Friday, May 31, 2013

The Colombian race for election automation

Bogotá. Photo: Miguel Vaca

A very important deadline is coming up in the Colombian electoral calendar: by 2014, e-voting should have been implemented for the upcoming Senate and House of Representatives elections. However, so little has been done to that end, that the chance of meeting the goal is slim.

For many Colombians, the fact that their government set a deadline for the implementation of e-voting might come off as a surprise. This is because there is not enough information about this project available to the public, as it seems to have been left stagnant by a lack of budget stemming from the disinterest shown by the central government so far. However, the National Registrar, Carlos Ariel Sánchez, stated that e-voting is necessary to simplify the country’s complex multiple election system used to elect senators, house representatives, and members of the City Council of Bogotá.

At least some steps have been taken to advance the project, though. In recent days, the National Registrar presented three options to the Electronic Voting Advisory Commission for the potential method to be adopted: paper ballots with automatic scrutiny, touchscreen devices with no vote receipt, and touchscreen devices with vote receipt. The commission will evaluate the three models in terms of their reliability, accessibility, precision, and auditability. It goes without saying that in terms of voting machines, those that emit printed voting receipts will always be preferable to those that don’t. According to Barbara Simons, member of the Election Assistance Commission Board of Advisors, all computers used in an election must be audited, and for that reason “there must always be physical records [of the ballots cast electronically], that is, paper receipts.”

E-voting is ideal for multiple elections, as it enables the display of the equivalent of several paper ballots on a single touchscreen, thus reducing costs and making it easier for voters to participate. In fact, it has already proven successful in different countries, even recently. Therefore, it would be absolutely beneficial for the Colombian authorities to step up their game and raise the level of importance of e-voting in their agenda and budget.

It is highly plausible that Colombia will delay the implementation of e-voting, but this is preferable to hastening the process just to meet the deadline, which can lead to completely undesirable results. As for now, the South American country is already implementing biometric authentication in its upcoming elections, and pilot tests for voting machines will be held during political parties’ internal referenda. Fortunately, it seems the road to automation for Colombia has not been completely forsaken, after all.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The voter turnout conundrum in America

Photo: Cayusa

Voter turnout is one of the main concerns of every electoral body when it comes to its democratic exercises. As stated in, a high voter turnout is an indicator of a healthy democracy, which is why every time there is an election there is also a wave of complaints about the low participation rate. However, believe it or not, the highest turnout in an American election was achieved in 1876 (81.8%), and even then we could not speak of real democratic participation, as women and members of the black community did not have the right to vote. This means that absenteeism is not a new problem in our society. What could be new, though, is the way to address it.

Many hypotheses have been offered on the cause for theseemingly unchanging electoral absenteeism in America. Francis Fukuyama affirms that the welfare state has made people comfortable, causing them not to vote. Others say technology is to blame, as people are excessively entertained by the gadgets they keep at home. Well, if technology is the enemy, why not use it to our advantage?

What analysts are deeming as ‘excessive comfort’ may actually be the sign that things have to change in order to engage people into democracy, as we are no longer the same citizens that voted in 1876. Our way of life has changed radically. No one would call us too comfortable or lazy because we don’t grow our own food or sew our own clothes. Our modern lifestyle demands speed and accessibility.

Over the years, manual voting has proved tremendously cumbersome. Identity theft remains rampant, printing errors in the paper ballots cost the government millions of dollars and cause people to vote mistakenly, and people with disabilities find it very difficult to cast their ballot. The 21st century has seen us adopt different automation mechanisms for other aspects of our life, so why not adopt them for democracy?

With its usability, accessibility and speed, e-voting comes out as the natural solution to the question of how to stop wrestling against technology to increase voter turnout. Venezuela, for instance, got an 80% voter turnout in its 2012 presidential elections, which were fully automated. Besides, the complete auditability of electronic voting platforms eliminates electoral fraud and boosts its reliability. 

