Mexico city debuts Internet voting initiative

Mexico, a country that has been trying for years to overhaul  its electoral system, has finally taken a major step forward by formalizing one of the first remote voting projects in Latin America.

Although the initiative does not yet cover elections contemplated in the constitution and is yet limited to the election of community-based Citizen committees and People’s Councils,  it is a process backed by authorities and approved by the Federal District Electoral Institute (IEDF).

The pilot involves the use of an Internet voting mechanism, a simpler and more rudimentary version of the system used in countries like Switzerland and other democracies which have become more savvy in the use of internet technology for elections. Nevertheless, the initiative is important in that it introduces the use of electoral technology in the Mexican capital.

The voting mode to be used between August 31st and September 1st (traditional voting takes place on September 4th) covers two options: remote voting or in-situ voting at polling stations. For the former, a computer, tablet or personal cellphone can be used, whereas for the latter the voter will have to travel to strategic points in Mexico City to vote using equipment owned by the Institute.

According to the characteristics of the system made public by the IEDF, the residents of the capital who wish to vote remotely must pre-register on the Institutes’s website, in order to get an Internet voting key mandatory to activate the system.

The pre-registration password will be just one of the security mechanisms: when voting, citizens must enter a set of requested data (their user key, the OCR number in their voting credential and the Internet key), after which they will receive a message on their cellphones with a single use code (token) required by the system, and which is only valid for a brief period of time.  Only then will the screen show the voting options.

Councilwoman Olga González stated that the double authentication process for voters “will guarantee the one voter, one opinion, one vote principle”, a fundamental characteristic of every voting system that claims to be safe and transparent.

The scope may be modest, yet obervers hope that it will demonstrate to voters the immense gulf that separates the manual and automated elections and provide the impetus for the country to finally modernize its elections.

Manual voting keeps adding reasons for replacement

After the Spanish general elections of June 26th, the European country has seen how widespread suspicions about its voting system encouraged criticism from the electorate, and even how some of those critics about the nation’s manual voting went viral.

The country, Europe’s fifth largest economy, still votes manually, namely using traditional paper ballots marked and counted by hand.  Spanish electoral norms, instead of enforcing security measures, basically leave the integrity of results up to the “good faith” of technicians, poll members and electoral officers.

One alarmed voting circuit president wrote a telling account on his Facebook page of what may happen to Spanish ballots: in some cases, they have been actually destroyed and thrown in the garbage.   Such disclosure triggered a flood of critical comments, which should be analyzed given the need to optimize the system and bring about real changes, instead of just keep adding fuel to the fire.

Spanish manual voting, as many others around the world, lacks mechanisms to safeguard the people’s will.   For instance, paper ballots often get lost before they are counted, but this numerical inconsistency is not marked on a register that could be used to contest results; instead, these votes are simply counted as ‘blank’.

Furthermore, postal votes are counted with no safeguards in place, while the final tally for each poll station cannot be double checked since ballots are destroyed. The statements of vote, signed by the poll centre workers, are what becomes the representation of the will of Spanish voters, not their ballots.

Some other parts of the world have also shown manual voting to incarnate the absolute worst electoral practices.  The Argentine province of Chubut is one of the many cases where a close count has delayed official results for days or even weeks.  That location has also seen irregularities such as defective statements of vote, wrong vote counts and empty ballot boxes.

Colombia too has seen numerous elections where manual voting has made electoral authorities, and the country itself, look bad.  The reason is that every single shortcoming of this voting model has been detected throughout the years.  In principle, since amanual system allows for the delivery of unofficial results after the polls close, the final vote count can take days or weeks before it  gets approved and published, thus creating a great deal of mistrust in the official results.

Additionally, over the past few decades, Colombian manual voting methods have repeatedly been accused of allowing fraud, including tampering with the issuing of ID cards, delays in the delivery of electoral documents, irregularities when counting blank votes, empty ballots reassigned to different candidates, double voting, tampering with the statements of vote, pre-counting and delays in the delivery of results.

Coming from the need to modernize the system and to abandon a path of uncertainty and electoral malpractice, those countries mentioned above have carried out tests to improve their voting systems. All of these include e-voting.

Automation offers benefits, mainly having secure, quick and transparent elections.  The options are there, ranging from a 100% automated model to a mixed one, where the act of voting is still manual but the count involves automation technology.

The biggest difference between manual and automated models, is that while manual voting is characterized by leaving results up to the good will of poll centre members and technicians, technology opens the possibility to audit every phase of the process, guaranteeing the transparency that every legitimate election should have.

Six mandatory steps for successful electoral automation

There is currently a group of countries in South America focused on the automation of their voting systems.  This measure, a transcendental one for any democratic nation, calls for decisions that will determine the success or failure of the technology. Therefore, it is very important for authorities to consider a few vital steps to overcome the challenges of revamping an entire voting system.

Among these countries we find Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Colombia. They all are in different stages and are following their own rules. However, it is worth it to review the best practices available to revamp a voting system with as few problems as possible, or at least, without any costly ones.

In different successful instances of voting automation around the world, the authorities have taken precautions in choosing the electoral technology that best fits the system already in place. There is no such thing as “too many safeguards”. Quite the opposite; being thorough is what will make an electronic voting model bullet-proof.

Some of the experts’ recommendations include the following:

1.- To secure trust in the new system, it is mandatory that an open process takes place for every stage (creating the legal regulatory framework, selecting the system, testing, bidding, etc.). The implementation of the new system must also be gradual and go hand in hand with an extensive information and training campaign.

2.- It is vital to conduct a bidding process that meets the highest standards, that is, one which considers an international call for electoral technology vendors, who must be able to prove their experience in the subject and offer a flexible e-voting model that is tailored to the legal, technical and financial needs of the nation, even to its idiosyncrasies.  Running an election implies lining up countless variables, and a company with no previous experience is the wrong choice for mission critical projects.

3.- When starting the search and comparison of offers in the market, it is fundamental to evaluate the local infrastructure and every potential limiting factor in it (power grid, phone and data services, communication lines, etc.). The sustainability of the automated model over time must also be considered.  It must be understood that the success of automation calls for more than technology alone. The services available in the country will be determining factors to guarantee good performance.

4.- The selection must answer to the interest of acquiring a system that guarantees the security, secrecy and transparency of voting, as well as providing the advantages characteristic to e-voting: safety, speed and auditability.

5.- Together with the need to carry out pilot runs that test the reliability and adaptation of the model to the country’s characteristics, verification of the system’s auditability is mandatory.  There are several kinds of technology that can be audited exhaustively during every phase: software, electoral infrastructure, servers, security protocols, firewalls; all can be reviewed. Reviews can be done by technicians, political figures and organizations, and most importantly, by the voters themselves.  Such a scenario is possible when using voting machines capable of printing voting vouchers, since these can be reviewed on the spot and tell whether the vote recorded is the same as the vote printed.

6.- When designing a voting model, authorities must strive to make voting easier, adapting a technology that suits the nation’s characteristics.  For instance, in Brazil, where people are used to associating candidates with numbers, the machines reflect this fact: they have a numeric keypad used to mark choices, analogous to the writing of numbers on traditional ballots.

These six suggestions are not the only ones, but they are the most important for an optimal application of electronic voting.  Technology can be used to make any step of an election easier, but its proper and massive use will be what makes the difference between automated and manual processes.