A stumbling block threatens the institutionalism of Ecuador’s CNE

CNEEcuador’s National Electoral Council (CNE) is experiencing a credibility crisis after its newly-appointed board was practically forced to quit thanks to the unexpected resignation of one of its counselors due to her having a political affiliation.

The CNE had a Board of Directors—presided by Paul Salazar—for eight days. Salazar set forth the need to undertake an all-encompassing reform of the Democracy Code. However, the newly-incorporated counselor Gloria Toapanta suddenly quit, seemingly as part of a political move regarding her partisanship, as she is a militant of the Alianza País party. This restrains her from keeping her post.

Although the desertion of an advisory post should not have altered the Board’s composition, both Salazar and vice president Mauricio Tayupanta resolved to put the rest of the posts at the disposal of the CNE members, until the vacancy left by Mrs. Toapanda was filled. The situation, far from being solved transparently, abiding by the norms, became a process that already has raised legal procedures against it, as new authorities were appointed at the same time as the post was being filled in a suspicious manner.

The reviews by the media shows that three people were considered apt to fill the vacancy: Solanda Goyes and Mónica Rodríguez, substitutes designated in last December’s contest carried out by the Citizen Participation Council, where Toapanda won. Besides, Ana Marcela Paredes, first substitute from the 2011 process, also requested her incorporation.

According to Article 20 of the Democracy Code (CD), at the resignation of one of the main advisors, his or her post will be filled by the subsitute with the highest score at the contest where he or she was elected. In this case, the contest that applies is the one carried out in 2014.

Solanda Goyes, who obtained 88 points in last year’s contest, claimed to be the first substitute. However, CNE counselors voted for Paredes, who was voted substitute in 2011 with 77.75 points. The affected candidate will file for protection and will take action against the appointment.

Thus, Paredes’s entry gave way to the appointment of Juan Pablo Pozo and Nubia Villacís, who were appointed president and vice president of the CNE, respectively. After the issue was seemingly settled, different people, among them Fausto Camacho, former CNE member, criticized several of the State’s institutions for joining together to contravene the law. Camacho annouced that he will also take legal action.

Although Pozo defended himself from the criticism arguing that CNE “is not an allocation council,” the entity is now facing an institutional crisis that is jeopardizing not only the body’s future, but also the country’s electoral guarantees, as Ecuador has been immersed in a process of suffrage modernization, in which the technology it will use to automate voting has been under evaluation.

CNE’s institutional frailty might become an obstacle not only for the country’s electoral development, but for the preservation of suffrage. It is now the turn of legal instances to activate the mechanisms that enable the solution of what clearly looks like a political stumbling block.

SCYTL compromises credibility of the voting technology industry


Executives from Scytl admited problems in the automitized scrutiny system used in Ecuador. Photo: today

Starting with the first entries of this blog some 4 years ago, we have called for the implementation of technologies that improve how elections are conducted. We do this based on our full conviction that e-voting, and the adoption of other technologies, represent the present and the future of safer and more transparent voting.

Now well, this certainty is not just an act of faith. It is grounded on our following of successful electoral projects around the globe, which have proven more efficient thanks to the application of technology.

We understand that carrying out an election is a mission-critical project, i.e. it implies coordinating thousands of variables and tasks that have to work perfectly during a very brief period of time. A civil registration project, for instance, opens up a window of possibilities (and time) that a single-day election does not. Hence, we admit that e-voting being a young industry, failures may happen. For this same reason, this blog has not been silent when a provider makes a mistake. Why? Because every blunder must be the object of a thorough analysis to turn it into a nurturing experience. However, when the same provider has a history of failures, and its mistakes cause discouragement and distress to a population, these should not be just mentioned, but denounced.

Scytl’s latest project was in Ecuador, where the company was awarded a multimillion contract in 2013 for the vote processing, automated tally and publication of electoral results for the country’s sectional elections, which took place on February 23rd 2014. Eight days after Election Day, Scytl stated there were problems in the system and delays in the processing of the electoral records. Authorities of the National Electoral Council, unable to announce official results, asked the media not to declare any candidate as a winner, and notified that in case of a total failure by the company an adequate judicial procedure would ensue, declaring the company to be a “defaulted contractor” and asking for monetary compensation.

