Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Technology and the 2014 Brazil general election

The 2014 general election in Brazil will see the election of a Brazilian President, as well as the National Congress, state governors and state legislatures. Incumbent President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers' Party, the first female president of the country, is running for re-election and she has been the front-runner in the first round of opinion polls. This election will also prove to be intriguing because of the increased role that electronic voting technology will be taking in the process.

Electronic voting, or “e-voting,” has had a long and strong history in Brazil. Each successive election has introduced greater measures and technology to help ensure improved security and increased automation. The 2014 Brazilian general elections are no different.

For those who are casting their ballots from abroad, Brazil's Federal District Regional Electoral Court (TRE-DF) is deploying over 900 voting machines to nearly 100 countries around the world. Remote voting for expatriates and those working abroad is an issue that is sometimes downplayed in other elections around the world, but the TRE-DF is treating it as an important priority.

The process for preparing, sealing, shipping and deploying the electronic voting machines is being very carefully monitored and controlled. The TRE-DF is working closely with consulates and diplomatic missions from the different countries. An audit team checks all the machines before they are securely stored for transport and the transportation process falls under the same rigorous scrutiny for security as those machines used in Brazil itself.

Brazil started testing electronic voting way back in 1996 with the goal of extreme simplicity. The machines were meant to be easy to use and easy to deploy, automating the electoral process as much as possible. In the nearly two decades that have followed, Brazil has continued to utilize technology, including direct-recording electronic voting machines (DRE). Efficiency, confidentiality and security have improved greatly.

In an effort to further improve security, Brazil introduced a biometric voter authentication system in a 2008 pilot project that continued with the elections that followed in 2010 and 2012. The system, overseen by the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) utilizes a high-definition biometric fingerprint scanner. The pilot project only saw use by a 100,000 voters across three counties, but this number grew to over a million voters in 60 cities for 2010. In the 2012 election, some 7.7 million voters were authenticated and identified via the biometric system. Voter fraud is minimized and the legitimacy of the vote is upheld.

For the 2014 general election, the deployment of biometric authentication is expanding once again. Over 22 million people will be identified by their fingerprints.

With a geographical area of 8.5 million square kilometres (3.2 million square miles), Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world. While the majority of its citizens do live in urban areas like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil still has many remote rural areas where voters may struggle with access. By deploying over 1400 Broadband Global Area Network SABRE satellite terminals, a Smartmatic-led consortium called Smartitec is securing data and voice communications in Brazil's 15 most isolated states. Voters in remote areas have just as much of a right to choosing their government as their urban counterparts.

Between the deployment of voting terminals for remote voting abroad, the expanded use of biometrics for voter authentication, and the inclusion of secure satellite terminals for voting in remote areas, Brazil's 2014 general elections illustrate the powerful use of technology in the modern electoral process.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mandatory voting should come with more voting options

In Abraham Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address, he spoke about the importance of having a government “of the people, by the people [and] for the people.” That second aspect is positively crucial in a democracy, because it means that government officials and selected and elected by the country's citizens. While it may not have necessarily been the case in Lincoln's day, in a modern democracy, this also means that the government should not be elected by a select few, but rather by the population at large. Voters should come from all walks of life, from all sorts of demographics, such that all of their interests are suitably represented in government.

Gage Skidmore
However, a democracy is only as strong as the people who vote within it and low voter turnout continues to be a problem in many parts of the world. It was experienced in the recent European Union elections, just as it is a problem in the United States. In Canada, the federal Liberal Party is considering mandatory voting as means of eliminating the problem of low voter turnout. 

The idea of instituting compulsory voting was previously explored in this blog not that long ago. There are certainly proponents and opponents of such a system and both its merits and disadvantages need to be carefully scrutinized before mandatory voting is implemented in any democracy. However, if the law requires that all eligible citizens must cast a ballot in federal elections, then an infrastructure needs to be put in place to best facilitate the vote.

