Bolivia and why transparency in an election is the key to almost everything

Photo By: Los Tiempos

In Politics, transparency is an essential quality that processes and actions must have in order to pass through public scrutiny with flying colors. In recent events in Bolivia, the impact of this condition on politics and elections was evident.

This South American country went to the polls on October 20 to renew the Republic’s presidency, and although the day was completed without major incidents, at the end of the process the legality and legitimacy of elected authorities, as well as those of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) were hindered by lack of transparency.

Specifically, after closing the polls and while rapid counting, that is, the Transmission of Preliminary Electoral Results (TREP) was being carried out, the process took a 180-degree turn, because the TSE suspended the provisional counting for almost a day, without any explanation.

Bolivian nationals and the world saw how with almost 84% of the ballots already verified, a second-round scenario was raised between President Evo Morales and his main adversary, ex-president Carlos Mesa; 23 hours later, when the TREP was resumed and with 95% counted, the ballotage, or runoff voting, was no longer possible.

Doubts and suspicions led Mesa to cry fraud, and also led the observation mission of the Organization of American States (OAS) to report irregularities. Despite this, the TSE confirmed —five days later— that Morales would not require a second round, and authorized an audit.

This verification of the tally is in process and has also suffered obscure events, such as the resignation of the leader of the OAS team that must review the election and the intense protests that have burst in various regions of the country. When the results of an election are riddled with doubt, the tranquility and peace of a country are affected.

What has happened shows that the decision —clueless until now— of the authorities to suspend the diffusion of the TREP, caused a break in the transparency of the process, which further blatantly shows that Bolivia is deep into a crisis caused by the lack of a swift and secure tallying system. And even more important, a tallying system that allows auditing in real time the count reports received and processed.

The country lags an enormous distance behind some of its Latin American peers, where automated systems are in force safeguarding the most important phases of their elections.

For example, while Brazil took only a few hours to complete the count in the second round of the 2014 presidential elections, which results were also very narrow; in Argentina, on October 27, thanks to the new logistics and technological platform implemented, the results of the preliminary count were published just three hours after the voting was closed, with 70% of the reports already processed.

The evils shown during the latest electoral processes seem to indicate that there is no longer room for indecision in Bolivia, and it is time to advance in the modernization of their system before distrust on the part of the electorate undermines participation and Democracy.

Fast and transparent results neutralized polarization in Argentina

The night of October 27 brought good news for Argentina, as provisional tallies expedited the processing and publication of results. Immediately after the results were published, incumbent president Mauricio Macri acknowledged his defeat, which brought calm to the country after a political campaign marked by polarization.

Thanks to the new logistics and technology platform implemented, the results were reported in record time. Only three hours after the polls were closed, auditable results were published online and no formal complaints about them have been filed so far.

This successful performance of the voting system was largely possible thanks to the technology recently adopted by the Argentine Post. The software used to transmit telegrams directly from voting schools to the computer center, as well as the technology and services of the provisional count, were provided by Smartmatic.

By the 21st hour, 70.48% of telegrams had been digitized, transmitted and loaded onto the system. By midnight, 96.08% had been processed. Only four years ago, at that same hour it had barely been possible to process less than 10% of telegrams.

In order to achieve this electoral milestone, 11,380 Argentine Mail agents were required, who transmitted telegrams from more than 10,000 voting venues to the computer centers. Further, 1700 operators in those centers were in charge of digitizing and loading results to the system. All this data could be queried online right away by political parties.

What happened in this election cast away the crazy criticisms that were made against the incorporation of electoral technology in the country. In addition to sowing doubt, those baseless criticisms fueled political polarization.

The accuracy of the results is one of the best arguments for those who promote the application of technology to register the vote. Argentina overcame all kinds of obstacles and was able to offer timely and reliable scrutiny, which reflected the popular will and legitimized the new authorities. The positive experience lived on October 27 will be key to promoting the expansion of electoral automation and to continue improving the efficiency and transparency of the elections.

Argentina takes concrete steps toward electoral transformation

During the Primary, Open, Simultaneous and Mandatory elections (PASO, for Primarias, Abiertas, Simultáneas y Obligatorias) recently held in Argentina, a new mechanism was implemented in order to transmit the precinct counts (“Telegrams”) directly from the voting places (schools) to the computer center. Both the data transmission software and the technology and services for the provisional count were provided by the Smartmatic company, after winning two public tenders by Correo Argentino.

Previously, telegrams traveled in vans under custody by the General Electoral Command to the so-called Digitalization and Transmission Centers (CTD), which could be located up to 86 km away from the voting venue. Consequently, in provinces having difficult access the transfer of electoral materials was often delayed compared to those schools in urban sectors whose materials reached the CTD in a matter of minutes. This negatively impacted the speed with which provisional results could be offered.

This year, in spite of questionings and denunciations from sectors opposed to change, the system in charge of the capture and transmission of results worked correctly and safely during the whole Election Day.  For the first time in the history of elections in this country, the results were known in record time, e.g. by midnight the count of a full 87% of telegrams was made public.

It is important to note that the improvements implemented in the process do not affect the procedure with which Argentina has held free elections since 1916. After the voting closed, voting station authorities manually count the votes and prepare the electoral documents. In this way, documents such as Telegrams are produced, which serve to carry out the provisional tally, which has an informative nature; and the formal Precinct Count, a document used by each district’s electoral justice to perform the final count 48 hours after the polls have closed.

Just as the provisional count reached a record number of results published by 10:30 pm, in parallel, and for the first time in Argentine elections, the voting station authorities, general prosecutors and proxies of political parties were able to view the scanned telegrams and compare them with the physical certificates the same night of the election.

This level of transparency attained in the publication of telegrams revealed the inconsistencies of manual voting mechanisms. In Argentina, as in all countries that vote traditionally, these shortcomings or inconsistencies occur when voting station authorities set to completing electoral documents.

Hernán Mogni, the secretary of the National Electoral Prosecutor, declared that “it is common that there are cross-outs in telegrams, they are part of human error.”

What happened prompted statements and opinions that sought to discredit the electoral process or its public perception. However, only a provisional tally was involved -with no legal consequences- and the situation was settled by the electoral authorities, as when the final count was made it was shown that errors in telegrams affected less than 1% of the votes, something unable to alter the final result.

An authorized voice, such as Alejandro Tullio, former director of the National Electoral Directorate (DINE) of the Ministry of Interior,  ruled out any irregularity stating that “You cannot talk about fraud for this reason: the telegram is an element lacking validity. What is valid is the result stated in the precinct counts. A 100% of the counts are counted again in each electoral court”, and this is what arrives at the final result.

In summary, although the inconsistencies in the telegrams do not affect final results, Argentinian authorities must propose solutions that mitigate human error in their electoral processes. In turn, they ought to implement solutions that support electoral workers on Election Day. In most cases, errors occur due to the exhaustion of electoral authorities and workers, who spend more than 12 hours at a polling place and still have to perform crucial tasks such as the counting of votes and the filling of materials.