Elections in the age of Coronavirus


evoting

How to hold an election during a pandemic is surely the only question that electoral commissions around the world are asking themselves right now. This is because in many countries there are elections in the coming months, so having options to answer these questions is not absurd at all, if we want citizens to vote. Some countries have suspended their elections, while others have continued after taking sanitary measures.

In the case of France, which held critical municipal elections across the country last Sunday, voter turnout reached less than 39%, almost 16 percent lower than in the same elections from 2014.

Under these circumstances, authorities around the world must work as soon as possible on bills or initiatives that offer voters more and better voting methods. A robust electoral system must include at least two voting alternatives: face-to-face and remote (online). Online voting should be one of the channels available for the electorate to cast their votes conveniently and securely. In turn, this reduces voter attendance at polling places, which would help with “social distancing,” the most recommended measure to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

If there is a country in the world where elections do not add up to another problem caused by the coronavirus, it is Estonia. A secure online voting platform, like Estonia’s, allows voters to cast their ballot from anywhere in the country or the world without going to a polling place. According to studies conducted by researchers from the Estonian University of Tallinn, this lowers election costs significantly, while increasing voter turnout.

Los Angeles County is also a success story election commissions should take into consideration. Its new voting system has many characteristics that could be considered as safeguards against the coronavirus. For example, voters had the option to select their candidates at their homes, and then go to the voting center to only register the vote via a QR code. Voters also had the option to deposit a mail-in-ballot at multiple collection sites distributed throughout the city. Although these measures were mainly implemented to facilitate the vote of all citizens, they end up being appropriate to foster social distancing.

When we talk about online voting, we are talking about offering the voter the convenience and flexibility of casting their vote online, from their own digital device (smartphone, laptop, tablet) and from a remote location, rather than a controlled environment such as voting centers, consulates or embassies.

City of Buenos Aires moves away from e-voting


In 2013, a rushed implementation of e-voting in Salta sparked many flaws. Image: votoelectronico.org

Argentina has been preparing for e-voting for years, not only organizing voting pilots both binding and not binding, but also testing different technologies and involving the electorate. However, after all these efforts, the city of Buenos Aires will have an electronic voting system with the same deficiencies as a manual one.

There are several reasons that disqualify the use of this e-ballot from the start, a ballot that was used in the Argentine province of Salta and which was requested “as is” in the recent bidding carried out by the city of Buenos Aires:

1) It is fundamental that electoral commissions and technology providers take into account a country’s voting idiosyncrasy. The system must adapt to the voters and not the other way around. Although e-voting or an e-ballot always represent changes to an election, these should not be so pronounced as seen from the voter’s end.

2) The city of Buenos Aires won’t have e-voting. What it will have is an e-ballot that people will use to cast their votes, and which will enable each voter to verify that the selection has been correctly recorded. Its disadvantage appears at the end of the voting day, when voting officers must perform the election’s most critical task: tallying. How to guarantee that all ballots are accounted for at the end of the day? If the process were electronic, the votes cast by the citizens wouldn’t be handled by anybody else.

3) E-ballots offer redundancy but on the same physical medium: the vote is printed on one side of the paper and stored as well in an RFID chip. This RFID technology used by the machines selected for the upcoming elections in the city of Buenos Aires has been questioned in other jurisdictions due to the possibility its tampering from a distance, the absence of an unblocking mechanism and of the capability to identify whether a vote by the same person is being recorded twice.

4) Individual e-ballots can be told apart from one another because they each have a unique ID associated to the RFID technology and a serial number. If someone were to access this information, the secrecy of the vote could be easily broken.

**

Although it is true that this system does not add any vulnerabilities, it is also true it maintains several of those already present in manual voting. Problems could arise from presenting a system as “secure and failsafe”, therefore creating a false sense of security, which could lead to relaxed electoral vigilance and even to inadvertent facilitation of fraud.