Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Parliamentary elections in Estonia are under way

Source: Baltic News Network
Estonia is about to elect 101 new members of the Rigiikogu (Parliament) on March 1st. Yet, early voting has already started.

According to the Estonian National Electoral Committee’s timetable, advance voting at county centers were open from February 19 to 22. Internet voting also opened on the 19th, and will close on the 25th. In Estonia, the time window to cast a vote online usually lasts 7 days. Advance voting at all polling places will be open from February 23 to 25. And Election Day occurs on March 1.

Preliminary results will be available on Election Day, and the final official tabulation will be published on March 2 after a verification of results. 

Estonia’s internet voting system has been lauded as a success story. However, it is not exempt from criticism. Last year, a group of scientist highlighted what they believe to be gaps in procedural and operational security. According to Cybernetica, the Estonian lab that built this voting system, the platform is safe and contains robust cryptography protocols and auditable organizational procedures.

Public-key encryption and digital signatures are used for the protection of ballot secrecy and integrity. One key element for its alleged transparency is the fact that, after casting their ballots, voters can verify that their choice was registered as intended. 

Estonian authorities and prominent public figures have given little credibility to the criticism. In a recent video, Estonia’s Prime Minister, 35-year old Taavi Rõivas, promotes online voting and calls his own country the most digital in the world -a title not many will dispute given Estonia’s impressive internet penetration rate and the level of e-services offered by the government and other public institutions.

Estonia has conducted 7 national elections in which online participation has steadily grown.  Last elections -in May 2014- 30% of voters used the platform. Authorities are confident this number is likely to keep growing.

The 2015 Rigiikogu elections will be the first since the resignation of former Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. It was then - March of 2014 - that the coalition of the Estonian Reform Party and the Estonian Social Democrats, headed by Taavi Rõivas, took power. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Tanzania weighing its e-voting options for October election

Many of the most exciting advances in electronic voting technology aren't necessarily being witnessed in first-world countries with high-end modern technology is a part of everyday life. Instead, it is in several developing nations around the world that e-voting, e-counting, and i-voting are receiving grassroots level support in part of a concerted effort to modernize these countries. 

Several countries in Africa have either already launched pilot projects in this field or are currently exploring the possibilities of doing so in upcoming elections. One example of particular note is Tanzania, where the country's general election is currently scheduled to take place this October. The National Electoral Commission (NEC) of Tanzania is being urged to not allow the country to be “left behind” in this “digital era,” being encouraged to implement electronic voting machines (EVMs), biometric voter registration (BVM), or a combination thereof. 

This follows in the example of other African countries that have already utilized some form of electronic-based technology as part of their democratic elections. As voter identification and voter verification are of critical importance, regular photo ID cards may not be sufficient to prevent voter fraud. To this end, the Tanzanian government has already decreed that a new biometric voting registration technology will be replacing the old voting system.

Indeed, the registration of voters using BVR is slated to start in February, well in advance of the October polls. Permanent Secretary Dr. Florens Turuka has indicated that the old voter identity cards will no longer be valid and all voters will need to register themselves through the new biometric system in order to qualify for voting in the upcoming general election. The system and technology have already been tested in three constituencies and every registered voter will receive new identification cards from the National Electoral Commission. 

Biometric voter registration and identification have already been used elsewhere in Africa, but some recent examples have been met with technical glitches and limited success. The system used in Kenya, which was co-developed by the Government of Canada and a sub-contractor called Morpho Canada, experienced numerous failures and some say this may have been caused by “massive fraud.” The elections in Ghana were marred with attempts at double registration and the theft of verification machines.

With both of these instances, the problems can likely be linked back to two culprits. First, human error and tampering can be problematic. Second, the systems may not have been properly secured and audited to ensure they would perform as needed for the elections in question. Tanzania needs to learn from the attempts in Kenya and Ghana, ensuring that they only contract respectable vendors with strong track records and that they ensure the proper security measures are in place to protect against those seeking to maliciously influence election results. 

As with Nigeria, Tanzania is still a transitioning nation and it will take time to move the country forward into the digital age for modernizing its democratic process. While it had its share of challenges, the recent elections in Namibia can also serve as a lesson and an example for modernizing elections on the African continent. Namibia was the first country in Africa to use direct-recording electronic voting machines. That is a major milestone. 

The Tanzanian election is only a few short months away. It will likely face many difficulties along the way, but a commitment to biometric voter authentication and the possible exploration into electronic voting machines or electronic counting of ballots represent positive strides in the right direction.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The ongoing push for e-voting in the UK by 2020

The United Kingdom has a long and storied history that is steeped in tradition, but hanging on to the past for tradition and nostalgia's sake alone could potentially be quite harmful for maintaining a modern democracy in the generations to follow. The case has been made again and again that e-voting, Internet voting or some combination thereof should be introduced in the United Kingdom for its elections moving forward. 

