Brazil and Venezuela: two stories about e-voting

In over two months, Brazil and Venezuela will ratify the use of electronic voting. Brazil will choose their next president first and Venezuela will renew its Congress, or Legislative Power. Both nations stand out as the standard-bearers of automation in Latin America and even though they use different electoral systems, they proudly exhibit their technologies to the world, thanks to their overall numbers of successful electoral events with satisfactory results, due to having reached stringent goals of security, swiftness and transparency.

The Brazilian case is seen and documented as an icon in South America, since this nation was the first to regulate electronic voting (1995) in the region and also the first to implement it. Actual automation started in 1996 with the help of several vendor companies, such as Unisys do Brazil. Later in 1998, 2000 and 2002, the companies Procomp (hardware) and Microban (software) were called to participate at the request of the Superior Electoral Tribunal, under the scheme that the final technology developed was to be owned and controlled by the State. All phases of an election were automated: voter registration, vote casting, and vote tallying. The next October 3 the system will be used again when close to 128 million people will elect a new President. Brazil has exported its voting system to various countries, which lease the equipment and hire support and maintenance.

The Brazilian voting machine features a small screen and a keypad where the voters mark the numbers assigned to their candidates. After checking the vote showing the photo that appears on screen, the user presses the “confirm” button, whereby the vote is casted. If the user doesn´t want to vote for any of the candidates, he or she may press the “white” button or has the option to cancel the vote by typing random numbers and pressing “confirm”.  For data storage the machine has two memory cards (flash cards) and a hard disk. At the end of the process, multiple records are printed with the outcome of the voting and it is recorded on the disk, to be transmitted through secure means to regional courts and ultimately to the Superior Electoral Tribunal for final tallying. The process is subject to various audits and the system requires electronic signatures of all operators involved.

The experience in Venezuela began in 1998 when a mixed system was introduced: the vote was manual, but the counting and tallying were automated. In 2004 the electronic vote got a legal basis and currently the elections are 100% automated. The voters exercised their right to vote using voting machines with touch screens (by clicking on the option on screen), and receiving a paper voucher (or VVPAT) that must be deposited in a ballot box, serving as the basis for audits or, if deemed necessary, to manual recounts..

The supplier of the voting machines is Smartmatic. The machines first used were of the SAES-3000 model, and the latest to be acquired were the SAES-4000. The National Electoral Council has about 40, 000 computers, including servers. In addition, the country uses an independent biometric voter identification system, based on fingerprint scanners. The electoral body uses about 12,000 of these stations across the country.

The Venezuelan voting automated platform offers over ten audits in order to ensure reliability. Before every election the poll books, the Electoral Register, the lists of those eligible members of the electoral boards in poll places, and the software used to select them are audited. The fingerprint readers, the indelible ink, among other items, are audited as well. After the election the closing audit is performed, which consists of reviewing the paper ballots cast in 54% of the ballot boxes, which must match the respective tallies. A week after Election Day a final audit is performed, in which a general review of the process is performed.

In both countries the corresponding automated system has been tailored to their characteristics, and today, is capable of 100% electronic voting. What led to the modernization of voting in Brazil and Venezuela? Most probably the need, as perceived by both states, to appease the voting public through a more trustworthy method of conducting elections. Given the recent history of political discontent and unrest in the population which threatened to give rise to turmoil and violence, the perspective of attaining fair, transparent elections was enormously attractive. There are three edges in a triangle that are inseparable and necessary. That is the challenge currently faced by many countries, making governments, parties and citizens to coalesce around, and benefit from, the guarantees offered by electronic voting.

Brazil and Venezuela: two stories about e-voting

The electoral dichotomy of the Netherlands: to correct and move forward or to quit and go back?

A little over a week ago, the Netherlands held early parliamentary elections. With an electoral roll that exceeds 12.5 million citizens, the already significant exercise of suffrage does not enter into discussion, but it takes an important place in the current electoral system.

The fact that the eurozone’s seventh economy would reverse the implementation of electronic voting, should draw attention and serve many other nations, without turning their backs on technology, to demand reliable and transparent systems, because at present they exist and are used successfully in dozens of nations.

