Thursday, November 26, 2020

Conspiracy theories, a staple of US elections


The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued a statement on November 12 calling the last elections “the most secure in American history,” thereby directly contradicting the claims of the president who appointed them.

Bafflingly though, 88% of people who voted for Trump falsely believe Biden did not legitimately win the election. This, according to a The Economist and YouGov poll.

Conspiracy thinking around elections is nothing new in the US. Joe Uscinski, professor at Miami University specializing in the study of conspiracy theories, noted that conspiracy theories about election fraud are, in fact, a regular fare in US elections. “What we found was a regular stream of voter fraud accusations over more than 120 years that seemed to recycle endlessly”.

What is entirely new is a sitting president stoking the rumors himself. Where conspiracy theories usually swirled and died on the fringes, 2020 saw the theories being mainstreamed as the rabble-rousing Trump breathlessly claims of being ganged up on by deep state, Zionists, globalists, and other shadowy groups.

One of the theories being floated is that the software used to count the votes in the US is secretly controlled by Smartmatic, a company founded in the US in 2000. The rumor goes that ES&S, Dominion, Hart InterCivic, Scytl and Indra – all prominent election technology companies – are mere fronts of this evil company that the elites are using to control democracies around the world. Expectedly, Scytl, Smartmatic, Dominion, Indra have all denied the rumors.

In a recent marathonic and evidence-free press conference, Trump’s “Elite’s Strike Force” hit almost every conspiratorial keyword, from George Soros to Fidel Castro, from China to Cuba, and from The Clinton Foundation to the Chinese Communist Party.

Sidney Powell, who was present at the conference but was later disavowed by the legal team for concocting rumors that are too bizarre even for them, went as far as to claim to have evidence that “this came from Venezuela, from Nicolas Maduro, from Hugo Chavez, from Cuba, and from China which has significant interests in Venezuela.”

The idea that Hugo Chavez, dead since 2013, was able to steal the elections to overthrow Trump, has clearly just become the gold standard of preposterous claims.

This is not the first outrageous conspiracy theory Donald Trump has fanned. Uscinski writes that the president had “flirted with 9/11 conspiracy theories, proposed conspiracy theories about Syrian refugees, and accused Mexico of conspiring to ship murderers and rapists across our borders. His main claim to fame however was pushing the Birther theory in 2011.”

As unhinged and incredible the theories are, what’s worrying is how they are further eroding whatever trust the people have left in government. Americans have the terrible burden of preventing this from leaving a lasting scar on democracy.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Kyrgyzstan unrest highlights ills of political clientelism



Hordes of outraged Kyrgyz citizens have spilled into the streets of Bishkek, overrunning several government buildings and springing a number of opposition figures from jail in the process. The protesters, armed with rocks, have been battling the police in close quarters, leaving one protester dead and some 500 others wounded.

The ongoing turmoil has set off an unexpected turn of events — the election commission has annulled the results of the elections, Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov has resigned from office, and his post temporarily filled by Sadyr Zhaparov, one of the opposition figures released by protesters.

At the root of the unrest is political clientelism and its most common manifestation, vote-buying. The opposition is roiling with suspicions that the administration massively bought votes in the recent parliamentary elections. Although Kyrgyzstan is known to have one of the freer elections among the Central Asian countries, the recent incidents have revealed the ills of political patronage which has plagued the rocky history of the young republic.

In the 2017 presidential elections which installed current president Sooronbai Jeenbekov into power, for example, European observers noted massive vote buying. Although the observers cited the elections as a step towards being a full-fledged democracy for the ex-Soviet state, they emphasized the need to address the issue of political patronage squarely.

The parliamentary elections in 2015 was also marred by charges of vote buying.

Kyrgyzstan is just one of many democracies around the world which are grappling with the deleterious effects of political clientelism. Recently, charges of vote buying have hounded elections in Thailand, Indonesia, and Kenya, among others.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

2016 Philippine elections free from fraud - forensics experts

Elections forensics experts Kirill Kalinin, a national fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Professor Allen Hicken of the University of Michigan have concluded in a study that the contested 2016 Philippine general elections was free from fraud.

