Tuesday, April 28, 2015

E-voting can improve access to democracy for Zambians

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln once stood for a “government of the people, by the people [and] for the people.” Indeed, one of the most important pillars of a strong and legitimate democracy is one wherein eligible citizens can and do have a voice in who governs them. This is regardless of sex, religion, social status or geographic limitations. To this end, it is always in the best interest of a fair, honest and transparent election to provide the greatest possible access to the polls to the greatest number of eligible voters as possible.

In countries where literacy rates may be low, this might mean having ballots where even those who cannot read can still understand who they are voting for. It also means having ballots where people with physical limitations, like impaired vision or mobility, can still cast a vote. And while it is indeed true that urbanization continues to be on the rise all around the globe, there are still substantial populations who live in more rural and remote areas. And these populations deserve to have their voice heard.

And that is precisely why electronic voting technology is being encouraged ahead of the upcoming elections in the African country of Zambia. The people of Zambia are spread all across its country and some even end up in foreign lands in search of a better life or improved job prospects. These people are still entitled to take part in democratic processes.

Zambian President Edgar Lungu has stated on the record that he is in favour of adopting electronic voting technologies in the country, even though opposition FDD spokesperson Antonio Mwanza says that the government should focus on acquiring local printers for printing ballots first. Mwanza feels the ballot papers should be printed locally and not in South Africa, but e-voting can potentially eliminate the need for the printing of ballot papers altogether.

In the case of a voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT), the printers can be integrated as part of the larger e-voting system and ecosystem as a cohesive approach to democracy. President Lungu has the support of other parties for adopting e-voting too, including the United Party for National Development (UPND). Party representative Edwin Lifwekelo says the system would be good for counting and voting purposes and that it would ensure full participation of the Zambian people in the electoral system.

One of the biggest motivating factors for adopting electronic voting systems in Zambia is precisely that: to provide greater access to the democratic process for all Zambians, regardless of where they are located. Education and infrastructure will surely play critical roles in the selection, deployment and running of the e-voting system, but these are investments in the future of Zambia and a more engaged electorate is positive for the African country.

The Zambian government and its electoral commission can look not only to its other African neighbors for support and guidance from their own early experiences with democracy and e-voting, including biometric voter registration and authentication, but also to the many other democracies around the world that have had to deal with having voters spread over a large geographic region.

Two such examples are those demonstrated in the Philippines and Australia. Remote voting was enabled by the use of electronic voting technology. Several thousand ballots were cast in the 2013 Philippine election in this manner and the Australian government continues to invest in its iVote system as a viable and reliable alternative to postal voting. Traditional polling stations will always have a place in a modern democracy, but remote voting needs must also be addressed.

The next general election in Zambia is scheduled to take place in September 2016.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Putting a finger on Nigeria's biometric woes

To say that Nigeria has faced its fair share of problems, challenges and even crises would be a severe understatement. Even so, the government and the people of Nigeria are working hard to turn things around for the young democracy that still battles with corruption and severe infrastructure issues. Nigeria is a nation in transition and it is struggling to conduct fair, free and transparent elections. It has had a long history of government abuses that it must now work to overcome.

Working toward this ambitious and righteous goal, Nigeria implemented a biometric voter verification system for its most recent federal elections held toward the end of March 2015. Muhammadu Buhari defeated incumbent Goodluck Jonathan by the narrowest of margins, earning just under 54% of the popular vote. For this election, every Nigerian voter was supposed to receive a permanent voter card that stores his or her biometric information for the purposes of authentication at the polls.

While Nigeria has already had an Automated Fingerprint Identification System for a few years, the old system was only used to create a digital register. This was designed to prevent multiple voting at the polls by eliminating doubles from the voter register. With the new system, the identity of the voter is more accurately authenticated to prevent ballot stuffing from “ghost” votes, underage voting, and otherwise illegal or unauthorized votes.

Unfortunately, the 2015 elections in Nigeria were marred with a number of issues and these were already demonstrated in an early mock polling held a few weeks before the actual election itself. In that trial run, held in 225 polling units and 358 voting centres across the country, many of the identity card readers took as many as 20 minutes for the verification process. What's more, over 40 percent of the voters who participated in the early test were not identified by the system. They reportedly had valid voter smart cards, but they were not recognized.

These issues were not suitably rectified ahead of the March 28 election day. The election itself faced several technical glitches that resulted in the need to extend voting to the following day. Again, the verification process simply took too long or didn't work at all. The adoption of e-voting technology in general and biometric authentication in particular has been a challenge for the African continent with significant problems experienced by other elections, like those in Ghana in 2012, as well.

