Vote buying, delayed result proclamation, complicated electoral ballots, and low turnout are some of the irregularities and inconveniences that have been reported in Colombia after the March 9 legislative election results.
Although this inventory of electoral malpractices seems enough to cast a shadow of doubt on the effectiveness of the Colombian electoral system, the most worrisome aspect of the recently held elections is the high number of null votes the final results showed.
According to the Registrar’s Office, null votes once again represented more than 10% of the cast ballots. While in 2002 the numbers did not differ too much from averages of other Latin American countries (about 4%), a few weeks ago 1,500,000 and 1,700,000 null votes were counted for the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives, respectively (11% and 14% of the votes). This number is similar to what has happened since 2006, when the Registrar’s Office applied the first plan to make the ballot more user-friendly but null votes rocketed up to 11.2%. This happened again in 2010, when changes were applied to the ballot again but null votes summed up 1,403,913, i.e., 10.6% of the Senate votes.
The National Registrar, Carlos Ariel Sánchez, trusting that the new modifications in the ballot would make the voting exercise easier, expected a lower number of null votes. After the elections, he had to admit that the phenomenon needed to be further analyzed. The report written by the electoral observation mission from the Organization of American States (OAS) also commented on this phenomenon and recommended action to be taken.
Null votes should be carefully scrutinized as their high occurrence could jeopardize the legitimacy of the entire election. Not all null votes can be considered fraudulent, as voters can voluntarily cast them to make a political statement. However, the source of their high occurrence could be the fact that election officials at polling stations have the power to deliberately invalidate a vote by making it null.
With the null vote scandal in full fledge, Colombia seems to be reaching a decisive moment. It has already scheduled 2018 as the year when it will automate suffrage, and it will evaluate the application of different e-voting models on the way.
The Registrar’s Office wants to start testing Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) technology soon. With this technology, the fate of each vote is not in the hands of officers, as selections are directly marked by voters on touchscreens, and they are automatically stored until tallying occurs. No electoral authority or technology has to interpret the value of a vote, as machines do all the work—registering, storing, aggregating, and transmitting votes to data centers.
Another option that is being contemplated by the Registrar is the use optical scanners to automate tallying. Even though this technology facilitates tallying, storing, and aggregating votes, as well as transmitting results, it does not offer improvement to the problem that the recent elections brought to the surface: interpreting the voters’ intent. Optical scanners do not let the voter be the one to express his or her opinion directly, and they merely interpret it.
In the future, Colombia doesn’t have to keep on doubting electoral results. DRE technology can be its ally in overcoming manual voting and the distrust generated by its use.