How electronic voting could improve voters' trust

Countries like Brazil, India and Namibia have embraced the technology over traditional paper ballots, but questions about who should control the voting process and whether it should go online are still up for debate, panelists said at an event in Washington, DC on Friday.

Rafiq Maqbool/ AP file
A Kashmiri Muslim woman casts her vote at a polling station in Sheeri, 40 miles north of Srinagar India, in April 2004. Electronic voting in countries like India, which first began developing the technology in 1989, may improve voters' trust in the political process, but there are some roadblocks limiting its adoption, election officials and diplomats said at an event on Friday.

In many countries, electronic voting and other technologies are already transforming how citizens engage with local and national government.

The key issue, panelists at an event on voting technology in Washington DC said on Friday, is building trust between voters and election officials, especially in local races, where fears of corruption facilitated by local parties remains a concern.  

While electronic voting machines have steadily made inroads in countries such as Brazil and India, which have developed their own technologies without the assistance of a for-profit voting technology sector that has faced some criticism in the United States, in many African countries the focus is on technologies that help count votes and aid voter identification, a United Nations official said during Friday’s discussion.

The US also presents a different challenge because elections are more decentralized than in Brazil or India, some panelists said.

“Elections belong to the people,” Madeleine Albright, former US secretary of state, said during a keynote address at the event hosted by the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank. “Citizens not only have the right to honest and accurate elections, they have the right to know that their ballots are kept secret and that elections are in fact authentic, because this knowledge provides the basis for public trust.”

In Brazil, a series of audits and checks during and after elections take place to ensure the process remains fair, said Justice Jose Antonio Dias Toffoli, who oversees elections as president of the country’s Supreme Electoral Court.

The judiciary has overseen elections in Brazil since 1932, and began testing electronic voting in 1996 before transitioning to e-voting exclusively four years later. Because the judges who focus on elections rotate and have only two-year terms, he said, “it became a system truthfully by the people.”

“We don’t use a Web system, the machines are isolated, and when the [election] day finishes, we print a receipt of the results of the ballot for parties to review,” Mr. Dias Toffoli said during a panel discussion. He added that in years without an election, the courts have invited hackers to try to get into the system in order to improve its safety.

India’s history with electronic voting goes back even further, to 1989, the country’s former information minister said, with India first testing electronic voting in provincial elections in 1998.

“We stumbled on electronic voting by accident, because we were trying to prevent ballot stuffing in some of our states,” said Manish Tewari, who served as the country’s minister of information and broadcasting from 2012 to 2014.

“Do people trust it 100 percent? The answer to that is no.... There are questions asked all the time, especially by those who lose,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “But the reason it’s been successful is because people trust the institution, which is separate in the Indian constitution.”

Many countries – particularly those without a longstanding tradition of holding independent elections – also struggle to balance issues of maintaining voters’ trust with the cost of introducing reforms such as voter identification and electronic voting.

“When you have countries like Brazil and India, they have ownership of their technology, but in most countries supported by the United Nations, they have to bring not only the hardware, but also the whole expertise to make it happen, and that’s why we have cases in which it works and cases in which it doesn’t,” said Tadjoudine Ali-Diabacte, deputy director of the electoral assistance division at the United Nations’ department of political affairs.

Mr. Ali-Diabacte noted that electronic voting had been successful in Namibia and Nigeria despite being of vastly different sizes.

Internet voting poses an additional challenge, several panelists said, with some arguing that it would be inevitable and improve voter access.

“The ultimate end of it all is something where it’s not just that we vote online, but we have a much broader electronic engagement with our government, where we’re able to express our views in a continuing way,” said Mark Malloch-Brown, a former UN deputy secretary general who now serves as chairman of Smartmatic, a voting technology company headquartered in London.

“We feel that electronic Internet-based methods have allowed us an engagement with our democracy which we currently don’t have through just the once every-four-year vote [in the US],” he added.

But others said there were longstanding security concerns around Internet voting, noting that hacking could become a new form of ballot-stuffing.

“Suppose my vote is going to be routed by some server in Los Angeles and then come back and be counted by some electoral official in Delhi, it’s too much of a long time to travel,” said Mr. Tewari, the Indian information minister. “A lot can happen in between, and I don’t think people are going to be comfortable with that.”

The specter of the 2000 US election hung over much the discussion. During that election – where as many as four to six million votes were lost due to many voters’ inability to register, voting machine problems, and disputed voter counts – a controversial recount in Florida led Republican George W. Bush to prevail over Democrat Al Gore.

“The choice of voting technology is not just a technical question,” Ms. Albright said, noting the improvements in voting technology since reports of hanging chads dominated headlines. “It’s a public policy matter, because it can help determine whether an election is viewed as credible.”

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