A paper titled “Using Election Forensics to Detect Election Fraud in the Philippine Elections, 2016,” revealed its key findings that the Philippine 2016 elections were relatively clean.

This study used the tools of election forensics to investigate charges of electoral fraud in the Philippine national elections of 2026.

“We focused on digit tests, finite mixture model and its equivalents. We pay particular attention to the measurement of stolen votes and geographic allocation of election fraud across national elections. We then focus on Marcos v. Robredo court case, which helps us to validate some of our research findings for the vice-presidential election,” the paper said.

It will be recalled that defeated vice-presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. had filed an electoral protest against the winner Vice President Ma. Leonor Robredo for alleged fraud. Although the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, composed of Supreme Court justices and tasked to decide on electoral disputes involving the two top elective positions, has yet to issue a formal ruling, it commented last year that its recount showed Robredo increasing her lead.

The study further said that even though there is some limited evidence suggesting the presence of election fraud, “their effect on the electoral outcome for the national races is insignificant.”

Election forensics is an emergent discipline which employs a diverse set of statistical tools such as Benford’s Law and other techniques similar to those employed to detect financial fraud, to analyze electoral data for pattern deviations which could suggest fraud.

According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), which is at the forefront of the new field, “numbers that humans have manipulated present patterns that are unlikely to occur if produced by a natural process—such as free and fair elections or normal commercial transactions.”

“These deviations suggest either that the numbers were intentionally altered or that other factors—such as a range of normal strategic voting practices—influenced the electoral results. The greater the number of statistical tests that identify patterns that deviate from what is expected to naturally occur, the more likely that the deviation results from fraud rather than legal strategic voting.”

Thursday, September 10, 2020

How bullet-proof is the paper ballot?

Calls to modernize elections are often answered with warnings. Skeptics claim that automated election systems lack the necessary mechanisms to ensure the integrity of the vote. These promoters of paper ballots seem to forget that basically all recorded cases of election fraud were conducted while using paper-based systems.

The article Cheating with Paper Ballots, by Professor Andrew Appel from Princeton University, debunks the notion of the infallibility of the paper ballot as he enumerated several possible ways to commit electoral fraud using these instruments.

One method, Appel said in the article, is to steal the entire ballot box and replace the paper ballots with fraudulent ballots marked differently, or just ignore the paper ballots entirely.

The article reveals that the practice used to happen on a regular basis, citing an example: “That is, in some counties, the party bosses who controlled the polling places and ballot boxes would just report whatever counts they wanted, regardless of the ballots. [See also: Robert Caro, Means of Ascent, 1991, Chapter 13]. In the 19th and early 20th century, insider election fraud was widespread in the U.S. [Saltman, The History and Politics of Voting Technology, 2006],” the article continued.

The practice of ballot-stuffing and ballot box-snatching appear to be prevalent in other parts as well, as evidenced by the conviction of a former Philadelphia Congressman, as well as reports in Russia, and in the Philippines.

Another method to cheat in elections that use ballot paper is by sabotaging the audit or recount, the article said.

“While working in a recount (or audit) of paper ballots, hide a bit of pencil lead under your fingernail. Surreptitiously mark overvotes on ballots marked for the candidate you don’t like,” Appel said.

Appel’s observations squares with a documented of incident in the Philippines where fraudsters appear to have made post-election tampering on ballots to sow confusion and undermine the legitimacy of the results.

The article argues that what all this illustrates is that “paper ballots with audits and recounts, by themselves, are not a panacea.”

Interestingly, Appel recommends the use of a precinct-count optical scan to counter such fraud.

“Votes are recorded and tabulated by the voting machine immediately as they are cast; paper ballots are saved in a sealed ballot box for later audit or recount,” Appel said.

“The election fraudster will find it more difficult to make fraudulent paper ballots that exactly match a fraudulent voting machine’s report, than to hack just the voting machine or just the paper ballots. Although the paper ballots are the default ballot of record, serious discrepancies can lead to investigations. Once it ends up in court, the judge can hear evidence; perhaps there will be reason to rule that the machine counts are trustworthy where the paper ballots are not,” the article continued.

