Thursday, November 30, 2023

Election Modernization in the Philippines at Crossroads

 

The Philippine Commission on Elections (Comelec) made a very risky and surprising move on November 29, when it banned its long-time technology provider Smartmatic from bidding on the 2025 contract for election technology in the Philippines. The move could spell the end to one of the most successful examples of election modernization in the Asia Pacific region.

Comelec’s new leadership has chosen to sever ties with Smartmatic, despite the company's longstanding role improving Filipino elections and the integrity of the outcomes, which have held up to every audit and legal challenge. Petitions by political activists calling for Smartmatic's disqualification have been dismissed by Comelec, which has cited a lack of evidence to justify such measures.

In the weeks preceding the rulings, Comelec Chairman Garcia firmly stated that the committee would only consider disqualification if substantial evidence was introduced in a legal setting. On September 22, Garcia affirmed, "The presumption of innocence prevails. We will meticulously observe the progression of this matter, particularly the nature and substance of the evidence presented in court.” Additionally, in a PhilStar interview, the Chairman underscored, "The Comelec cannot disqualify on the basis of speculation, rumors, or mere allegations." Despite the absence of such evidence and the lack of a judicial proceeding, Comelec nevertheless moved forward with the disqualification of Smartmatic.

Responding to the disqualification, Smartmatic pointed out that Comelec failed to follow the standard legal process for disqualification and never gave the company a chance to prove its innocence. “This ruling is made without any legal basis and appears to be an excuse for what was clearly a pre-determined decision to exclude Smartmatic from the bid, irrespective of merit. Our reputation and goodwill have been unjustly besmirched and the right to join the bidding withheld unjustly,” reads the company’s statement.

Since its first participation in Philippine elections in the Mindanao province in 2008, Smartmatic has continuously supplied election technology and services to Comelec. The company won open bids for subsequent national and local elections from 2010 through the most recent elections in 2022. During this period, the country saw marked improvements in both efficiency and accuracy, as well as citizen safety from post-election violence.

Barring further explanation from Comelec, the committee’s decision is curious and may, indeed, backfire on it. Comelec’s choice was, supposedly, driven by its desire to maintain the integrity of its processes and elections. Yet by sidestepping its own rules and due legal process, Comelec is opening itself to those who would question its integrity and thus, the integrity of the elections in its charge. At a time when the committee is being heavily scrutinized for yielding to political and economic pressures, choosing to circumvent due process seems to be an odd choice that may irreparably harm the cause of election integrity Comelec works so hard to protect.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Insider's Insight: Kenya's Journey to Modernized Elections

 

Wafula Chebukati, the former Chairman of Kenya's Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), recently gave an insightful speech at the 19th International Electoral Affairs Symposium and Awards in Lisbon, Portugal. In his address, he emphasized the transformative impact technology had in preserving the integrity of the historic 2022 Kenyan elections.

As explained by Chebukati, the elections were significant, not only in Kenya's history but also in demonstrating the potency of technology in supporting credible democratic processes. Amid immense challenges long associated with Kenya's electoral landscape, and with the specter of the annulled 2017 elections still looming, the country achieved a milestone: highly credible elections that were recognized both nationally and internationally.

The successful integration of technology played a critical role in this achievement. The IEBC harnessed biometric technology to enable poll workers to validate voter identities and to digitally capture tally reports. Digital copies of tally reports were automatically published online in real time. The prompt publication of tally reports on the night of the election boosted transparency.

Despite the ensuing defamation campaign post-results announcement, where certain factions attempted to discredit Chebukati, the IEBC, and the technology, the legitimacy of the results was upheld by the Supreme Court. Broadcast online, these hearings made it evident that the deployment of technology materially contributed to transparency and integrity in the 2022 Kenyan elections. "The transparency with which Form 34As were transmitted and the bullet-proof technology systems utilized resulted in no single point of failure," stated Chebukati.

This landmark voting event coordinated over 460,000 poll workers across 22,229 polling stations, serving 22 million citizens. The technological advancements adopted not only ensured a smoother voting process but also offered a robust defense against claims of irregularities.

Chebukati's address at the Lisbon Symposium serves as a beacon of promise for other countries grappling with similar challenges in their electoral systems.

The International Centre for Parliamentary Studies (ICPS) is an organization dedicated to enhancing policymaking and governance by facilitating interaction between parliaments, governments, and societal stakeholders. The Symposium and Awards ceremony was held on November 13 – 16 and election specialists from the world over.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Voters with vision disabilities push for e-Voting right away

A group of voters with visually disabilities in Switzerland have been pressing the government to act swiftly in making e-voting available to them. Lamenting how the lack of digital accessibility excludes hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities, the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (SBV) said that the immediate implementation of e-voting is just the solution to make voting accessible for voters with sight challenges.