The country questioned the security of computer system developed by the international private company Nedap (mainly because their voting equipment do not print proofs of the vote) and though in principle it left the possibility of resuming the use of technology to automate the entire the electoral process open, the motion was denied, and today, the modernization of voting in the Netherlands is on standby. Nedap also lost the elections conducted in Curacao, the largest and most populated island in the Caribbean, because of not providing equipment that prints the votes receipt.

The need to resume the debate on electronic voting in the Netherlands has to do with the fact that in the recent elections held with the old manual system, the old vices were present. The reports presented show a decrease in more than five share points; complicated and immense ballots because the parties could make between 50 and 80 candidates on their lists; overcrowding in several electoral districts led to a serious logistical problem: too many voters in one polling place caused that the size of the ballot was insufficient and, as the election law prohibits the opening of the same before the end of the day, schools had to resort to new polls or attempt to force the entry of ballots.

There were also many complaints on the costly and slow process of hand counting of the votes. The fact that the Netherlands dismissed the machines, responds to a specific situation that jeopardized the exercise of suffrage, as the Home Office claimed at that time. However, after this election and the problems that came with it, the Dutch mayors have formally requested a return to adopt electronic voting to optimize the voting ballots and allow fast and reliable processes.

The Netherlands faces the dichotomy to quit or correct the automated voting system, not only to reap the benefits of technology in the service of democracy, but to give its citizens the chance to vote in a safe, fast and reliable way. That technology that promotes transparency and efficiency exists, what is lacking is the political will.

Myths about Smartmatic – who do they benefit?

The Venezuelan legislative elections of September 26th have deepened the country’s political polarization.  As in every voting process, the different political aspirations generate all sorts of theories on the e-voting system used since 2004; in most cases, these come from politicians trying to gain notoriety with the electorate.

This time, the company behind the automation of Venezuelan elections, Smartmatic, has been under crossfire, questioned about matters unrelated to what is truly substantial (i.e. the e-voting system itself); instead, these matters are meant to fuel rumours and electoral myths. These apparently are aimed to curtail the opposition’s voter turnout, given they essentially try to link the company with the government party.

  1. Smartmatic and the Venezuelan government

The link between Smartmatic and the Venezuelan government is unsubstantiated. The SCB Consortium, formed by Smartmatic, Cantv and Bizta R&D Software, won the bid to implement an e-voting project in the country. Bizta then got a loan from Foncrei, an official financing organism, which led to the belief that all three companies were associated with the government.  The truth is that these companies partnered with one another to maximize their strengths and win the bid.

Bitza was a software company that had partnered with Smartmatic at the time of the bid, and that was acquired by the latter in 2005.  The loan Bizta received from Foncrei was for about $150k at the exchange rate of the time, while the Consortium was bidding for a contract worth over 100 million dollars.

  1. Relationship with Jorge Rodríguez

Given that Jorge Rodríguez was the president of the National Electoral Board when the bid for the e-voting system took place, his name has been frequently linked to Smartmatic’s. However, he has never been a part of the company, which has been in the hands of Antonio Mugica (CEO) and Roger Piñate (COO) since its foundation in 2000.

This rumour stems from an alleged trip paid by Smartmatic that Rodríguez took to become acquainted with a new voting machine model.  Under both US and Venezuelan law, corporations have the right to pay for demonstrations of their products (travels and events), and this includes inviting government officials.  The company explained that Rodríguez later reimbursed his expenses.

  1. Relationship with Moisés Maionica

There is none. This lawyer, implicated in the 2007 suitcase scandal, was never on the company’s payroll. Since he represented Cogent, another supplier to the National Electoral Council, people have tried to link him to the company.  In an official statement, the company made clear that its legal representation at the time was Greenberg and Traurig in Miami, and Mendoza, Palacios, Acedo, Borjas, Páez Pumar & Cía. In Caracas.

  1. Then, how come the government always wins since Smartmatic was hired?

The electoral processes carried out during the last six years show that both the government and the opposition win in Venezuela, and this has nothing to do with e-voting but with the preferences of the electorate.  Elections undergo 14 different audits, and to date, the manual count performed at the end of each process (in 54% of the machines), has shown absolute agreement between the audit and the automated count.