The Spanish multinational company has publicly accepted their faults in Ecuador, something which did not happen in either the United States or Canada. Osman Loaiza, Scytl’s Operations Director, commented on “a failure they [the technicians] had when staring the process on Election Day, which set us back for a while until we could process the electoral records”, while publicly accepting that the system developed by his company for Ecuador was the source of the delay.

But failures of this company date from years ago. In 2008, the Florida State Department commissioned a review of the Internet voting system developed by the Spanish company Scytl. The team was made up by independent experts from Florida State University. In their report, despite of what they considered to be an advance in the use of encryption and of robust components, three vulnerabilities were found: voters could not even cast their votes within the system; electoral results that did not accurately reflect the voters’ will; and the disclosure of confidential election, i.e. the voter’s choices.

In 2010, the same Internet voting system provided by Scytl and implemented in Washington (US) was hacked; and during the Republican primaries in South Carolina in that same year, there were several reports of irregularities related to the Spanish company’s system. Moreover, the most questioned aspect was the fact that the electoral authorities admittedly could determine who a citizen had voted for.

In 2012, in Canada, an online attack delayed the results for the New Democratic party and prevented several delegates from casting their votes. Scytl explained that the attack was directed at the party’s website, and that their system was never compromised. However, analysts recommended clients to protect the URL of the website where the votes were going to be cast; it was precisely this what that Canadian party had failed to do, and Scytl did not warn them either.  “I’m not going to say it’s a rookie mistake, but it’s something that if you’re expecting a lot of people to watch an event or be involved in an event, it’s only those people that are involved in it that you want to actually participate … And it’s always been a rule that we have that we don’t allow the client to put a link on their website to the voting system because anyone who knows they’re having an election would simply visit their site and then pick up that information from there”, explained Intelivote’s Dean Smith.

That same year, during the most contended elections in the recent history of the United States, the number of absentee ballot requests by the military was strangely lower than in the 2008 elections. The US Department of Defense, which had employed Scytl since 2010, was subjected to strong criticism due to reports that showed an exponential decrease in members of the military that had received their proper absentee ballot requests. Scytl was the provider for the majority of states in that election.

Although some variables may always be compromised during an election, it is important for the provider of any voting system to know how to deal adequately with each incident that may arise. This is not about every single voting machine working perfectly; when deploying thousands voting machines, the laws of probability state that some of them can and will malfunction. However, when serious or massive incidents affect an election as a whole, the industry must take notice and work to ensure that similar incidents are not repeated. The vote is something too precious to be trusted to irresponsible, inexperienced hands.

Ecuador is preparing to change with the aid of technology


Ecuador will use quick count in 2014 elections. Photo: CNE

Ecuador has decided to improve its electoral system and is sparing no effort. At the same time that it is organizing an e-voting pilot for around one million voters—8% of the 11.6 million people on the voting registry—, it has also approved the use of a quick count modality (preliminary results) during the February 2014 elections. The National Electoral Council (CNE) has announced that it has approved the Quick Count Project and Operative Plan in cooperation with Dominican Republic’s Central Electoral Board in order to speed up the release of unofficial election results that year.

In 2011, Ecuadorians had to wait two weeks to know the results of a referendum, which led to champion election automation. However, while the selection of the technology that will automate elections takes place, the use of machines from the Dominican Republic’s electoral body for the transmission of preliminary results will be allowed.

Paúl Salazar, CNE vice president, explained that 1500 devices (computers with scanner) will be used in 1300 electoral precincts around the country. The process involves scanning a certain number of minutes—around 40%—, which will be transmitted to a consolidation center in order to establish trends and to be able to announce unofficial results two hours after the polling stations close.

Although quick count is not the best modality to use for the first results bulletin since the information obtained is unofficial until all results are tallied, Ecuador opted to seek a solution that allows to shorten the lapse of uncertainty on Election Day while the automation process takes place. This will be the experience with ballots cast nationwide except in the municipalities of Azuay and Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas, where a pilot that seeks to leave manual voting behind will take place.

Regarding this second novelty, it is known now that the e-voting pilot test will employ two different technologies. Azuay will use a system belonging to Argentina’s National Direction of Electoral Services, which consists of an electronic ballot box with smart ballots, while Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas will test the Venezuelan model, due to the fact that this country agreed to lend its touchscreen machines that include the capability to print vote receipts on paper.

The two experiences that Ecuador is preparing, quick count and election automation in two regions, show that in light of the erratic performance of manual voting, the nation has decided to use technology to offer its citizens the opportunity to have a system where a guaranteed vote is the rule and not the exception.