The decision to set up an electronic voting system doesn’t allow for improvisation or shortcuts.
It’s vital countries take time to acknowledge their needs, as well as their legislation and idiosyncrasies. Only then will they be able to choose and adapt the best available electoral technology on the market. And only then can their nation become an example of electoral modernity.
There are many countries interested in automating their electoral systems. In Latin America alone, the roll call of nations seeking to take the big leap includes Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Honduras, Bolivia, and Panama. In light of these countries’ experiences, as well as those of nations that have already successfully implemented e-voting (Brazil and Venezuela), it’s clear they all have one thing in common. They all understand, in principle, that the move to automation must be gradual.
The reason why implementation must be gradual is simple: generally speaking, human beings are adverse to change – and therefore any transition from one state or system to another will be easier if it takes place over a period of time, to give citizens a chance to adjust. There’s also the advantage that gradual change, in particular starting on a small scale, gives you the chance to iron out any problems before trying automation on a larger scale. Perhaps most importantly of all, more time gives more people the chance to have a say in choosing the right technology to help them to vote.
But if implementing e-voting should be gradual, then one of its major benefits is that it can deliver results almost immediately. Why is this so beneficial? Because any delay in their delivery raises suspicion and undermines trust in their validity. For example, in Honduras, the most recent elections – November 2012 – were almost a nightmare for the country, as the citizens had to wait two weeks for the results to be divulged. And this led many political actors to call for the abolition of manual voting. Now, the political class would like this to begin with a partial implementation of e-voting, i.e., the selection of one or two regions to evaluate its functionality and effectiveness.
Localized trials such as these are one of the most recommended ways to start to automate elections. It’s a path chosen by many countries, including Brazil. Here, technology was used for the first time in 1996 – but it wasn’t until 2000 that it became available to the entire country.
The process of automation was also gradual in Venezuela. It began in 1998 with the implementation of a mixed system, where voting was manual but scrutiny and totaling were electronic. The optical scanner technology ended up being cumbersome and had a high error rate in reading (up to 15% of cast ballots in some cases). The country then set about meeting all the requirements of the1997 Organic Suffrage Law (which contemplated 100% automated elections). And once they had, the whole process was automated in 2004. The nation adopted technology that includes the following: biometric authentication and the use of electronic ballots that look like the old paper ones; software with digital signatures or shared codes – between parties, the electoral body and Smartmatic, the providing company; and a paper receipt, which allows for in-election audits for up to 45% of the cast ballots during an electoral event.
There’s also the Colombian case. This is an example of the flexibility provided by technology. While political resistance to implementing automation was overcome, the electoral body set itself the task of automating alternate, yet vital, elements in an election: the electoral registry and the electronic registration of candidates – two stages that have been identified as the first steps to automating elections in the country in the near future.
Peru represents another example of gradual implementation. After closely studying nations with electronic voting, its electoral body created a system using the advances in electronic voting achieved in these different countries. It then adapted automation to its own legal and cultural characteristics. So far, Peru’s adopted automated elections successfully in two instances. And now the country is waiting for resources to advance its usage even more.
And, as is the case in every country keen on modernizing its elections, this gradual implementation of electronic voting will ensure something very worthwhile – more people will be involved in choosing and adopting the technology that allows them to exercise their right to vote, safely, transparently and accurately.