“One of the most objectionable deficits is the lack of accessibility for blind people and people with visual impairments in terms of exercising their right to vote and to be elected, as well as the protection of their voting secrecy,” said Roland Studer, SBV president.

He urged politicians and elections authorities to seize the opportunity to remedy these issues before the 2023 parliamentary elections. “The 2023 parliamentary elections must be the last elections that are not barrier-free,” he declared.

To backstop the group’s demands, Studer cited the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified by Switzerland in 2014, and the 2004 Disability Equality Act, which both underscore government’s duty to provide accessibility to handicapped people. Studer also emphasized the importance of extending accessibility to signature collections, advocating for electronic options. 

Voters with visual disabilities outside Switzerland face similar challenges. In the US, studies have shown that people with disabilities are less likely to vote than people without disabilities. This is likely due to several factors, including accessibility challenges, lack of transportation, and lack of information about the voting process.

Traditional voting modalities such as in-person voting and mail-in voting, can pose difficulties for people with certain disabilities. Sight-challenged voters may have difficulty reading the ballots or marking their choices while people with mobility and motor disabilities may find getting to precincts and physically filling out ballots nearly impossible tasks.

E-voting is well-poised to address these accessibility challenges. Electronic ballots can offer large print, high-contrast text, and audio output to get around sight impairment. Internet voting allows people with mobility disabilities to cast their ballots from anywhere.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Experts warn of dire consequences if election management boards not funded enough

During the recent US National Conference of State Legislatures, the director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab dropped a bombshell about the United States’ 10,000 local electoral management boards (EMBs), majority of which he said are being “woefully underfunded,” leaving them ill-equipped to address a raft of problems that has vexed US elections in recent years.

Election expert Charles Stewart III, who heads MIT initiatives to conduct scientific analysis on election technology, election administration, and election reform, placed the cost of nationally administering a presidential election somewhere between $2 billion-$5 billion.

Stewart III stressed the imperative for state and local governments to pony up the funding for EMBs, which are grappling with a host of concerns such as a high turnover rate among poll workers, harassment of poll workers by radical groups, and intensified cybersecurity threats.

The Cost of Conducting Elections

In his 2022 paper “The Cost of Conducting Elections,” Stewart suggested how election officials themselves could be abetting the problem by “making do” with what they have.

“They often express pride in pulling off the complicated logistical maneuvers necessary to conduct elections on a shoestring budget. One consequence of the frugality imposed on election administration is that services provided to voters vary considerably across the nation,” Stewart said.

“Some states and localities flood mailboxes with voter guides, use the most up- to-date equipment, and deliver information and services on sophisticated websites. Others provide only minimal services to voters, rely on voters to figure out the details of voting on their own, and use equipment that is no longer manufactured or is incapable of being updated with the latest security patches,” he added.

Underfunding also a global concern

A paper by ACE Project suggests that EMB underfunding not an exclusively US phenomenon but is also a growing concern worldwide. The paper posits that EMBs from Afghanistan, Cambodia, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, and Liberia, among others, are not getting the needed funding from their governments and are merely relying on international donors for substantial amounts of budgetary support, as well as technical assistance.

The report is critical of this dependence on external help. Apart from sustainability issues, the report cites how reliance on external funding could be problematic as conditions that donor agencies impose on EMBs could hamstring their work. Moreover, requirements from their own governments may make it dif´Čücult for EMBs to do a proper accounting of the donated funds.

The report goes on to state that, while inadequate funding may not necessarily trigger violence directly, inadequate resources may force EMBs to make concessions that can compromise the integrity and security of elections, leaving them vulnerable to disputes that can in turn feed violent conflicts.

“For example, core cost deficiencies may affect an electoral process’s technical integrity; lack of diffuse funds will limit the engagement of supporting agencies, especially those with the task of providing security; and a lack of integrity funds at the disposal of an EMB may harm the legitimacy of the process,” the paper said.

What can be done? 

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) perhaps summed it up best when it made this reminder: “Elections are an investment, not an expense.”

In an article on its website, the intergovernmental organization said that for all citizens of the free world, election costs should be thought of as the public investment that sustains democracy.

“The ‘return on investment’ that is associated with democratic and inclusive elections, supported by other key components of a democracy, can be measured in terms of social stability within a nation,” it said.

