Monday, September 30, 2013

Voting systems in the US and around the world

After the 2000 voting chads scandal in Florida, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) promoted better practices in election administration and e-voting became the preferred voting method across most counties in the US. However, experimenting with digital-recording electronic (DRE) did not yield the expected results in many counties as much of the technology available at the time did not meet minimum quality standards. In practice, voting numbers did not match up to the actual number of voters, and some people reported votes “flipping” as they submitted their ticket. A few years after HAVA´s signing into a law (2002), DRE's became largely perceived as unreliable.

By the year 2006, and in light of the problems DREs faced, the US electoral commissions began opting for the optical-scanners at precincts to scan paper ballots. While the technology still presented many issues, like security flaws in tabulation and accessibility problems, at least the paper ballots offered a chance for counting or possible recounting, increasing voter confidence.

The evolution of the preferences of electoral commissions in the US has had a unique pattern. Other countries are much more homogeneous in their use of voting technology. Since the day Brasil, India, and Belgium began automating their elections, they have used DRE sytsems. Canada, Mongolia, and  the Philippines, use precinct count optical scanners.

Now, recent developments in the industry have put DREs back in the radar of those commissions planning to introduce technology based voting solutions. Under the concept of End to End E-voting, a new generation of voting machines have emerged. End-to-end auditable voting systems are those with strong tamper resistance and stringent integrity procedures. The new breed of DREs come with a printer which provides the voter with an opportunity to attest his/her vote is recorded properly.  

Since 2004 Venezuela has been using an End to End E-voting solution that prints voting vouchers. More than twelve national elections, certified by experts in the field put this South American nation in the forefront of election automation.  During the recent 2013 Presidential elections held in April, more than 80 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote. Additionally, the election result was certified after a challenge and total recount of the vote, which a 100% accuracy rate.

End-to-end implementation will lead to greater transparency, increased accuracy, greater voter confidence and turnout. Through the use of continual auditing, careful selection of field personnel, cryptographic builds, appropriate telecommunications and infrastructure, along with electoral accuracy tests and a final wrap-up audit; true and accurate results will be quickly certified. Peru, Colombia, Argentina, Georgia, are some of the nations in line to adopt E2E solutions.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Can e-voting solve the oversized ballot papers problem?

While most major elections around the world feature no more than five major parties, it is not unheard of for a poll exercise to have a whole slew of parties slugging it out for votes.

In Australia, for instance, a total of 46 parties have already registered for the Australian Senate election in September. If the 11 additional applicants up for consideration are approved, that would bring to 57 the number of parties on a single ballot.

Given this scenario, it’s most likely that the ballot paper will measure an incredible 1.02 meters wide or over three feet across.  This makes the supersized ballot paper quite unwieldy not only for voters, but also for election staff who must handle, pack, transport, count and secure the extra large papers.

To make matters even worse for voters, the ballots use extra small six-point type.  The Australian Electoral Commission, in fact, is even issuing magnifying sheets to help staff and voters read the text on the ballots. The oversized ballots would also take much longer to count manually, as the staff would inherently have to spend more time reading and recording each of the votes.
Aside from problems an over-sized ballot causes on Election Day, it also entails many logistical challenges as the ballots must be properly secured and transported, and requires a much larger space than regular-sized ballots.

Yet as with most problems in this modern age, there is a technological solution to this particular challenge. For instance, Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines use voting pads which could display an infinite number of candidates, rendering supersized ballots unnecessary as voters could record their vote on a touchscreen display.   

E-voting is definitely a step towards the right direction in making elections more efficient and transparent.  Safeguards like the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), where the machine prints out a confirmation receipt, ensure that the voter’s true intent is what is recorded on the ballot. After all, transparency and accuracy can never be sacrificed for efficiency and speed. 