The causes of these problems in Nigeria are similarly mirrored across other African democracies. The malfunctioning technology can be traced back to poor implementation by electoral commissions, not performing the needed due diligence well ahead of Election Day. The lack of proper infrastructure is another concern, like the lack of reliable electricity access. In Nigeria in particular, the elections were also troubled with attacks by the Boko Haram terrorist group, who disrupted many of the day's proceedings.

Another big issue with biometric voter registration and authentication? Dirty hands. The fact of the matter is that biometric fingerprint readers will always work best with clean hands. However, a significant proportion of the Nigerian population have dirty hands from working the gardens or cooking over a charcoal or firewood stove. Their hands can be dirty or oily when they reach the polling stations and this can create problems for the biometric authentication process.

For this reason, as popular as fingerprint readers may be in the context of biometric authentication, alternative technologies may need to considered for regions such as Nigeria. There are promising possibilities afforded by iris scans, for example, though the technology may be more costly than fingerprint scanners.

The road toward a fair, open, transparent and secure election in Nigeria will be a long and arduous one filled with many more challenges to come. The experience with this year's election was surely a difficult one, but there is hope and potential for a brighter tomorrow. Positive steps were taken in Namibia's first election with e-voting technology, for example, and Tanzania would be well advised to take the Nigerian experience under consideration as it looks toward its own national election later this year.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Swiss abroad push for electronic voting

Switzerland is consistently ranked as one of the most desirable places to live in the world, with cities like Zurich and Geneva topping many international lists. Switzerland is one of the richest countries in the world on a per capita basis and it also has among the highest standards of living. The Swiss approach of “armed neutrality” means that the European country is generally very peaceful and safe as well. Even so, Switzerland is still not necessarily the most modern or technologically advanced when it comes to its modern day democracy.

There are a number of Swiss citizens who are living or working abroad, and they are just as deserving to the right of suffrage as their counterparts who live in Switzerland itself. However, access to the democratic process is still quite limited and this is why the Council of the Swiss Abroad are rallying behind the promotion of electronic voting for Swiss expatriates.

The expatriate community is represented by the Council of the Swiss Abroad and at the council's regular meeting in Bern in March, all of the over 120 representatives approved a new 8-point manifesto on the future of elections in Switzerland, particularly as it pertains to voting access for Swiss who are living or working abroad. The approval by the council was unanimous, emphasizing how important it is that expatriates can still participate in the Swiss political process and have their voice heard.

As Organization of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) president Jacques-Simon Eggly indicated at the meeting, this is a critical element in keeping the democratic system alive, transparent, and representative in the country. The OSA is pushing for expatriates to have the ability to elect officials into both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Approximately 10% of the Swiss population live abroad, numbering over 700,000 in total, and this number continues to grow. Most live in neighbouring European nations (462,000), like France, Germany and Italy, followed by the Americas (181,000), Asia (50,000), Oceania (31,000), and Africa (21,000).

However, only 142,000 expatriates globally are currently registered and eligible to take part in votes and elections. Three electronic voting systems have been tested in 14 of the country's 26 cantons, but this means that citizens from the country's other 12 cantons do not have access to the Swiss Abroad e-voting platform. A big part of the problem is that many Swiss expatriates have been denied the possibility of having an account in Switzerland. This leads to problems related to pension payments, for example, as well as access to voting rights. 

Among many other reasons, this is why Swiss Abroad is pushing for the rapid and widespread introduction of a better e-voting system that would empower expatriates with the ability to participate in the democratic process. The tests in 14 of the country's cantons demonstrate a strong interest in e-voting among the expatriate community. This echoes similar sentiments expressed in other international democracies like those in India and demonstrated in Brazil.

Understandably, the Swiss government would not want to rush into the full widespread deployment of a brand new e-voting system and further investigations into the matter are clearly required. As Barbara Perriard of the Federal Chancellery indicates, “Security comes before speed.” Transparency, reliability and the sanctity of the secret ballot must be maintained. 

"All Swiss expatriates," said Jacques-Simon Eggly, "have to be able to have access to e-voting to use their political rights." Given the strong and proud banking tradition of Swotzerland and its high standards forsecurity and privacy, the development of a secure and reliable e-voting paradigm for expatriates should be a top priority.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Optical scan vs. electronic touchscreen voting machines

The democratic process in any given city, county, state or country should be reasonably independent and impartial such that it is not directly influenced by outside forces. The results of such elections should represent the will of the people in an accurate and transparent manner. This being said, government agencies from around the globe can benefit greatly by collaborating and sharing their knowledge, experience and expertise in regards to voting technologies being used.

