Argentina’s thorny path to electoral automation

Argentina is getting ready to discuss an electoral reform whose impact will be determining for the country’s democracy.  Both the National Government and provincial ones are proposing deep revisions to their voting systems, which makes it imperative to have a thorough look at the choices the authorities are evaluating in order provide their citizens with clean, transparent and secure elections.

Reviews on both printed and electronic media show strong divergences in the nature of the reforms proposed. Although there is a consensus on the need to automate elections, there are different opinions about which technology is the most appropriate for the nation.

The proposal of the executive, to be discussed in parliament, seems to lean toward an automated counting system similar to the one in Salta province; that is, a mixed system of printed ballots and vote scanning.  Even though this system has had moderately successful results in the region, it has also created doubts on its capacity to safeguard the voters’ will.  It was recently implemented in Buenos Aires and was strongly criticized by technology experts from Ekoparty.

At the same time, the regions of Tierra del Fuego and Santa Fe put a couple options for reform on the table.  The first one is concerned with fixing strict norms for the implementation of e-voting, while the second one (still to be debated) deals with the choice between two automated voting models and a mixed system that uses paper ballots and mechanized vote counting.

These examples paint a clear picture of the thorny path Argentina is traversing. In addition to doubts about the single electronic ballots (BUE) and the reform proposed by the national Government, other questions have been raised, such as those by federal electoral judge María Romilda Servini, who addressed issues of mistrust on the voter registry.

With the discussion raging in full force, the southern nation must guarantee that the debate is broad and transparent.  This electoral reform must be the chance to safeguard the vote of Argentinians, both technically and logistically, by means of the technology chosen. Their choices should also be protected from those who still aim at tampering with the votes, the results, or the processes themselves.

Argentina needs to make the right choice. The best e-voting practices are available for all to see, and can be regarded as guidelines for the country, both for a gradual application of the technology and for selecting the model that bests suits them. The decision made will be crucial for democracy.

E-voting and electoral guarantees

In times when manual voting has had unfortunate consequences for countries across the region (Colombia, Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Argentina and Haiti), it is worth taking a look at the characteristics of electronic voting, a model that presents itself as the transparent and secure alternative supporting the will of the people.

Manual elections have a long history of failures, mainly due to the fact that results depend on flawless behaviour from many players (poll centre workers, witnesses, political parties, electoral body officers, etc.), as well as on the proper filling of forms and statements, information transmission, and safe transport of materials to tallying stations.

To fight fraud and create greater trust, a voting system must be capable of faithfully recording votes, preserving their secrecy (of both choices and voter identities), showing a vote count that respects the will of the people, guaranteeing that results are tamper-proof, allowing the auditability of different processes, and also being user-friendly to all voters.

All of these conditions are met through electronic voting, which offers tools that minimize human intervention in the most important tasks, and therefore gets rid of errors and fraud. The process relies on equipment specifically designed and built to process, count and transmit vote results that are absolutely trustworthy.

One of the strong points offered by this technology is biometric authentication through fingerprints.  Every voter has his/her fingerprint captured for identity authentication and to avoid double voting or identity fraud.

Another interesting element is that e-voting allows for performing audits before, during and after the election.  These are usually conducted in the presence of the electoral body and political party representatives; the latter, having opposing interests, want to make sure the process has integrity, and to validate its security elements actually provide exact and reliable results.  Venezuela is an example of the vast possibilities for audit that this technology presents.

A major advantage of automation is that its design can be tailored to the idiosyncrasies or technical requirements of each country, which makes the voting process easier.  In Brazil, where a number is assigned to each candidate, the choice was to create a voting device with a keypad to replicate their original voting method.

Additionally, automated vote count and results transmission  have possibilities which are practically impossible to replicate with manual counting.  Voting machines were designed to add votes electronically and also encrypt them, therefore avoiding errors in the vote count or the filling of official statements, but they are also capable of transmitting this data to a tallying centre securely, curtailing fraud and other vices inherent to manual vote counts. The use of voting machines also expedites the process of proclaiming winners.

After reviewing the strengths of e-voting, it is clearly obvious that not only it minimizes human error, but also simplifies logistics.  Adopting some of the models available in the market would guarantee compliance with the demands of an election, and it would also allow countries to make their voting events completely immune to tampering.

Manual voting keeps adding reasons for replacement

After the Spanish general elections of June 26th, the European country has seen how widespread suspicions about its voting system encouraged criticism from the electorate, and even how some of those critics about the nation’s manual voting went viral.

The country, Europe’s fifth largest economy, still votes manually, namely using traditional paper ballots marked and counted by hand.  Spanish electoral norms, instead of enforcing security measures, basically leave the integrity of results up to the “good faith” of technicians, poll members and electoral officers.

One alarmed voting circuit president wrote a telling account on his Facebook page of what may happen to Spanish ballots: in some cases, they have been actually destroyed and thrown in the garbage.   Such disclosure triggered a flood of critical comments, which should be analyzed given the need to optimize the system and bring about real changes, instead of just keep adding fuel to the fire.

Spanish manual voting, as many others around the world, lacks mechanisms to safeguard the people’s will.   For instance, paper ballots often get lost before they are counted, but this numerical inconsistency is not marked on a register that could be used to contest results; instead, these votes are simply counted as ‘blank’.

Furthermore, postal votes are counted with no safeguards in place, while the final tally for each poll station cannot be double checked since ballots are destroyed. The statements of vote, signed by the poll centre workers, are what becomes the representation of the will of Spanish voters, not their ballots.

Some other parts of the world have also shown manual voting to incarnate the absolute worst electoral practices.  The Argentine province of Chubut is one of the many cases where a close count has delayed official results for days or even weeks.  That location has also seen irregularities such as defective statements of vote, wrong vote counts and empty ballot boxes.

Colombia too has seen numerous elections where manual voting has made electoral authorities, and the country itself, look bad.  The reason is that every single shortcoming of this voting model has been detected throughout the years.  In principle, since amanual system allows for the delivery of unofficial results after the polls close, the final vote count can take days or weeks before it  gets approved and published, thus creating a great deal of mistrust in the official results.

Additionally, over the past few decades, Colombian manual voting methods have repeatedly been accused of allowing fraud, including tampering with the issuing of ID cards, delays in the delivery of electoral documents, irregularities when counting blank votes, empty ballots reassigned to different candidates, double voting, tampering with the statements of vote, pre-counting and delays in the delivery of results.

Coming from the need to modernize the system and to abandon a path of uncertainty and electoral malpractice, those countries mentioned above have carried out tests to improve their voting systems. All of these include e-voting.

Automation offers benefits, mainly having secure, quick and transparent elections.  The options are there, ranging from a 100% automated model to a mixed one, where the act of voting is still manual but the count involves automation technology.

The biggest difference between manual and automated models, is that while manual voting is characterized by leaving results up to the good will of poll centre members and technicians, technology opens the possibility to audit every phase of the process, guaranteeing the transparency that every legitimate election should have.