Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bulgarian referendum could introduce e-voting and improve transparency

Source: Google Images
Electoral reform could soon be coming to Bulgaria. The country's President, Rosen Plevneliev, proposed in January that a referendum should be held on three key issues surrounding elections in Bulgaria: the introduction of a majority election, the proposal for compulsory voting among citizens and the introduction of e-voting technology.

A big part of the problem with the democratic process in Bulgaria is that the people have very low trust in the political institutions in the country. Indeed, Bulgaria is regarded as the second most corrupt member of the European Union and this doesn't fare well for how the people of Bulgaria regard their governments. Indeed, recent polls have indicated that public trust in parliament is a mere 10 percent. Electoral reform that sees improvements in transparency could aid in this effort.

The introduction of a majority election could help too. Currently, the people vote on lawmakers based on a set of pre-defined party lists. What this means is that the people of Bulgaria are currently electing their 240 parliament members from party lists that are chosen by someone else, rather than electing these officials on an individual basis, based on individual merits. They may choose a party list based on just one person from the list, not knowing anything about the other candidates on the list that they are also effectively voting for.

There are debates as to whether compulsory voting would be beneficial, but President Plevneliev wants “the voice of the people [to] be heard.” Proponents of compulsory voting say that it would improve the legitimacy of the results, as it would be far more difficult for interested parties to “buy” votes and thus rig the election results. It could also help to fight voter apathy.

Perhaps one of the most exciting developments that could come from the Bulgarian referendum is the development of e-voting technology as part of the overall electoral system. Opponents of the proposition bring up common concerns about security and technical complexity, but the overall advantages of such a system are undeniable. The primary goal for the Bulgarian implementation would be to provide better representation and access to the tens of thousands of Bulgarians who are living abroad.

Remote voting, oftentimes implemented over a secure Internet web portal, is growing in popularity among many countries around the world. We've already seen improvements in remote voting in places like Australia and the Philippines, helping rural residents and expatriates have their voice heard on the issues that matter to them. In tandem with the possible inclusion of compulsory voting in Bulgaria, this could help to further legitimize the elections and help to improve trust in government.

Indeed, following allegations that up to 350,000 fake ballots were prepared to influence the May 12 general election last year in Bulgaria, having a voter-verifiable paper trail to go along with an e-voting system that is thoroughly audited by an impartial third party could reduce doubts among the Bulgarian people in regards to electoral fraud.

However, the referendum on these three key issues – majority voting, compulsory voting, and e-voting technology – may not even be held. As it stands, a petition is being signed that could then be delivered to the Bulgarian government. If 500,000 authentic signatures are collected, a poll must be held.

"I appeal to the parliament to take a decision to hold a referendum, said Plevneliev. “I believe [it] will help to stabilize the institutions and increase public trust.”

Friday, June 20, 2014

Estonia furthers its position as worldwide I-voting leader

Image: E-lected archive
Although Estonia’s I-voting system is now regarded as one of the most technologically advanced in the world, authorities in the Baltic nation are still seeking ways to enhance its transparency and efficiency so in future elections, more voters can enjoy the convenience of casting a vote online. 

To such end, Smartmatic along with Cybernetica have recently created the Center of Excellence in Internet Voting, which will focus on further developing the I-voting platform existing since 2005. This initiative will certainly help improve the system already in place, and could very well pave the way for Estonia to begin sharing its I-voting experience with other governments around the world –Estonia is already recognized as a worldwide reference for e-government.

Academics and professional experts from multiple fields that worked during the development stages of the Estonian Internet voting platform will be part of the team making this initiative a reality. They will be analyzing I-voting from all possible perspectives: legal framework, system design, development, security, cryptography, among others.  

Besides some of the obvious advantages remote voting offers (cost reduction and convenience), there are other important issues, which have been a headache of electoral commissions for ages, that Internet voting can help improving: participation –specially among young voters-, accessibility, and inclusion.

