud, particularly against Latino citizens. In Duval and Hillsborough counties in Florida, a large number of provisional ballots were cast and many voters were removed from electoral rolls. A similar problem, possibly related to race, was observed in Pasquotank County in North Carolina, where students at a historically black university saw a high number of absentee ballots rejected.

All of these types of problems are rooted in the administration of the election and they are indicative of an electoral system that needs help. These issues can be addressed through the use of technology and greater automation, but the administration must first recognize the magnitude of these problems and work toward suitable solutions. Yes, you have to fix that. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

The role of technology in 2014 elections

Source: Google Images
Democracy will once again be a very powerful force in 2014 with elections directly impacting forty-two percent of the world's population. Citizens in some forty countries around the globe will be heading to the polls to vote in 16 presidential elections, 26 legislative elections and four referendums, exercising their right to choose who governs them. This includes elections in such countries as Costa Rica, Slovakia, Afghanistan, Panama, Colombia, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand, as well as the legislative election for the European Union.

While many of these elections will involve traditional pen-and-paper ballots, technology will also continue to play an increasingly important role in the world's democracies.

Indeed, technology can be leveraged to help combat political apathy. One such example is Brazil, a country that has had a long history with e-voting technology and should be continuing with that tradition in its presidential and legislative election in October. Further to this end, government-sanctioned “hackathons” are being organized wherein computer programmers and software developers can get together to collaborate on how to improve public services and communities. The use of openly available public data facilitates greater transparency and better voter engagement, above and beyond the ease of access that e-voting can provide.

Switzerland has several “popular initiatives” in February, including ones related a rail network, health coverage and mass immigration. To best capture the will of the people in the most efficient manner possible, Switzerland is set to use Internet voting as its primary vehicle. Indeed, 90% of Swiss voters cast their ballot online. This has been very effective in increasing accessibility.

Indonesia's third direct presidential election is scheduled for July 9 and it will elect a new president for a five-year term. Incumbent president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is barred from seeking a third term. Indonesia has been working on increasing automation in its elections and a new e-voting system should be implemented in this year's elections. The system will be based on electronic identity cards (e-KTP) issued to eligible voters. They have already been distributed in the districts of Padang, Denpasar, Jembrana, Yogyakarta, Cilegon and Makassar. This includes the populous areas of Bali, Java and West Sumatra.

If the 2012 provincial and municipal elections are any indication, the May 2014 Belgian federal election could also involve e-voting technology. Over 17,000 voting machines were used by three million voters in 155 cities in 2012. Belgium has committed to a contract with Smartmatic to automate its elections until at least 2026.

Leading up to the European Parliamentary election in May, a website was erected that allows Europeans to “decide who YOU want to vote for.” Dubbed Debating Europe, the website focuses on Vote 2014, the “first ever pan-European online e-vote.” The voting here is based on political ideologies and the result can “act as a high-profile barometer of voting intentions.” Some of the 28 member states of the EU may also implement varying forms of automation and e-voting technology.

The United States will be holding its midterm elections in the early part of November. As has been the case in the past, the American elections will be incredibly complex. Many different mechanisms can and will be used, as the decisions are made by the local authorities in each state. Some will use traditional paper ballots marked by each voter, but these ballots may be tabulated by a machine rather than by a human volunteer. Other states may use direct-recording electronic voting machines (DRE), some with a voter verifiable paper trail and others without.  

This year will be a busy one for voters and governments all around the world, from Central America to the European Union, the nations of Africa to elections in Southeast Asia. Following the examples set in countries like Belgium, Estonia and the Philippines, electronic voting technology will continue to gain in popularity and adoption for all the world's elections.