Traditional paper ballots submitted at traditional voting places that citizens must visit in person would likely not be sufficient and it would not be the most convenient. As many of these polling stations already struggle with efficiency and with the exceptionally long waits experienced in many parts of the United States, it is clear that managing a near 100% voter turnout under the current system would result in chaos. The logistics are not there.

In the case of Canada, voter turnout got as high as almost 80 percent in 1958, but it has since dropped significantly down to under 60 percent in 2008. By contrast, voter turnout in Australia is consistently around 95 percent and that's because mandatory voting has been in place in Australia since 1924.

Looking ahead to the future, election officials and government representatives need to consider more efficient and convenient voting methods. Direct recording electronic voting machines at physical polling places is a good place to start, as the electronic machines theoretically never run out of ballots and can handle a theoretically infinite volume. The electronic nature of these voting machines may also be more approachable by young people, who are far more accustomed to smartphones, tablets and other consumer electronic devices. 

Many other government operations that are mandatory among citizens can be completed in an efficient and secure manner through online portals. All citizens must file their income tax returns each year, for example, and Canadians can do so through the Internet. The same idea can be implemented when it comes to federal elections, utilizing similar or even more advanced methods for voter identification and verification. 

Online voting may not be the “magic bullet” for improving voter turnout, but it can provide a more easily accessible means for citizens to cast their ballot from the comfort of their homes, offices or even mobile devices. When everyone votes, then the government is truly elected not only by the people, but by all the people.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

E-voting in Australia could use myGov for voter verification

In most parts of the world where elections still rely on traditional paper ballots submitted at official polling stations, the volunteers and election staff on hand are tasked with the responsibility of verifying the identities of voters and comparing them with the list of registered voters. In most cases, a simple driver's license or some other form of government-issued photo identification will suffice. Other places may ask for a piece of mail with the voter's home address. Depending on the jurisdiction, the rules may be more strict or more lax.

When direct recording electronic voting machines are introduced at official polling sites, there are still staff on hand who check the identity of voters before directing them to the appropriate machine. The machines themselves may or may not have voter verification technologies in place, like scanning a government-issued identification card. What happens, then, when the vote is taken online?

This is the question being raised ahead of the 2016 federal election in Australia and the current proposal is calling for integration with the existing myGov account system. The Australian Department of Communications is looking for an e-voting trial for the upcoming election, following the success of smaller trials in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and New South Wales. Extending this trial on a national scale introduces additional challenges, but the existing infrastructure of the myGov government log-in system could work.

The myGov system is meant to provide Australians with a simple way to access government services, using “one login, one password [and] one destination.” Member services already utilizing the myGov system include Medicare, Child Support, and Centrelink, the last of which handles a range of government payments.  Department of Communications deputy secretary Abul Rizvi says myGov “may provide an ideal vehicle to trial e-voting at the federal level.”

However, it has been met with skepticism and critics due to vulnerabilities that were discovered in the website. It is important that the Australian government address these concerns over security and confidentiality ahead of the 2016 e-voting election trial. In many parts of the world that are experimenting with or have already implemented e-voting technology on a widespread scale, biometric authentication of voters can be very useful.

To accurately identify voters, electoral agencies can utilize biometric data that is unique to each individual, including 10 fingerprints and iris scans, as well as photo identification, signatures and secure passwords. Biometric technology can protect against election fraud, as in the case in Tanzania ahead of its 2015 national elections.

One of the reasons why Estonia continues to be a world leader in online voting technology is that all citizens have mandatory identification that includes biometric data. The myGov system in Australia could serve as a similar platform as it continues to grow and mature. Rizvi feels that Internet voting is the “inevitable long term outcome” for electronic voting and having the pieces in place ahead of time can prepare the country and its citizens for this reality.

In the meantime, as voters still submit their ballots in a physical voting place, electronic voting devices could provide a reliable bridge between the two technologies. Indeed, Rizvi states that voters may be able to bring their own device—like a smartphone or tablet—to the voting place and connect to the local system to cast a vote. This reduces cost for the electoral system and allows for experimentation with myGov-based Internet voting in a closed and secure network.