“By contrast, countries that underfund investments in their democracy tend to be associated with ineffective public administration (including election administration); low levels of voter turnout; high levels of election fraud, manipulation and voting irregularities; limited freedom for news media to scrutinize the exercise of power; inconsistent access to justice, civil liberties, social rights and equality; corruption and unequal enforcement of laws; and public dissatisfaction with political parties, legislatures and governments,” it added.

For International IDEA, the funding of national electoral processes is the sole province of the national government, and that donations, either from donor countries or the international community, should be shunned.

“Election financial assistance by donors should always be considered temporary, even though it may be necessary during post-conflict or transitional periods,” it said.

The article exhorted those who support and wish to safeguard democracy to ensure that discourse around election costs is publicly debated and “placed in a context based on facts, law and agreed societal values.”

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Next up for the Philippines: automated grassroots polls

 

Photo courtesy of ABS-CBN News

 

Since 2010, the Commission of Elections (Comelec) has successfully used electronic counting for national and local elections in the Philippines. This time, the poll body has set its sights on bringing the benefits of automation down to elections at the grassroots.

The hyperlocal polls, which go by the official name of Barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan Elections (BSKE), is set for October 30 of this year. Under the law, the BSKE is to be held every three years to choose grassroots leaders in 42,027 villages (barangays) across the country. Currently, the BSKE is still conducted manually and is plagued by problems of slow count, human error, and fraud.

The BSKE modernization initiative kicked off recently with mock elections in three pilot areas in and around the capital city of Manila. The successful exercise saw the return to active service of the familiar vote counting machines (VCMs), following a massive nationwide deployment in the 2022 general elections.

During the mock elections, Comelec Chairman George Erwin Garcia noted how automating the BSKE would speed up the process and make results available an hour after the polls close. Manual count is known to take days or even weeks to finish.

E-voting is also expected to reduce the risk of fraud and errors hounding BSKE. While manual elections are vulnerable to vote padding miscounting of votes and other anomalies, automated elections are more secure and reliable, as the votes are cast and counted electronically.

In addition, automated elections prove to be cost-effective in the long run, as they require fewer personnel and resources. The savings brought on by automation should be a welcome development for the national government.

Moreover, the automation of the grassroots polls is seen to immensely benefit electoral board members. While manual elections can be a long and tiring process for poll workers, who often must work for up to 24 hours straight, automated elections are much less demanding on election workers, as they only must operate the voting machines and do not have to manually count the votes.

The citizen watchdog Namfrel (National Movement for Free Elections), which was present as an observer in the mock elections gave its imprimatur on the initiative saying that automating the BSKE is “doable.”

The Comelec’s initiative to automate the BSKE represents a major step forward in upgrading the transparency and efficiency of the grassroots polls in the Philippines. With the benefits of automation trickling down to the most basic unit of government, the Philippines bolsters its standing as a primary reference for election modernization.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

How Income Affects Voter Turnout in the US

 

A report by a non-profit group Washington Center for Equitable Growth has suggested a causal link between income and voter turnout in the United States, shedding light on how the longstanding income divide in the country could be derailing initiatives to ensure that all voices are heard in the political process.

The 2021 report titled “The consequences of political inequality and voter suppression for U.S. economic inequality and growth, ” which also discussed race-based voting gaps, revealed how higher-income citizens of the United States are more likely to vote than their lower-income counterparts.

“Between 1978 and 2008, wealthier Americans were 65 percent more likely to vote than those with low incomes. In 2016, a presidential election year, eligible voters with annual incomes of less than $50,000 voted at a rate of 55 percent, while 80 percent of those with incomes of more than $150,000 voted that year. Households earning less than $15,000 made up 13 percent of all households in 2009 but comprised just 6 percent of the electorate in the 2008 election,” the report said.

The authors cite how lower-income Americans might be less inclined to practice civic engagement due to the following reasons -- they are less likely get paid time off from work, are more likely to regularly move their places of residence, are incarcerated at higher rates, and are more likely to face unstable transportation and child care arrangements.

The report likewise discusses how voting behavior can actually influence the outcome of economic policy. Studies have shown, for example, that states with higher levels of income based voting divides are less likely to enact policies that benefit low- and middle-income Americans.

The existence of a feedback loop between economic inequality and voting inequality was also described by the report, detailing how economic inequality can lead to lower turnout among low and middle-income Americans, which in turn can birth policies that benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor. This can further exacerbate economic inequality, creating a vicious cycle.

“Those who enjoy market power are, not co-incidentally, often the same citizens who enjoy outsized political influence, creating a feedback loop that perpetuates economic inequality, instability, and slow growth. Stated simply, a healthy economy requires a healthy democracy,” the report said.

