Argentina sees a new opportunity to modernize their voting

The recent victory of Argentinian president Mauricio Macri in the October legislative elections has given him the political capital to pursue old aspirations, such as an electoral reform that includes e-voting.

The very night the results were made public, Macri announced he would call all the sectors in the country to carry out legal changes of long political, economic and institutional reach.

This interest shown by the president can represent additional momentum, at least in electoral matters, since irregularities were reported during the closing of the election, an evidence of the country’s urgent need for a real modernization of its system.

For instance, in this article published by Leandro Querido, a political scientist specializing in electoral observation, some of these irregularities, faults and shortcomings are described in detail: vote counts made on blackboards, ballot theft, irregular marking of some ballots, certified electoral returns that were handwritten, and irregularities in the delivery of these statements to the tallying centres.

On the other hand, six provinces used biometric ID technology (fingerprint recognition), and this prevented old vices like double voting or identity theft from resurfacing, thus improving transparency in general.

Facing both realities, Argentina suffered in October from shortcomings that are typical to manual voting, but also experienced the benefits of technology, which could favour future debates on the reform.

As to this change in the legislation, it is worth mentioning that the country spent several months in 2016 discussing an amendment, whose axis was the progressive adoption of the Single Electronic Ballot (BUE), but this bill died in the senate.

Newspaper La Nación had an editorial on the topic, stating that, although the government did not generate a proper media climate that urged lawmakers to act, the Senate was also unwilling to discard the “ballot manipulation” allowed by manual voting.

Despite this, and with Macri’s political success, it is taken for granted that this new attempt to embrace e-voting will be successful, and that it will be a real improvement for the country.

In the last bill, together with the clause on gradual adoption of technology, it was mandatory for the country to adopt a Single Electronic Ballot (BUE), i.e. the model employed in Salta, Santa Fe and Buenos Aires. The BUE has had a mixed performance; it has worked relatively well in some elections but it has always raised doubts on its capacity so safely reflect the electorate’s will.

These two aspects must be debated. Even though international standards warn about the need to implement voting automation progressively, Argentina has been at the process of adoption for several years already, which makes it contradictory to delay it any further.

As far as the model to be employed, the country will have time to gauge the different types of e-voting variants available in the market, such as those that automate all stages, unlike the BUE, which only automates ballot printing and vote scanning.

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.

Provisional vote count in Argentina stirs debate

In Argentina, during the preparations for the Simultaneous and Mandatory Open Primaries (Paso) to be held in August, events that some authorities, politicians and citizens have already labelled a scandal have surfaced: the awarding of the “provisional vote count” to a company accused of irregular procedures.

We are talking about Indra, the Spanish company that has been handling the provisional vote count for Argentina for several years, and which now is facing high profile legal troubles.

Their headquarters in Spain were raided during an investigation into the illegal financing of electoral campaigns.  Additionally, the Brazilian judiciary forbade the company from doing business with the country’s public sector.

There has been a flood of criticism in Argentina as a result of the way the bidding process was tailored in favour of Indra.

According to local media, the awarding of the contract was surrounded by several questionable events; for instance, Indra’s General Director Ricardo Viaggio is a former employee of the Macri Group.  The awarding process was delegated to the Argentinian Postal Service and not to the Ministry of the Interior or the National Electoral Directorate. The CEO of the Argentinian Postal Service, Jorge Irigoin, also has ties to the current administration.

Beyond the alleged traffic of influences, there are also complaints about the delay in the convocation for the bid (less than two months away from the primaries), so no other bidder would have the time to meet the demands of the process except Indra, which had performed the service before.

The National Electoral Chamber not only questioned the selection of this company and the procedure employed, but also the fact this provisional count is under control of the Executive and does not involve the Judiciary.  On their part, NGO Transparencia Electoral demanded that the software used for this vote count be audited, given the irregularities in the contracting process.

Reviewing these events, it is clear the Argentinian Executive Branch, far from wanting to replicate best practices in voting automation, where no guarantee too many, has chosen to favour interests not related to the integrity of the process.

By conducting a bid far removed from the highest standards expected in such scenarios, they have seriously harmed electoral credibility.

We will have to wait to fully know the consequences of what happened in Argentina, but it is certain that the electorate’s trust on their institutions has been lessened once more.