This excellent article by this Princeton scholar is a clarion call to modernize voting systems. Election administrators must take advantage of any available technology that enhances the speed, accuracy and auditability of the count.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

How elections are faring in the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is leaving in its wake a massive reordering of society such as has never seen before. In an instant, the avoidance of the virus had taken primacy over any other activity, dragging along with it whole institutions and practices that for centuries have been largely taken for granted. Elections, whose clockwork regularity has been used by most democracies to mark time, are now in the entirely unfamiliar center of debate about possible postponement. 

Already, some elections in the following jurisdictions have been rescheduled to a later date, to wit: Botswana, Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Somalia, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda, Zimbabwe. Anguilla, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Kamloops, Lytton, Canada, New Brunswick; Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, French Guiana, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Australia, among others. According to Idea International, since February 21 and up until August 23, “at least 70 countries and territories across the globe have decided to postpone national and subnational elections due to COVID-19”.

Yet postponement is by no means the only response to the pandemic. Some electoral boards have successfully mitigated the risk by implementing Safe In Person voting measures, allowing for election continuity. Some notable elections that went ahead as scheduled were: Taiwan parliamentary elections, Singapore parliamentary elections, Slovakia general elections, Queensland, Cameroon parliamentary elections, Dominican Republic municipal elections, France local elections, Germany local elections in Bavaria, Guyana legislative elections, Israel legislative elections, Mali general elections, Tajikistan parliamentary elections, Ukraine by-elections in Kharkov region, primaries in the US; Vanuatu general elections, Japan local by-elections, South Korea parliamentary elections, Switzerland municipal elections in Geneva, among others.

Still other elections are right on track, the most eagerly anticipated of which is the US presidential elections in November. Although trial balloons have been flown to test the idea of postponing the exercise, public opinion has been quick to shoot them down. Under US laws, it would take a federal legislation to move the date of the elections, something that would necessitate a law enacted by Congress, signed by the president and subject to challenge in the courts.

While the issue of safety is paramount, the possibility that election delays could undermine democracy is very real, so much so that the EU has issued a paper urging member states to arrive at a nuanced decision regarding postponements. 

“When it comes to elections, decision makers should be very cautious when deciding to hold or postpone them by navigating carefully through constitutional and legal parameters,” the paper said, adding that “in case of postponement, public concerns about perceived attempts at extending mandates of incumbents “undemocratically” should be seriously considered.” 

However, the paper argues that proceeding with elections in COVID-19 hotspots carries with it the risk of considerably hobbling campaigns and further reducing the already rapidly declining voter turnout, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the elections.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Anatomy of election fraud: How manual counting abetted poll-rigging in Belarus


Kommersant Photo / Polaris/Newscom
Kommersant Photo / Polaris/Newscom

In a massive outpouring of indignation, hundreds of thousands of protesters have occupied the streets of Belarus demanding the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, who was recently elected for a sixth term in an election tainted by allegations of rigging.

Yet even as the high-stakes political drama plays out before the watchful eyes of the world, the nuts and bolts of how the alleged rigging was executed is likewise worthy of investigation.

The European Union has already rejected the results of the elections and is set to impose sanctions. Steffen Seibert, German Federal Government’s Press and Information Officer, declared that the minimum standards for democratic elections were not observed during the vote and believes the claims of the opposition about election fraud.

The Belarus election fraud debacle throws into sharp focus the inherent vulnerability of hand-counted elections to manipulation and the damage it brings to the integrity of the whole electoral process. Add this to the fact that manual elections are notorious for its lack of mechanisms to audit the results and you have a perfect storm for massive electoral fraud.

Ihar Barsuk, who served as a precinct election commission during the presidential election, revealed exactly how fraud was committed in his precinct. “According to my calculations, Lukashenka received about 10% of the vote. I do not remember the details but about 9-10% were stolen from opposition candidates. Just like that, in front of the entire commission and observers,” said Barsuk. Barsuk went on to say that commission members did not get to sign most of ballot papers, which raises serious questions on the chain of custody. But the major violations took place after the vote count where, according to Barsuk, his numbers “were very different to the results voiced by chairman of the commission.”