The authors of the report argue that reducing electoral inequality is essential to reducing economic inequality. To short circuit the deadly feedback loop, the study urges policymakers to consider reforms to the country’s voting system to equalize access to the polls and ensure the electorate is truly representative of the country’s economic and racial diversity.

Specifically, the authors propose to:

· Ease voter registration requirements, potentially even making them automatic

· Enact same-day voter registration in all states consistent with those states that lead the nation in voter participation, where average turnout was more than 10 percentage points higher than in other states in 2012

· Restore voting rights to those with felony convictions, reduce wait times, guarantee paid time off for voting, and reestablish federal oversight through a restored Voting Rights Act.

The report urges policymakers to study how the measures taken by some jurisdictions including the expanded use of vote by mail and ballot drop boxes, could work to reduce income biases in election participation.

Washington Center for Equitable Growth is non-profit research and grantmaking organization advocating evidence-backed ideas and policies to promote strong, stable, and broad-based economic growth.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Georgia modernizes polls, inches closer to EU membership

Georgia’s recent efforts to modernize its elections have the effect of nudging it closer to its goal of becoming a member of the European Union.

The EU has laid down 12 conditions that Georgia must meet before it can join the union, including the establishment of an independent judiciary, protection of human rights, and an intensified fight against corruption. In complying with such, Georgia must first ensure the proper functioning of democratic institutions, including free and fair elections.

In the last few years, the country has implemented several measures to boost the transparency and fairness of its electoral process, including the use of vote counting machines and voter authentication systems.

Irakli Kobakhidze, who heads the ruling Georgian Dream party, had announced a widespread use of electronic voter registration and voting system starting with the 2024 Parliamentary elections.

“The successful experience of voter registration and voting with modern technologies allows us to implement this initiative on a large scale from 2024”, Kobakhidze said, adding that “electronic voting will ultimately strengthen public confidence in the vote-counting process, ensure that more than 70 percent of votes are counted and results published within minutes after the closing of the voting process, and eliminate problems related to rigging exit polls and parallel vote tabulation.”

Over the past two years, the Central Election Commission (CEC) of Georgia has successfully used electronic vote counting technology and identity solutions in three different pilots in the cities of Batumi, Adjara, and Senaki.

Politicians have crossed party lines on the matter, with Aleksandre Rakviashvili, an MP from the Girchi opposition party calling the move a “step forward” for ensuring a fairer electoral environment. This is reflective of the overwhelming support for the movement – as much as 83% of Georgians want to be in the EU.

The use of vote counting machines has dramatically significantly reduced human error and manipulation in the vote counting process. With the machines being designed to count votes quickly and accurately, the need for manual vote counting, which can be prone to errors and disputes, is eliminated.

In addition to the use of technology, Georgia has also made significant efforts to increase the participation of women and other underrepresented groups in the electoral process. In 2020, the CEC established quotas for female candidates in local elections and introduced a range of measures to encourage women to stand for office.

As a result, the number of Georgian women in parliament jumped from 14 to almost 20 percent. In 2021, women representatives in local councils increased from 13.8 to 24 percent. Likewise, women received 31.4 percent of mandates in proportional lists (441 mandates in total) compared to 19.8 percent of mandates received in 2017.

Georgians still need to buckle down to work – there is still much to be done in ensuring the transparency and fairness of Georgia's electoral process. The CEC needs to act on reports of irregularities and voter intimidation during recent elections, and the developing democracy needs to adopt a whole-of-nation approach to fortify its institutions and legal framework if it is to attain its European aspirations.


Thursday, April 20, 2023

Only two e-voting companies pass Upguard cybersecurity test

 

A recent study by cybersecurity consulting firm Upguard has revealed that only two e-voting technology companies have cleared its security test. In an article posted on its website, the global company details how it selected 6 of the biggest names in e-voting and ranked them according to their CSR (cybersecurity rating).

This Upguard study is important in shedding light into the state of cybersecurity in the e-voting industry. It should raise red flags, and spur election authorities into paying more serious attention to the cybersecurity posture of their vendors.

The study gave London-based Smartmatic the highest score with an 808 CSR out of a possible 950, making it the only one in the sample to earn the rating of Good. The rest either received a rating of Warning or Average.

“Relatively speaking, Smartmatic’s security posture is decent,” the article said. The article cites some issues with Smartmatic’s website that the company needs to remedy. Namely: disabled HTTP Strict Transport Security, lack of secure cookies, and disabled DMARC.

