Last May 4th —during general elections— Panama took a firm step toward establishing an electoral system capable of protecting and fully guaranteeing people’s intent: electronic voting.
The Electoral Tribunal (TE) automated one of the electoral precincts (José Antonio Remón Cantera school at Panama City’s Paitilla sector) during the elections where a new president, 71 deputees, and 77 mayors were being chosen. The experience involved 4,859 voters —out of the 2.4 million called to vote.
Panama’s e-voting model reproduces many specifications from systems that have already been tried in other countries. Elvia Muñoz, president of TE’s Sub commission for Electronic Voting, explained that the voting dynamics are very simple. After voters validate their identity, they receive a card to activate the touchscreen voting machine. The names of the candidates are then displayed for selection. In case the voter wishes to change the selection, there is a key to clear the screen and vote correctly. The voting machines have been designed to produce a printed vote receipt on paper, which remains as proof of the vote’s electronic recording.
The experience, which was deemed successful by the authorities, shows what technology can do for electoral systems, as the automated scrutiny matched the manual counting of printed vote receipts.
Although in this first event Panama scored points in light of the forthcoming nationwide automation, TE must take action to optimize the system. It is vital to keep developing the machines so that e-voting covers the whole process, from voter authentication, to voting, vote recording, tallying, and result transmission. Besides, it is important to make sure that the system is auditable by all stakeholders throughout all its stages.
Another pending issue to correct is ballot design. During the election, deputy candidate Alvin Weeden’s picture was left out. The incident generated confusion among voters, something unacceptable for any electoral process.
Panama knows now from the experience that electoral technology is the best ally to guarantee electoral results. However, it also learned that using it effectively is vital to shield the process and earn the country’s trust.