Outraged, Barsuk requested for a recount which the Commission granted. The recount revealed the discrepancy between Barsuk’s count and that of the chairman, which prompted correction of the official count. Barsuk made sure to document the attempted fraud by writing a note in the final protocol.

An election observer stationed in a Minsk precinct, Zmicier Sauka describes how the elections at his station were rigged. He claimed that 13 of the 15 observers were from the Belarusian Republican Youth Union and similar government organizations, precluding an independent observation of the proceedings.

Also, Sauka observed how he counted 710 people drop ballots in but was surprised to see the official tally at 1,046 voters, noting the difference of 336 “pseudovotes.” Worse, he noted that early voting votes for opposition candidate Karatkevich, which totaled 36, were not counted in the official tally which only reflected the in-person votes.

He believes that one person was enough to perpetuate election fraud in the precinct and laid the blame on the commission chair – the head teacher of secondary school 28 in Minsk.

The same fatal flaws of manual elections made evident in Belarus has provided the impetus for a growing number of countries to modernize their electoral processes and adopt automated election systems in one form or another. It remains to be seen how the Belarus will resolve the political upheaval. Either way, the international community is expected to put more and more pressure on the landlocked Eastern European country to fix its broken election system.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Questions hound purchase of new voting machines in Venezuela


When 48,000 voting machines burned in a mysterious fire that razed the warehouses of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) earlier this year, rumors flew thick and fast that it had something to do with the December parliamentary elections. The timing of the fire seemed suspicious to many as it left the CNE with very little wiggle room to select, purchase, and implement a new voting system.

Yet, as if on cue, news that the CNE acquired 15,000 new China-made machines have recently surfaced even as the circumstances around the fire is still unknown.

Alarmingly, the purchase seems to be clouded with questions. Chief of which is the criteria used to arrive at the decision to purchase the technology from an Argentine company named Exclé. There are no records of the company ever manufacturing a voting machine, not even in Argentina. Many have also observed the lack of transparency on the cost of the machines and the software they will use.

In the center of the controversy is the CNE, where shadiness seems to have been reigning supreme. The lack of transparency in crucial decisions made at the helm of the CNE prompted Director Rafael Simón Jiménez to resign only two months after being sworn in. Among the many irregularities he exposed as he exited the post was the direct purchase of the machines from ExCle.

Recently, the popular Venezuelan news portal Efecto Cocuyo ran an exposé on ExClé’s numerous involvement with the government of Nicolas Maduro Moros which include providing tech support for Bank of Venezuela and the Venezuelan cryptocurrency "Petro.” The company also provides biometric technology for Carnet de la Patria, or the homeland card.

These dealings led former Governor Carlos Tablante to raise in a Twitter thread the issue of conflict of interest. How indeed can a company with numerous lucrative dealings with a government be expected to count votes fairly?

The director of the Venezuelan Electoral Observatory (OEV), Carlos Medina, also expressed concern about the new purchase of voting machines claiming it "has not been very transparent". For years, OEV had been a staunch advocate of election automation. Yet concerns about the opaqueness surrounding the new technology have made the group question the credibility and legitimacy of future elections.

In 2017, automated voting company Smartmatic broke relations with the CNE after denouncing that the poll body had published results different from those counted by its system. Hastily, Exclé took over to organize the 2018 presidential elections, which was roundly condemned as illegitimate by the Lima Group, the Organization of American States, and the international community at large.

To make sure that everyone knows that it had severed any and all relationship with the CNE since August 2, 2017, Smartmatic issued a statement underscoring its public break with Venezuelan poll body. The statement also said explicitly stated that the break meant that CNE cannot anymore use the company’s software, and that the software to be used in the 2020 election with new machines purchased from another supplier is not theirs. Time is running out for Venezuela. As doubts grow, the hope of having credible elections to quell its roiling political environment dims.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Anti-technology groups endangering future of elections in the Philippines

In May 2022, voters in Philippines will go to the polls to elect their new president and other national and local officials.  For this general election, the country is set to use for a fifth time its automated election system, which it has adopted with great success since 2010. 

