Electoral Observation Adapted to Automation

Electoral observation is a mechanism agreed upon by governments and institutions in order to evaluate the quality and fairness of electoral processes. Technological advancements in voting systems have had their impact on these organizations that they have started to seek tools of design and application of a standardized methodology, as is the case of the OAS Mission.

The Electoral Observation Mission of the Organization of American States created a manual intended for short and long-term monitors in highly automated elections; particularly technicians specialized in different key topics in an electoral process.

When systems are automated, the methodology contemplates the evaluation of different phases that contain technological complements: registration of candidates and political organizations, electoral roll registration, and cartography, as well as the modernization of all the necessary documentation for the process of consolidation of a reliable and safe technological and communications infrastructure, the incorporation of transmission systems for the preliminary electoral results, the efficient distribution of new systems among all recipients, especially among voters with more difficulties to assimilate and implement these instruments, and the update of regulatory standards.

Besides, the manual stipulates that the following aspects must be complied with in e-voting systems: authentication, one voter one vote, vote secrecy, impossibility of coactions, precision, verification (printed receipt of voting), neutrality, auditability, reliability, flexibility, accessibility, usability, cost efficiency, verifiability, invulnerability, openness, and economy.

The missions have adapted their manuals to technological advancements. Source: http://www.laprensa.com.ni

The OAS Electoral Observation Mission also has a guideline for their observers, which makes emphasis on e-voting. Observers must answer the following questions when dealing with automated voting: Is there a high level of trust from the citizens and other parties involved in the election in e-voting? Does the e-voting system facilitate an election according to international standards? Does the e-voting system require an auditable paper trail to verify election results? Is there adequate protection against tampering or interference in the e-voting process? Does the use of e-voting allow for trustworthy and efficient monitoring? Is there adequate information for the voter about the use of the electronic equipment? Has the electoral staff been properly trained, and is there enough technical assistance available? What procedures are there to insure and safeguard the electronic data? These and other questions must be answered.

The Carter Center also has experience in electoral observation of automated elections. Their points of reference are the 2006 Presidential Elections in Venezuela, and elections held in countries like Philippines and China.

E-Voting’s Speed Conquers Nations

The use of touchscreens makes voting easy.

When speaking about the merits of electronic voting, fairness, usability, security, cost reduction and reliability are fundamental qualities that shift a country’s electoral system. On top of all these advantages, there is one characteristic that capitalizes a great deal of e-voting’s “attractiveness”: speed.
The reason why speed is one of the most notable benefits of the automation of elections is that manual voting—and its difficulty to give timely results—has generated one of the darkest problems of the democratic era: the connection between scrutiny  and the announcement of results with fraud and manipulation of the elections. In many opportunities and countries, suspicion has not been cast out of popular imagination, but out of massive scandals that are the product of irregularities, which range from identity theft to double voting and miscounted tallying.

Thus, the e-voting’s promise to present fast results has become a key aspect of electoral automation. However, the speed of this kind of voting is not limited to being able to announce the winner of an election in 30 minutes, one or two hours after closing the process, but celerity has actually been taken to its highest extent having an impact on different phases of the Election Day.

In order to initiate an Election Day, the polling station must be set up, and then electronic voting shows its practical quality. Technology reduces the time it takes to set up the electoral circuits since less physical elements are needed (ballot papers, markers, protective folders for the ballots), and also because there are less tasks for the members of the station and operators, like unpacking material, counting it and handing it over to voters.

With voting machines, the identity of voters can be certified even faster through biometric identification —fingerprint scanners—, saving the process precious minutes. This is enhanced by a fast and neat voting exercise, since automation is possible with the use of machines with touch screens, which reduce suffrage to tap on the preferred option on the machine or electronic ballot. The minutes taken to examine a traditional ballot turn into a minimal time in the selection of candidates or posts in dispute, and there are even some machines that allow voters with disabilities or those who cannot read to vote without assistance, preserving the right to secret ballot.

