The vulnerability of Colombia’s manual voting system

The National Registry of Civil Records, the Election Observation Mission and other Colombian organizations have highlighted the vulnerability of the Colombian electoral system against different types of fraud. The main cause for the fragility of the system is the manual nature of the various processes involved in the identification of voters, and in the information transfer process. The recorded vote on the ballot goes through a series of manual processes that includes filling out dozens of physical forms, the presence of unskilled judges, typists and telephone operators who transmit through their voice, the results to be consolidated.

Each manual step exposes the system to fraudulent modifications or human errors that impact the final vote. The National Registry has identified these flaws. In fact, in 2009, this entity constructed a risk map of vote fraud based on historical data that described the system’s failures. The data recollected is scary. In the elections of 2006, there where found differences between the form 31 092 E-11 and E-24. Lets remember that in the E-11 form the voters are registered (where the voter signs when he or she votes) and the E-24 form consolidates the data. These differences suggest that “there were more votes than voters in 620 tables of 150 municipalities.” This means that somewhere in the manual chain – in the passing of form to form-appeared magically new votes for one candidate.

The vulnerability of the manual system is so obvious, and its vital points are so fragile, you do not need to be a very sophisticated criminal to modify the results of an election. Indeed, many of the frauds are possible thanks to the use of archaic procedures, and the lack of technological devices that can reduce the system’s vulnerability.

To correct the electoral system is not enough to turn the polls into multikeys, train judges in basic arithmetic or include more clauses to the Electoral Code. To avoid the risks, it is needed to modernize the system. We have to automate processes, include biometric mechanisms to control the impersonation of voters and streamline the collection of data without the intervention of many people.

The ‘informatic’ risk blurs the presidential elections in Colombia

It is still fresh in the minds of all Colombians, that on March 14th when parliamentary elections were held, and the country was expecting the results, the votes of more than 3 million people were not registered. After two months, the total vote count is still unknown.

Even though this fact is unacceptable in a twenty-first century Democracy, nearly 30 million citizens of Colombia will go to the polls on the 30th of May to elect a new President, using the same mechanism, albeit the “improved” conditions.

Why would Colombia vote with this precedent? The National Registry of Civil Status, the country’s electoral power, and the company responsible for the “software” aspects of the process, have answered that the failure in the legislations was because of the “reporting of results”, and not because of the review process and transmission.

Even if this was the case, the reality is that Colombian voters, national and international observers, political parties, candidates and civic organizations have raised their voice of warning and doubt, certainly before any “irregularities and technical problems” in the presidential elections occur, or the faults made a little over two months are repeated. But despite the distrust, the polls are unstoppable, and the hope is simply that at the end of the day there would be no need to say “every man for himself”.

It is worth remembering that there were many expectations created of the successor of Alvaro Uribe, facing the possibility of a choice of popular and automated vote. But the Colombian President’s commitment to a re-election referendum bet did not see the light, and contributed to the non-availability of required resources for this need.

A couple of months ago, there was a possibility of partially automating the elections, which is a law requirement. The Registry received the proposal of including 7000 voting machines, but the lack of budget was the argument of the entity for rejecting that possibility.

Given this reality, Colombians will use the manual voting and counting system, and will utilize a contractor-UNE EPM Telecommunications- to transmit, consolidate and disseminate the results. The method used is the “voice to voice transmission”, ie one person for each 18 tables installed, transmits the results via landlines, cellular or satellite phones, and for every 20 tables installed there is an information receiver that fills in the forms, which are then scanned, in order to start the automated process for uploading information.

This is how the results will be collected and disclosed. The goal is to best fulfill the process, but no matter what the polls will elapse, Colombia is coming to one of the most important debates in the near future, to adopt electronic voting as it is ordered by the country’s laws.

Reasons for not delaying the implementation abound, but certainly, surpassed the election, which according to the polls will face a runoff scheduled for June 20th, in Colombia the electoral system changes and the introduction of electronic voting will take the spotlight, because there is no valid argument for a country to threat its own Democracy, because of a decision of not advancing on the modernization of the vote, that is well supported by the standards of the nation.