Popular opinion is that automation has resulted in a pronounced improvement in the credibility of elections, which had historically been marred by controversies due to the slow manual count and the susceptibility of the manual system to manipulation. In a 2019 survey, leading pollster Pulse Asia found out that 84% of Filipinos trusted election results and an overwhelming 91% wanted automated voting in future elections.

But despite the success of poll automation, some small yet loud anti-technology groups have somehow influenced lawmakers to file bills seeking to junk the system in favor of a so-called hybrid method, which purportedly blends manual and automated modes of voting. 

Election experts have been quick to warn that hybrid is just manual elections couched in technology speak, and represents  a significant downgrade that could set off a dangerous backslide toward the dark ages of  the flawed manual elections.
Election watchdog Democracy Watch said in statement that “adopting a hybrid vote counting system in 2022 is a step back for the Philippines in its journey towards transparent and credible elections.”
During an end-to-end demonstration at a school in Cavite, a province just south of the capital Manila, the system proved unreliable and inefficient. Witnesses were one in observing that moving back to manual counting, as implied under the hybrid system, would be a significant setback.
After the test, lawmaker Rep. Edgar Erice stated “I don’t think [hybrid system] feasible. The test run was not successful. I maintain that the law requires automation both in the precinct voting and transmission.”

Fredenil Castro, Capiz Representative and then House electoral reforms committee chair, stated that the hybrid system test was "miserably [unsuccessful] to even closely match the advantages of a fully-automated election."

As the elections inch closer, all eyes are on the Philippine legislature as it debates the hybrid bill. Will it pass a law supplanting automated polls in favor of the untried hybrid system thereby risking a regression to the benighted days of manual? Or will it uphold the successes of the past four elections and retain the automated election system to ensure that the 2022 polls are marked with transparency and credibility?

The future of Philippine democracy may very well be hinged on this.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

After a decade of automated polls, the Philippines stand as a positive reference

Elections in the Philippine have been among the most hotly contested in the world, with election protests being a fixture in the arsenal of many candidates unwilling to accept defeat. But since 2010, when the country adopted an automated elections system, it has seen a dramatic improvement in how elections are run. Key metrics such as accuracy in the vote count, transparency measures put in place and trust in results have steadily improved while the number of electoral protests filed has noticeably been in steep decline.

A recent assessment by the Manila-based think tank Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies, found the 2019  Philippine midterm elections to be “well-run” for achieving positive marks on key metrics such as accuracy, credibility, transparency, voter satisfaction, and number of electoral protests filed.

According to the paper authored by political scientists Ador R. Torneo and Topin S. Ruiz, the accuracy of the polls was verified by the results of the random manual audit (RMA) which reached a “record-high” of 99.99% in 2019, which is up from 99.90 % in 2016, 99.7% in 2013, and 99.6% in 2010.

The uptrend in the RMA results seems to be inversely correlated with the downtrend in the number of protest cases being filed. According to the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET), the body tasked to decide on protests filed for congressional posts, there were 49 cases filed in 2010, 37 in 2013, 28 in 2016, and 21 in 2019. None of these cases have resulted in reversals.

Other election protests filed before the country’s Commission on Elections (Comelec) is also decreasing.  Data from the poll body shows that 49 cases were filed in 2010, 32 cases in 2013, and 22 in 2010.

Credibility was measured in the study in terms of public perception, saying that “the people’s opinions and trust of the system and the election results are an indicator of credibility.”

“In Pulse Asia’s survey, 89% of Filipinos prefer the automated system, a comparable yet increasing trend since the first automated elections in 2010,” the paper said.

Transparency was also a hallmark of the 2019 polls,  as the study found the electorate to have had access to processes and information.

“For the 2019 mid-term elections, COMELEC (Commission on Elections) provided at least four means for the public to gain a good understanding of the how the system works. These included mock elections, source code review, public ballot printing system, and the results website.”

Voter confidence and satisfaction for the 2019 mid-terms elections was also notable, the paper said, with 83% of Filipinos were satisfied with the conduct of the elections.

“This is relatively consistent with all other elections under the AES. People’s opinions surveys resulted in 84% believing that the election results in 2019 were credible. This is a significant jump from 74% in 2016,” the paper said.

The full paper can be downloaded here.