Recap of 2016 electoral events


Foto: tolteca-guillermomarin.blogspot.com

2016 was a banner year for elections with over 30 countries in all continents carrying out a total of 133 elections.  Total voter turnout amounted to some 757.6 million people.

In the Americas, 2016 was a particularly busy year with two most populated countries (Brazil and the USA) going to the polls.

The contrast between manual and electronic elections was made more evident as  e-voting pioneers Brazil and the USA underscored the immense benefits of technology while countries like Peru, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Ecuador held out, stubbornly refusing to modernize and thereby, as in the case of DR, imperiling its very democracy.

Let us take a more detailed look at events.

United States

US voters elected their new leaders on November 8.  Despite all the noise about the possibility of hackers tampering with the vote, the elections went smoothly.

The unabated proliferation of fake news took everyone by surprise and yet the voting itself experienced no problems.  In the state of Wisconsin, where a recount took place, it was proved that when technology is properly implemented, the risks of the people’s will being tampered with are minimal, if not null.

Brazil

In October, Brazil deployed its huge e-voting platform boasting of some 450k voting machines. These were used for municipal elections where over 5,500 offices were to be elected.

Despite the enormous political turmoil the country is experiencing, the country took a step forward in its political recovery with these elections.

Peru

The political tension which arose from the close results of the Peruvian presidential elections made the final push for automation an imperative.

The July 5th polls saw a neck and neck contest between the top contenders and revealed how ill-prepared the National Office of Electoral Processes (ONPE) was in dealing  with a highly polarized nation. Although the country already has legislation to modernize voting, and has even designed an electronic vote model that has been under testing for years, the electoral authorities have been dragging its feet in rolling out e-voting.

Dominican Republic

2016 proved to be a rocky year for the DR. Its Central Electoral Board hired Spanish-based Indra Sistemas to provide biometric identification and automated voting technology for the May 15 polls.

Unfortunately, technical and operational errors plagued the implementation of both the fingerprint capture devices and the vote counting machines.  The problem was so bad that the Organization of American States (OAS) was prompted to say  that “the weakest point of the day was the use of voting machines, since they were missing from several polling centres or had connectivity or operation problems.”

The poll body has recommended to review and audit the entire platform.

Haiti

The November 20th Haitian elections showed that the country is still heavily dependent on international aid to mount elections. Although it managed, however barely, to pull off the last general election (whose final results were delayed for weeks, triggering accusations of fraud), the experience made it clear that the country should lose no time modernizing its polls.

Ecuador

After piloting an e-voting system where 100% automated models showed their superiority over those that only automate vote counts, The Ecuadorian National Electoral Council (CNE) surprised everyone by abandoning the initiative.  Even more baffling, it declared the two bidding processes scheduled to purchase results transmission technology to be “deserted”.

Instead, the poll body decided to accept a donation from the government of South Korea of 2,000 digitalization and transmission devices of precinct counts. To date, little is known about the systems on which the broadcast of results will be relying. What we do know is that the technology will merely scan and digitize manually filled out precinct counts.

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Argentina and Costa Rica delay electoral automation


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Brazil and Venezuela are world leaders in election automation, with years of successful technology-powered polls between them. On the other, there are countries that, for one reason or another, have been stuck in manual polls despite all the grief that the antiquated system is associated with.

Such is the case for Argentina and Costa Rica. The former advanced on the objective of installing an automated system on a national scale in 2016, but despite their efforts did not manage to make this change. The latter focused on electoral technology and did not finalize any measure.

Argentina spent months debating an electoral reform whose central axis was the progressive adoption of a Single Electronic Ballot (BUE in Spanish). Yet the initiative was abruptly stopped in the senate.

In a scathing editorial, the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nacion revealed the disconnect between the Argentinian public’s clamor to overhaul the electoral system and the politicians’ pussyfooting, which hints that the latter stand to lose a lot when automation eventually eliminates vote manipulation.

More alarmingly, a scheme proposed by the government for the adoption of BUE’s (the model adopted in Salta) has had a less than stellar performance and had only raised doubts about its capacity so safeguard the voters’ will.

On the other hand, lack of funding has stalled the implementation of e-voting in Costa Rica, where election reforms seem to be languishing in the cellar.   The Electoral Registry Directorate in fact stated that “there is no economic feasibility for this project, at least in the short and medium term”, and that resources should be oriented to other priority areas.

Observers are quick to note that the Costa Rican government should look past the high initial investment needed to implement e-voting and see the larger savings that will be realized in the long term.

Admittedly, the cost of acquiring e-voting solutions seems prohibitive at the outset. After all, software, hardware, training, voter education do cost a lot of money.  Yet expenses drop for subsequent elections since the only maintenance and small upgrades are needed.

When Argentina and Costa Rica resume this debate in 2017, both countries would do well to realize that how important it is for democracies to start modernizing their elections, and how critical it is to select the most secure and efficient automated voting model for their unique needs.

Technology as a way out of Chilean voter apathy


Foto: El Mostrador

In 2012, accusations of massive electoral fraud with as much as one million ballots allegedly being lost rocked Chile. As a result, confidence in the manual system plummeted to an all-time low. In the 2016 October municipal elections only 4,931,041 voters went to the polls – a dismal 35% turnout.

The worsening voter apathy has prompted former president Sebastián Piñera and the Avanza Chile Foundation to present the government with a project that proposes “early” e-voting for future Chilean elections, with the goal of increasing turnout.

The proposal would mean adopting an automated voting system (still unspecified) which would open voting for 15 days before the election and close it 5 days before.  It would be designed for both elections and plebiscites.

This initiative gives an opening for the country to bank on their strengths (democratic stability and credible institutions), using technology to make voting easier for their citizens.  Chile needs to stimulate turnout, and technology is a tool that improves access and makes voting more user friendly.

In the region, there are successful experiences that can be seen as references. Brazil and Venezuela are the flag bearers of electoral automation in Latin America, and even though the two countries employ different solutions, they share similarities in having e-voting systems widely accepted by their citizens.

In the case of Brazil, the Superior Electoral Court developed its own model, based on a machine with a numerical keypad. At the end of the day, these machine prints several records with the results; one of these records is stored in a magnetic disk, and is transmitted over a secure network for the tallying taking place in the Court’s computers.

On the other hand, Venezuela has 100% automated elections since 2004. The voters exercise their right through touch screen voting machines, selecting their choices directly on the screen of the device and getting a paper voucher that reflects them. The voters are also identified by means of a biometric system.  The devices are not only capable of recording and storing the vote, but also to count it, tally it and transmit it using encryption.

Compared to these examples, Chile’s fledgling efforts to modernize its elections barely move the needle. Yet these are important steps in reversing the worrisome trend of voter apathy, and which creates elections where participation is the rule and not the exception.