This isn't only coming from analysts, pundits and journalists either. A recent report by the House of Commons on the state of UK voter engagement has made the recommendation that pilot projects for electronic voting and online voting should be launched in parliament and that the option for Britons to vote online should be widely available by 2020. That gives legislators and government officials five years to put the system in place and have it ready for the mass public. 

As has been cited before, Internet voting could provide several benefits, one of the most notable of which is to encourage more engagement by young people in politics. Nearly everyone is already on the Internet on a daily or a near-daily basis, but they may not necessarily be as motivated to vote. By offering an online option, they may be more inclined and this will help to improve overall voter turnout while still offering in-person options on Election Day using paper ballots or, better still, direct-recording electronic voting machines (DRE). 

E-voting and i-voting could encourage higher voter turnout particularly among youth voters, many of whom are increasingly disinterested and discouraged by the political world. The simple act of digitizing elections and allow for online voting could make politics relevant for this important demographic once again. Columnist Richard Wood of Here Is The City Politics also cites the cost savings in the reduction of printing paper ballots, as well as well as the reduction of the impact on the environment as a result. 

There are challenges to overcome, to be sure, including maintaining the security and integrity of the vote, but the benefits are numerous as well. Edie Lush of British publication The Week is also a supporter of e-voting and i-voting in the UK. In particular, she outlines how an electronic-based voting system—whether that involves online voting, electronic voting machines, or electronic ballot counting machines—could expedite the election process significantly. 

She uses the recent election in the Philippines as a prime example of this. It once took 40 days before the election results could be reported, but after e-voting was implemented, the full tabulation was completed in a mere 48 hours. She asks why the UK cannot be “as smart as the Philippines” in this regard. Like many others, Lush also cites the glowing example of Estonia with its innovative and trend-setting system of electronic voter verification and online voting. 

It was once said that the sun never sets on the British Empire. The United Kingdom is a great world leader, but if it does not modernize its elections with electronic and online technologies, it could become a relic of the past rather than a glowing prospect of the future.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Remote e-voting mandated for non-resident Indians

When the discussion turns to the administration of an election and the different voting paradigms that are available, most people envision a traditional polling place where voters must arrive in person to cast a ballot. There are several different technologies that can come in to play here, from traditional paper ballots to direct-recording electronic voting machines to electronic ballot counting systems. However, it is just as important to consider what systems are in place for voters to cast their ballots remotely and from abroad.

This is precisely what is happening right now in India, the world's largest democracy by population, as the country's Supreme Court has officially ruled that the Central government must enable e-voting for Non Resident Indians (NRIs) in just a few weeks. The motivation is an obvious one: with a significant number of eligible voters living or working internationally, election officials are morally obligated to provide some means for NRIs to exercise their democratic right.

While some 11 million Non Resident Indians have been granted the right to vote as of 2010, the current system requires that they be physically present in their constituency on the actual voting day in order to cast a ballot. This can be incredibly cost-prohibitive for NRIs living and working abroad as it would not be financially viable to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on travel expenses simply to cast a single ballot.

The Election Commission's recommendation to validate and approve postal ballots has been accepted in letter and spirit, but a full e-voting based system would be far more effective and more efficient. However, that is not what is currently being implemented.

Instead, the system that will allow overseas Indians to cast their ballots from abroad is set up as thus: they will receive a blank postal ballot via e-mail from election officials. The NRIs must then download the paper, print out a physical copy, fill it out manually, and send it back through regular postal mail to the polling official in their constituency.

This is a positive first step, but it is hardly complete. First, it is incredibly challenging if not utterly impossible to positively verify the identity of the voter. Since the blank ballot is sent via e-mail, someone may be able to intercept or duplicate equivalent copies to fill out on their own. Second, because the delivery of the ballot is still through the post, it is vulnerable to all the pitfalls that accompany the regular postal system. The ballot can be lost, misplaced or delayed.

For elections in India to truly move forward in an age of increasing digitization, voting for NRIs should also be far more digital in nature. The ballot can be submitted via a secure web portal, for instance, as has been the case with the shining example in Estonia. And like Estonia, a reliable and secure system needs to be in place in order to adequately confirm the identity of voters. At minimum, these two criteria should be a part of larger plans for remote voting in Indian elections moving forward.

And to this end, the ruling by the Supreme Court in India to mandate e-voting for non-residents could help to catalyze similar movements in other countries around the world. By requiring the option for expatriates and remote workers to cast their votes from abroad, India may encourage other democracies to require the same. This is a significant step forward for modernizing democracy.