E-voting is not without its challenges and concerns, yet its many benefits make it increasingly attractive to election commissions all around the world. More work is needed, but e-voting can be a viable solution to the problem of supersized ballot papers in cases like this in Australia. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Biometric authentication vs electoral fraud gains ground in Uganda

Fraud is a problem that has bedeviled election managers since the earliest times. One of the more insidious forms of electoral fraud is identity theft where a voter passes himself off as another and casts his ballots at multiple locations, effectively skewing results of the election.

Fortunately, election commissions can now tap a rapidly-developing technology called biometric authentication to combat electoral fraud.

Biometric authentication is already widely used elsewhere. Some notebook computers  are equipped with fingerprint sensors that restrict access to its rightful owners. Security-conscious facilities have also relied on fingerprint, thumbprint or iris scan biometrics to restrict comings and goings of unauthorized entities.  Airports, too, have started utilizing biometrics to heighten security.

Recently, electoral commissions have started to explore how biometric authentication can make the electoral process more transparent and credible. In Uganda, for example, President Museveni has already declared that the 2016 general election in the country will utilize thumbprint machines to identify genuine voters, eliminating the possibility of anyone stealing of votes and double-voting.

This technology will finally allow Ugandan electoral staff to move away from manually authenticating voters –an unreliable and time-consuming process  that can, at its worse, serve as enabler for fraudsters. Obviously, a digitized thumbprint, or some other form of biometric authentication, is far more difficult to forge than a analog type of identification.

In an official State House statement, Museveni said that the election commission it will “use thumbprints to authenticate voters” and warns would-be fraudsters that “if you try to steal, the machine will throw you out.”   

Although procurement details of biometric thumbprint readers are yet to be released,  the  move is already gaining wide support from both administration and opposition parties, as well as cause-oriented groups.

Many are acknowledging that  a Biometric Voters Register (BVR) is the “most credible” protection against multiple registration and multiple votes.  

Uganda hopes that this strong multi sectorial support for biometric authentication will finally pave the way for cleaner and more honest elections in the country.  

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Online voting: Not a magic bullet for voter turnout


Low voter turnout is a huge problem; in many countries voters have been showing up at polls in very low numbers, especially when it comes to local elections and primaries. Many people, especially connected young people, wonder why they can't just vote online. There are many potential advantages to Internet voting; it would make election costs lower and be more convenient for voters. But would more people vote? The theory of implementing online voting, and every citizen engaging fully with elections is utopia; the reality may not be remotely close to that vision.

Some critics of Internet voting think potential online voting systems will trivialize the importance of this crucial action. Tradition and symbolism are involved in going to the polling places, marking ballots and placing them in the ballot box. Critics worry that Internet voting would turn elections into online popularity contests at the level of Dancing with the Stars.

One nation leading the way in the adoption of Internet voting is Estonia. It has had Internet voting since 2005; however experts note that no positive effect on electoral turnout has been proven in Estonia or any other Internet voting so far. This seems to show that voters are still quite skeptical of this option.
While there are ample motivations to implement Internet voting, reasons to hesitate at this point are even stronger. There are many concerns that need be resolved before Internet voting will go mainstream and be thoroughly embraced by the populace. The biggest fear is hacking and manipulation of the vote counts. Other concerns are the possibilities of fraudulent votes and even vote buying.
A pilot Internet voting project in Washington, DC in 2010 was the target of an epic hacking by a University of Michigan professor and two teams of students. Within 36 hours, they attacked a vulnerability in the system and took over control of the votes. Even more troubling, the hacking went unnoticed until they revealed themselves by playing the UM fight song when a ballot was cast. The hacker extraordinaire, Alex Halderman, said that he can't imagine any current system that would be totally secure from hackers.  This experience clearly shows that we are not ready for mainstream Internet voting, and that most voters would surely be skeptical of Internet voting at this point as well. Until the problems are resolved, no increase in voter turnout can be expected by implementing Internet voting.

Resolutions to these problems will need to be found. Safety and transparency in the voting process are vital, so answering the important questions about how to ensure the reliability of the system are crucial.