Coming in second with 561 CRS is ClearBallot which was rated Average. It was cited for its “semi-bolstered website perimeter security posture” but was cautioned about common flaws such as lack of SSL, HTTP Strict Transport Security, DMARC and DNSSEC that “plague its web presence.”

The rest of the companies received a rating of Warning, with OSET Foundation scoring 390, Dominion Voting 342, Unisys Voting Solutions 219. Bringing up the rear was ES&S with a dismal 143 CSR, which the study attributed to “a myriad of perimeter security flaws, saying “For example, lack of sitewide SSL render its website vulnerable to man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks, while the exposure of ports typically assigned to file sharing services and database communications give attackers additional potential attack vectors. A lack of DMARC and DNSSEC also contribute to ES&S' low score.”

While public is not normally interested in cybersecurity as it relates to e-voting, this discovery should change that, and should prompt heightened vigilance in ensuring that all e-voting systems are designed with security in mind.

Strong authentication and authorization mechanisms; use of encryption to protect data in transit and at rest; incorporation of regular security audits and testing to identify and address vulnerabilities; and rigorous independent testing and certification to ensure their security and reliability. All these practices should be baked into every e-voting system.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Philippines holds big election powwow

 


A major election conference in the Philippines aimed at improving the electoral process through technology was recently hosted by the country’s Commission on Elections (Comelec).

The three-day 2023 National Election Summit was attended by a broad spectrum of stakeholders from government, civil society, the academe, and the private sector. It served as platform for consultations and discussions in pursuit of continuing improvement of the country’s elections, which received a major boost when the Automated Election Systems (AES) was first used in 2010.

The convention featured breakout sessions that took a deep dive into blockchain, cybersecurity, digitalization, campaign contributions, inclusivity, and other hot issues surrounding elections.

Discussions on how the automated count has revolutionized elections in the country was the overwhelming tenor of the event, with numerous experts detailing how the AES has led to the declining numbers of electoral protests, a dramatic drop in incidents of electoral violence, and an unprecedented high approval rating for the Comelec.

On the same vein, a prevailing sentiment in the summit was a need for a continuing improvement in transparency, audibility, and security.

The event featured an exhibit where election companies showcased their high-tech elections systems including optical mark readers (OMR), ballot marking devices (BMD), direct recording electronic (DRE) machines, and internet voting solutions.

George Garcia, the Comelec’s chairman, underscored the importance of the summit in building consensus saying that “it’s not everyday stakeholders – whether they attack the Comelec or defend the Comelec – come together.”

“There are many ideas on how to prevent vote-buying, how to improve overseas voting, how to ensure high voter turnout, and what type of election system we should use,” he added. “In a democracy, we listen and we will act accordingly,” he added.

The Election Summit is being viewed by election observers as a strong confirmation that automation had largely benefited Philippine elections and is likely to be continued with some tweaks. A survey conducted shortly after the 2022 general elections revealed that 9 out of 10 Filipino voters want all future elections to be automated.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Historic: Estonian online voting system breaches 50% mark in recent Estonia polls

 

Estonia achieved a new world record last week when 51% of voters chose to participate in the 2023 parliamentary elections via the Internet. Since its introduction in 2005 in the Baltic nation, online voting has been enjoying a steady growth.

This success of internet voting is particularly impressive in light of the major cyber-attack in 2007 that disrupted Estonia’s government services and raised concerns about the security of its digital infrastructure. Despite the harrowing episode, Estonians have taken to the idea of digital democracy, a testament to how thoroughly the Estonian government had implemented its recovery measures, including its cyber deterrence strategies.

The increasing sophistication of the technology itself is also driving adoption. Online voting systems are now even more secure, transparent, and inclusive than ever before. They use advanced encryption and other security measures to make the system more impregnable against hacking and other cyber-attacks. The technology is designed to ensure voter anonymity and to be tamper-proof.

As the technology matures, more people are realizing the immense benefits of the internet as voting modality -- flexible, accessible, inclusive, user-friendly. Anywhere there is an internet connection, citizens can vote using a device of their choice. While online voting used to only appeal to tech-savvy young people, it now is increasingly within the reach of voters of all ages and backgrounds.

The COVID-19 pandemic proved to be another accelerant to i-Voting adoption. Online voting offers a safe and convenient alternative to in-person voting, a fact that has made it more attractive to citizens who may be hesitant to participate in traditional voting systems during a widespread health crisis.

The 2023 Estonia experience is a strong tell for the readiness of voters to embrace even more modern voting modalities such as the internet. Despite important questions around security and accessibility that need to be addressed, election commissions around the world would do well to take a page from the success of Estonia and start exploring how online voting technology could help them conduct better elections.