Estonia’s I-voting system has shown important advances in terms of increasing voter turnout. For example, during the recent EU parliamentary elections, the turnout of I-voters was the highest ever it has been - 31.3% (103k voters), compared to the 14.7% (58k voters) recorded in the previous EU election. It is important to note that voting online is optional as voters can go on Election Day and cast a ballot in their neighboring precinct, even if they had already voted via Internet. 

Estonia remains the only country in the world to successfully hold nationwide legally binding e-elections. Even though some countries have run trial elections, not a single one has been able to produce the results the Estonian I-voting system have shown in terms of adoption and turnout.

Media expert Raul Rebane celebrated Estonia’s I-voting turnout affirming that “For a large share of young and middle-aged Estonians, e-voting is part of Estonia’s image, identity, DNA. We began to defend something very important, which was under threat for purely political reasons.”

Remote voting civil initiative in Slovakia needs 50k signatures


When discussing the technology involved in running an election, most conversations turn to voting machines, for example, or they may talk about the infrastructure involved in recording, tallying and transmitting the ballots as part of an election. By large, the vast majority of ballots cast in an election are done in person in some form or another, but it is just as important to consider the voting rights of citizens who are unable to make a physical appearance at an official polling place on Election Day. And this was a hot topic issue leading up to the presidential elections in Slovakia earlier this year.

After no candidate was able to secure a majority in the first round of voting on March 15, a second round of voting was conducted on March 29 in which Andrej Kiska defeated Robert Fico with 59.38% of the popular vote. Part of the problem with this election was that it effectively did not allow for true remote voting. The current Slovak law says that citizens without permanent residence in the country can vote, but they must be present on Election Day. There is no support for remote voting, since this cohort “still isn't numerous enough to make it worthwhile investing such an amount of money”, according to Slovakia's Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák.

To demonstrate the interest and desire of the Slovakian people in Internet voting and support for remote voting for those living abroad, a civic association of Slovaks living abroad has put together a petition. As it stands, expatriate Slovaks can vote via the postal service, but having an Internet-based system could make it easier for voters to engage and participate. The petition seeks to get at least 50,000 signatures before being delivered to the Slovak parliament.

The two main reasons cited by Kaliňák as to why Internet voting is not yet viable in Slovakia are related to cost and security risks. These are issues that have also been raised in other countries around the world, but they have also been suitably addressed by voting experts like William J. Kelleher, Ph.D. He says that most hacking jobs “are the result of human insiders abusing their positions” and not the fault of the voting technology itself.

Indeed, recent expansions in remote voting technology have already been successfully demonstrated in Australia and the Philippines. However, if the petition is able to get the 50,000 signatures it desires, this would provide a clear illustration to the Slovak government that a large contingent of the Slovak people, particularly those living and working abroad, are calling for an updated electoral system where they are better able to cast a remote vote without having to rely on a more archaic postal-based system. 

The 2014 Slovak presidential elections have come and gone, but the civil initiative of those Slovak expatriates still have several months to get the signatures they need. The goal is to collect the 50,000 signatures in 12 months, which would give them a soft deadline of January 2015.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

E-voting can expand well beyond government elections

Source: Flickr
You might remember there was a trivia game show on television called 1 vs. 100 where a single contestant would be pitted against a “mob” of 100 other contestants. They would answer multiple choice trivia questions and the main contestant would continue if he got the answer correct and they would eliminate all the members of the “mob” who got the question wrong. The “mob” members would enter their choice through a small handheld device so that their selections could be instantly recorded and tabulated.

In many ways, this is not unlike how e-voting could be implemented in town meetings, board meetings and other gatherings where an instant poll among attendees could be invaluable. Traditionally, these kinds of polls would be conducted with those in favor of a motion verbally voting “yes” and those opposed verbally voting “nay” when prompted. This is hardly efficient or accurate, but electronic voting technology can be adapted to this purpose, just as the handheld devices used in 1 vs. 100 were used to quickly record the answers of the “mob” members.

While most conversations of voting technology understandably focus on how the machines and infrastructure can be best utilized in government elections for new members of parliament or a new president for a country, they can also be used under other scenarios. Online voting was utilized for the 2014 Academy Awards, for instance. With in-person e-voting, the system could be even more streamlined and easy to implement. It could be anonymous or the individual votes by the individual members could be recorded for public scrutiny.

