Guide for the adoption and use of biometrics in elections

The illegal action of voting with someone else’s identity or voting multiple times has altered electoral results in many nations, reducing citizen trust in the system and forcing the authorities to find solutions.  One of the alternatives gaining ground to fight these kinds of practices is the use of biometric technology.

Better known as biometric ID –the scanning of fingerprints to corroborate personal identity – this tool went from being widely used in the corporate sector (to control staff access privileges, for instance), to being adopted by electoral management bodies.

Answering this need, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) has developed a guide to “improve the understanding of biometric technologies”, and is also offering a series of recommendations aiming to secure their adoption and use.

In the document, IDEA states that “there is broad agreement on the need for [biometric technology] application” for the prevention of electoral crimes uniquely associated to double voting and identity theft. However, they claim the commitment by the electoral authorities to create a clean voter registry (without deceased individuals, minors, or those disqualified to vote) is vital to uphold the electoral guarantees provided by voter lists.

Starting from this distinction, the organization compiled a series of recommendations for a secure adoption of biometrics, tailored to each country’s demands.  The text starts by suggesting a diagnostic test to determine the problems and characteristics of the voting and ID systems, in order to choose the right biometric technology to solve the issues.

IDEA calls attention on the need not to add barriers to the voter registration process.  They state that biometrics aim to fix problems and irregularities at the time of voting, not to improve the rate of voter enrolment. Therefore, the obstacles preventing citizens to enrol must be eliminated separately.

To minimize risks in the use of biometric identification, the Institute warns that, just like with any other voter technology, trials are required, together with information and training campaigns, and the tailoring of the system to the nation’s needs.

“Biometric technology may malfunction, especially in difficult physical and environmental conditions, or where the necessary infrastructure is limited” they claim. They also advise to test the technology and take as much time as it needed to learn it, which is fundamental for its secure and optimal adoption.  A gradual introduction is generally the best option.

IDEA also writes about the necessity of considering not only acquisition but also maintenance costs, in order to avoid financial imbalances and the loss of trust in electoral management bodies.

Pondering IDEA’s proposal, it is worth mentioning that many countries can serve as examples to the nations lacking tools for identity validation. There are companies in the electoral technology sector that have designed devices or voting machines that can enforce the “one voter, one vote” premise.

Two good examples in the region are Brazil and Venezuela, countries which lead the use of electoral technology in Latin America, by having e-voting models that include biometric identification.

The South American giant has machines with numerical keypads that register the user’s fingerprints before the voting takes place, while Venezuelans have the Integral Authentication System (SAI), fingerprint capture machines that unblock the voting machines only in the case of successful biometric authentication.

The use of technology makes it crystal clear: protecting voter identity is protecting the vote.

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