The voter turnout conundrum is actually not a mystery at all. With technological tools available to encourage electoral participation and the acknowledgement from the President himself that waiting times for voting in the US need improvement, there is access to a solution that can help strengthen democracy by giving citizens an effective tool that will motivate them to exercise their right to vote easily and smoothly.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Internet Voting: unreliable actions to capture voters

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos

According to Andrew Ellis, director for the Asia-Pacific region for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, one of the four factors that influence voter turnout is accessibility to voting: to make available polling stations and offer alternate voting practices such as e-voting or vote by mail. 

It’s true that voter turnout is an important indicator of a healthy democracy, but this does not mean that it must be attained at any cost. Internet voting is one of the electoral systems that governments have been using to attract more voters, but its use places democracy at risk.

Estonia has been renowned for its early adoption of online options for its elections. Switzerland has followed Estonia’s example and has incorporated Internet voting into its system. This is not a rare decision for the country, keeping in mind its antecedents with postal voting: by increasing flexibility, Switzerland’s turnout grew from 30-35% in 1995 to 50-55% in the early 2000s. It was no wonder then that the electoral authorities would push this flexibility even further by taking advantage of communication technology. Nowadays, over 90% of Swiss voters use the Internet to cast their ballot. The question here is whether we can trust the results of these democratic exercises.

The idea in itself is good and the results are favorable in terms of voter turnout. However, it is not exempt from grave flaws. Internet voting is hard to monitor, and therefore it could be easily tampered with. A senior advisor at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, when asked by the Election Assistance Commission to evaluate Internet voting, stated: “Internet voting systems cannot currently be audited with a comparable level of confidence in the audit results as those for polling place systems. Malware on voters’ personal computers poses a serious threat that could compromise the secrecy or integrity of voters’ ballots.”

With online voting, Switzerland remains devoid of a physical proof of each vote that can be audited at any given time. A voting platform that includes machines with paper trails (vote receipts) provides verifiable evidence for anyone to validate the results of an election if need be. On the other hand, Internet is largely accessible by anyone, and is in fact a harbor for identity theft. Some form of biometric registry and authentication is needed to prevent dishonest people from voting on behalf of dead citizens. This, too, is a problem that is solved with the use of voting machines.

We can’t be too flexible and forget auditability and integrity in the name of comfort. Voters need easy access to their right to suffrage, but the results need to reflect exactly the people’s intent as well as abide by the “one voter, one vote” principle. With its lack of verifiability, both of the voter and the votes, Internet voting can hardly guarantee either of these values.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Younger generations embrace e-voting


The rapid evolution of technology during the past few decades has entailed a generational mindset shift. While the older generations have been generally adverse to change, today’s youth is easily adaptable to the fast-paced integration of ever more advanced tools into the world. Young people are open to incorporating new technologies into different aspects of their life, and this is reflected on the wide implementation of e-voting in colleges.

On an earlier post we had mentioned how the development of e-voting technology is in the hands of the youth. It’s been only about a year since a couple of Indian students invented an electronic solution to the absenteeism problem their country was facing, and now automation is taking over student unions in colleges all over the world. The use of electoral technology has become so widespread that news on the subject are no longer focused on automation as a novelty but as an everyday fact that is accepted and championed by students all across the US and beyond.

The speed with which higher education institutions have implemented automated elections is explained by a simple fact: younger people embrace technological innovation much more readily than their older counterparts. College students understand that electronic voting represents a big advantage in terms of security, reliability, and speed. Instead of complaining about how e-voting might not be safe—an attitude typically associated with the older generations reluctant to change—, students are looking for a way to shield their electoral processes without having to lose a valuable tool.

In Johns Hopkins University, for example, the National CyberWatch Center Mid-Atlantic Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition was held on April 10-13 in an effort to promote cybersecurity awareness. In this contest, students tested their skills and knowledge to defend a fictitious electronic voting system from cyberattacks. This was accompanied by a symposium on e-voting, a job fair for college students, and a high school exposition. Note that the aim of this event was in no way to evaluate electoral technology as a threat, but as an opportunity for future engineers, scientists and politicians to improve on a promise for the advancement of democracy.

People who were born surrounded by technology and who have watched it advance as they have grown up are much more accepting of it than their parents. This generational shift is much welcome, as it means that the gates are now wide open for electoral automation, and there is no way back. Most certainly, the next generation will talk about manual voting as a historical curiosity.