This is an idea being proposed for the town of Eastham. Located in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts in the United States, Eastham voters are deciding whether or not to adopt electronic keypads for voting in their town meetings. The simple devices, which are similar to TV remotes in outward design, would be distributed among those in attendance at the team meetings. When a vote is held, attendees would push the corresponding buttons on their handheld electronic voting devices and the ballots could be recorded and tabulated in mere moments.

Counting paper ballots manually is very time-consuming and voice-based votes can be inaccurate and they do not allow for the anonymity of a secret ballot. Online voting could not only save a tremendous amount of time, but it could also improve accuracy, save money, and better protect the privacy of the vote. Hand counting the ballots in a recent secret vote took about an hour, according to Eastham town meeting moderator David Schropfer.

The cost to rent the necessary equipment ranges from $10,000 for a small meeting up to $50,000 for a larger town meeting involving 2,000 voting attendees.

But online voting isn't just restricted to large elections and town meetings either. Washington County in New York State is also considering the implementation of voting technology for its county board meetings. The current system calls for a verbal vote from the Washington County supervisors in the same specified order, getting each individual to voice his or her vote into a microphone. The same person always votes first and the same person always votes last. This can understandably have an impact on the results, as those voting later in the order may be influenced by those who voted before them. And the results could already be determined well before reaching voters further down the list. An online voting system would suitably address all of these concerns and at a minimal cost.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Is Canada’s conservative government limiting online voting for selfish reasons?

Source: Google Images
It is understandable that some people can be quite sceptical about voting technology systems. They may have concerns about the security and confidentiality of such systems, but it has been proved that if the chosen technology is robust, secure and auditable you can indeed improve transparency and efficiency in your country’s electoral processes, as well as increase voter confidence and participation. E-voting can also save governments a great deal of money. However, it looks like the Conservative government in Canada could be holding back this technology for self-serving reasons.

Bill C-23, also known as the Fair Elections Act, is being proposed as part of the Conservative government's new elections act in Canada. There are several provisions included in the proposed act and one of these would make it more difficult for Elections Canada to experiment with online voting and other electronic voting technologies. With the current law, alternative voting methods can be tested as long as the chief electoral officer gains the approval of the parliamentary committees that oversee elections.

If the Fair Elections Act is approved and goes into law, however, then these tests would first need to gain the approval of both the House of Commons and the Senate. Given that the Conservative Party of Canada currently has control of the Senate, they could presumably refuse to authorize any tests for online voting that are put forth by Elections Canada.

The reason why this Act is self-serving, according to NDP Democratic Reform critic Craig Scott is that “e-voting is something [the Conservatives] know appeals to younger generations, which is not necessarily their voting cohort.”

While not always true, it is generally understood that younger demographics are the ones that are more likely to gravitate to and embrace voting technologies, while older generations are more likely to prefer more traditional methods. As it stands, older generations are also more likely to vote Conservative than their younger counterparts. If a larger number of youth voters cast their ballots, the elections could swing away from the Conservative Party.

The only way that electronic voting and online voting can move forward in Canada is if Elections Canada is granted the ability to conduct pilot projects to test out these technologies. By adding another layer of bureaucracy, one in which the Conservatives would first have to give their stamp of approval, they could be stifling progress in the country. This is particularly troublesome when you consider that members of the Senate are not elected, but are actually appointed.

Even beyond online voting and electronic voting, the Fair Elections Act proposal could also limit the ability for students to vote at the polls, because it would place more stringent restrictions on the current vouching system in Canada. The same is true for several other demographics, like minority voters and low-income families, who may not be able to qualify for traditional eligibility, but should still have every right to vote.

As it stands, Canada has already stopped any plans of an Internet voting pilot program in 2015, further impeding progress in the country to modernize its electoral system and bring it in line with current technology. If passed, the Fair Elections Act will make it more difficult than ever to evolve from the archaic manual, paper-based system for casting ballots.