Last October, the EVOTE 2014 International Conference was held in Austria, gathering together some of the most influential figures in the vertical of voting paradigms, administration and technology. This has since been followed by the 9th Annual International Electoral Affairs Symposium in December 2014, hosted in South Africa. One of the presenters at the event was Bruce Clark, the Kankakee County Clerk from the United States, and he spoke about the experience of the 2014 midterm elections in Illinois.

In addition to discussing poll worker training, outreach efforts, and ballot preparation, a key subject addressed was the deployment and use of optical scan machines for the election. One of the major trends observed by Clark was the shift in the type of voting equipment used in United States elections over the last 10 to 15 years.

The types of voting equipment in 2000 were incredibly varied and fragmented across the different counties in the United States. There was no systematic approach, resulting in counties using punch cards, DataVote, levers, paper, optical scan, electronic and mixed systems in a rather scattered fashion. By contrast, the vast majority of counties and townships in 2012 used either optical scan (62.8% of counties) or electronic voting machines (32.8%), resulting in less than 5% of counties using different equipment.

Given this, the Kankakee County Clerk took a closer look to compare optical scan (OS) machines with touch screen (TS) electronic voting machines. In the case of an optical scan machine, people still cast their vote on a paper ballot, but it is then inserted into the optical scan machine for tabulation. The advantages here include the fact that people like to see their vote and, in case of a discovery, there is a physical ballot to examine. However, ballot costs can be significant and there are physical limitations to the size of the ballot box.

By comparison, there are many positives associated with the use of a touchscreen direct-recording electronic voting machine (TS DRE). The accuracy level is incredibly high and the touchscreen machines facilitate far better accessibility for voters with disabilities, as they are able to cast a ballot completely unassisted. An audit trail can be produced, just like the optical scan machine, providing great accountability and transparency to further bolster the legitimacy and integrity of election results.

Naturally, considerations need to be made before implementing touchscreen voting machines. There may be issues related to calibration and, in addition to the upfont cost to purchase each machine, counties and election officials must consider the costs of equipment repair or replacement. Even so, the pros clearly far outweigh the cons and this is why touchscreen machines are understandably growing in popularity.

By working with other governments around the world and increasing competition among the vendors of electronic voting machines with touchscreen capabilities, election administrators can encourage further development in the industry, continuing to improve reliability, security and affordability.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

E-voting encouraged in Zimbabwe and Nigeria

E-voting modalities continue to gain in popularity across the globe, despite what some of the opponents of electronic voting technology may have to say about its challenges and limitations. It is only be modernizing the electoral process and updating it to an increasingly interconnected and digitally-powered world that democracies can continue to be relevant.

This is one of many steps needed to appeal to younger voters in particular, but also the mass electorate as a whole. Technology can improve transparency, developing a greater level of trust that voters can have in the electoral process and in the reported results of elections. Without trust and transparency, an election holds no weight among a nation's citizens.

What is curious is that some of the biggest advancements in e-voting adoption are coming not from established democracies in fully developed nations, but rather in relatively young democracies in economies that are still struggling and in development. Indeed, Africa has become a major point of discussion in this regard.

It should come as little surprise, then, that e-voting is gaining support in countries like Nigeria and Zimbabwe. More specifically, the Nigerian Computer Society (NCS) is encouraging the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in the country to adopt electronic voting for its upcoming general elections. It is said that a “huge percentage of the voting population” is unable to collect the Permanent Voter's Card (PVC) and the card reader machines may be non-functional. 

The NCS believes that e-voting will help to reduce costs and bolster transparency. They say is more accessible for economies and governments of all sizes. By having the infrastructure in place, costs can be saved in the long run through economies of scale. According to NCS President, Professor David Adewumi, the lack of computer literacy is not an issue, as even “the old people in the villages now use mobile phones.”

In much the same manner, the Elections Resource Centre (ERC) is urging the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to adopt electronic voting paradigms in time for its elections in 2018. They can gain from and leverage the recent experience in Namibia with e-voting  to improve its own implementation of the e-voting technology. Namibia was the first African country to use the technology and it did so in a “flawless” manner that was “praised the world over.” 

In addition to cost savings, perhaps one of the greatest advantages to e-voting is that “it removes human error and rigging” of manual paper ballots, said ERC director Tawanda Chimhini. “We want a situation where those defeated in the elections can endorse the results.” Again, this comes back to transparency and legitimacy, an area where many elections in Africa continue to struggle.