The high point of an electoral journey is the closure of all polling stations and compliance with all the phases of scrutiny, tallying, and announcement of results. With e-voting, it doesn’t matter how many hundreds or millions of voters there are, nor what are the topographic characteristics of the country, as regardless of where it is located, the machine counts the cast votes within seconds and transmits them to a tally center in minutes. This allows for the proclamation of results within a short time span—from half an hour to two hours—, and depending of each country’s laws or electoral tradition, it also makes it possible to present them to the people who have gone to the polling stations. Furthermore, if the law allows it, official results can be immediately released online.

With e-voting, timing of the electoral process gains relevance, not because of how long the Election Day can be, but because system automation makes suffrage easier and faster in a way that cannot be replicated by manual voting.

Dominion vs. Smartmatic: A Second Chance for Voting Automation in Puerto Rico

Both the State Elections Commission (CEE) and its president, Héctor Conty Pérez, have been generating a lot of buzz in the media these past few days, even more so than during election times. There’s a reason for it. Or several.

In late 2011, the Commission began an international bidding process aimed at implementing e-voting for the upcoming November 2012 elections, seeking to comply not only with the constitutional mandate that requires such elections, but also with the will of the common citizen that demands transparent and secure voting processes. It´s worth mentioning that the Commission has tried to automate each voting process they’ve handled, albeit without much success.

Last December, the CEE made public their choice of Unisyn, a company with no experience in the field of e-voting that only deals in horse betting software, and which also presented the most expensive bid. Surely, the same common citizen who demands more transparency and trustworthiness from elections wondered why this had happened, and even before an answer was given, very damaging evidence against this choice of company came to light: Howard van Pelt, representative of Unisyn in Puerto Rico, is involved in an alleged fraud for having sold defective voting machines to Northampton County, Pennsylvania, in 2007, while he was the director of the company Advanced Voting Solutions.

Given the announcement of Unisyn on May 8th 2012 that they’re removing themselves from the automation process, a second opportunity has been opened for Puerto Rico. The country must choose between two providers of electoral technology, Smartmatic and Dominion. To make the matter of choosing easier for the Commission (since both companies have the technology and the required certifications), we have done our own research.

Smartmatic has its headquarters in London. It has carried out elections in the United States, Venezuela, Curacao, the Philippines, and was recently awarded a contract to carry out elections in Belgium for the next 15 years. It definitely seems to be the company with the most international experience. However, some groups accuse the company of having fixed Venezuelan elections in favour of Hugo Chávez. If we do some research on the website of the Venezuelan electoral organism (http://www.cne.gob.ve/), where the results of every election and referendum are shown, we can see that this allegation is far from the truth. Chávez actually lost an election conducted using Smartmatic’s automated voting system, his first attempt to reform the Venezuelan constitution. More so, in the last parliament elections the opposition actually got more votes than the government did (they got less seats in parliament, though, due to gerrymandering). We must not forget that Chávez won 5 other elections where the automation was provided by another company.

Smartmatic’s SAES4000 machines. Source: http://www.smartmatic.com

In the case of Puerto Rico, Smartmatic presented the lowest offer, around 10 million dollars less than Dominion’s. The company also claims to have the 6,000 voting machines required for the process.

Dominion Voting is a private company with headquarters in Canada. During the past few years, they’ve implemented a growth strategy based on the acquisition of several companies of the competition, such as ES&S and Sequoia Voting Systems (both in 2010), which has allowed them to get a hold of a sizable share of the North American voting market. It’s worth noting that American electoral technology has been the target of severe criticism, and all the companies that operate in the country have seen their machines hacked by computer experts. Dominion’s electoral experience is limited to the United States and they have no known international projects under their belt. The company claims to have carried out elections in the Philippines, when they were only one of the many providers Smartmatic used during the 2010 elections. Curiously, it was precisely Dominion’s software which almost caused a debacle just days before the election. The issue was resolved in time, and according to the reports of all international watchdog organizations, the election was a success.

Dominion claims to have 300 machines out of the 6000 needed in the country, and states that they will have the total number by the deadline.

Without question, there are factors that could let the Commission decide (objectively) which company is best for Puerto Rico. The CEE has a transcendental decision to make, because democracy is not something to be played around with. It already made a mistake by appointing Unisys in charge of automation when the company lacked experience in these events. From this podium, we encourage the Puerto Rican authorities to choose the company with the most advanced technology, and above all, with enough proven experience to carry out processes in complex scenarios like the one in Puerto Rico.