Costa Rica and Panama debate the use of voting technology

Costa Rica and Panama have begun debates about their upcoming elections. Costa Ricans will hold presidential elections in 2018, while Panamanians will have general elections in 2019.  The proximity of both events keeps fanning the debate about their voting systems, which includes the prospect of e-voting.

In Costa Rica, the subject of e-voting has gained momentum, and recently the president for Gallup in Latin America, Carlos Dentón, revealed that “a third of Costa Ricans are dissatisfied with the capabilities of the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE)”, according to the latest CID/Gallup poll.

Dentón warns that the rising mistrust should be a reason for automating the country’s elections, and revisiting the outdated Costa Rican voting model, even more so after the nation has had successful e-voting tests.

It is important to mention that Costa Rica delayed their voting automation  scheduled for 2018 due to budgetary constraints. The Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) subscribed to a report by the Electoral Registry Directorate, which concludes “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.

This viewpoint stems from the considerable sum of money that must be paid for the acquisition of software and hardware, training human resources and educating citizens, but the Court failed to acknowledge that expenses go down considerably after adopting the technology; this because the money required for subsequent elections is only for needed for maintenance.

On their part, Panamanian authorities touched on the same subject during a forum held in the Electoral Court about the reform scheduled for their 2019 elections.

Panama tested in 2014 an e-voting model designed by the TSE, which reproduces characteristics of systems that have been tried in other countries, so the experiment was successful.

In this process, voters, who previously validate their identities, receive a card that unlocks a touch-screen voting machine. Options are then displayed on its screen.  In case of mistakes, there is a “clear screen” key. Once the choices have been correctly marked, the device will print a voting voucher that counts as a paper audit trail.

In the forum, participants were critical of the fact that, although there is a Panamanian-developed machine, the decisions to develop it further or put it in operation have not been made.

There was also talk of the conclusions on voting technology that emerged from this year’s meeting between Central American electoral organisms. There were recommendations to enforce high standards during vendor bids, keep the nation informed about the technology adoption process, reach for consensus, and guarantee a proper educational campaign for the voting model.

Given these discussions, Costa Rica and Panama already know that electoral technology is the best tool to get trustworthy voting results, and that its efficient use is vital to make elections secure and win the citizens’ trust.  Now it is up to them to choose to change, and improve.


Criticism mounts due to cost of manual voting in Mexico

In 2018, Mexicans will live the largest election in their history when they simultaneously carry out 3 federal and 30 local votes. Despite the complexity of the process, what is generating criticism is the cost predicted.

The president of the Mexican National Electoral Institute (INE), Lorenzo Córdova, admitted the organism will request 25.4 billion Pesos, their “highest budget in history”. Córdova justified this sum, claiming that from the total, some 18.256 million Pesos will finance the organism’s operative expenses, and 6.788 million Pesos will go towards financing political parties and independent candidates.

Analyzing this request for resources, analysts calculate that each vote for every Mexican voter will cost 245 Pesos (USD 12.5), while the INE calculates 205 Pesos (USD 10.75). In both cases, these amounts make manual voting in Mexico one of the most expensive in the world; moreover, the vote will remain manual despite its level of technical complexity.

The main criticism is directed at the hefty amount of resources the INE is alloting to political parties, as well as the relationship between the cost of the election and its reliability, which does not match the fiscal sacrifice the investment represents.

When evaluating these figures about the Mexican electoral budget, it is worth quoting the Global Survey on the Cost of Registration and Elections, developed by the United Nations Development Programme and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, which states that the lowest cost per voter (between USD 1-3) is found in countries with consolidated democracies such as Australia, and in some states in the US. On the other hand, nations with automated voting such as Venezuela and Brazil invest between USD 3 and 3.5 respectively.

Mexico is then in a group of democracies with manual voting systems that tend to have a higher cost per voter.

Seeing these figures, political actors and specialists should refocus the debate.  Instead of honing on party financing, it would be convenient to open a discussion on the need to modernize the vote.

Experience shows that although voting modernization does indeed require significant investments during the adoption phase of the technology, its use generates medium and long-term savings, since all future expenses are focused on maintenance and updates. Mexico has a long road ahead, but their next elections could be the starting line.

Leak increases mistrust over e-ballots in Salta province

A month after the Simultaneous and Mandatory Open Primary Elections (PASO) in Argentina, doubts about the electoral system in the province of Salta remain present. First, due to the problems encountered by the e-ballots that have been used in the area for several years now, and second, due to the lackluster vigilance of the IT devices after the election.

A hacker identified as Prometheus, managed to obtain a CD with the source code for the e-ballots created by the firm MSA and leaked it on social media, which constitutes the greatest security breach ever in the region, and certainly the riskiest one given that legislative elections are scheduled for October.

According to the statements offered by the authorities, the CD contained materials related to the e-ballots. The authorities have since requested reports from the Electoral Tribunal in order to pinpoint the circumstances in which this CD went missing.

Amidst this scandal, and with rumors circulating that the software leaked had been the same one used for the August primaries, the provincial judiciary denied the accusations, stating that “it is not the same source code from the e-voting machines used in the province”.

However, several experts compared the materials leaked online with the CDs used during the last PASO elections in Salta, and concluded it is in fact the same software. This process was supervised by Alfredo Ortega, PhD in Computer Science and a researcher for the Czech IT firm Avast, and by Patricia Delbono a IT forensic investigator and member of the Professional Council for Telecommunications Engineering, Electronics and Computer Science (Copitec).

Considering these facts, the administration is facing a serious problem: the citizens’ perception of these institutions and their ability to safeguard critical voting materials was affected, and this could lead to higher abstention rates in future voting events due to the prevalent mistrust.

For the time being, both the company in charge of the voting and the authorities have excused themselves by stating this was not a leak but a robbery, and that the theft of this CD will not affect upcoming elections, since the CDs only allow users to turn on the machines but not alter their source code.

However, beyond the results that this leak might actually have, reality is once again unkind to the Salta e-ballots.  There have been problems in several elections (machines breaking down, violations in the chain of custody of materials) which have made clear the electorate is not using secure equipment. Now, there are security breaches that undermine the credibility of the organization and the system itself; these have not been properly addressed, are still ongoing, and no efforts to regain the voters’ trust are underway.