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Dentón warns that the rising mistrust should be a reason for automating the country’s elections, and revisiting the outdated Costa Rican voting model, even more so after the nation has had successful e-voting tests.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

The plus and minuses of Panama’s e-voting experience


A Panamanian precinct used e-voting during the May 4 general elections.

Last May 4th —during general elections— Panama took a firm step toward establishing an electoral system capable of protecting and fully guaranteeing people’s intent: electronic voting.

The Electoral Tribunal (TE) automated one of the electoral precincts (José Antonio Remón Cantera school at Panama City’s Paitilla sector) during the elections where a new president, 71 deputees, and 77 mayors were being chosen. The experience involved 4,859 voters —out of the 2.4 million called to vote.

Panama’s e-voting model reproduces many specifications from systems that have already been tried in other countries. Elvia Muñoz, president of TE’s Sub commission for Electronic Voting, explained that the voting dynamics are very simple. After voters validate their identity, they receive a card to activate the touchscreen voting machine. The names of the candidates are then displayed for selection. In case the voter wishes to change the selection, there is a key to clear the screen and vote correctly. The voting machines have been designed to produce a printed vote receipt on paper, which remains as proof of the vote’s electronic recording.

The experience, which was deemed successful by the authorities, shows what technology can do for electoral systems, as the automated scrutiny matched the manual counting of printed vote receipts.

Although in this first event Panama scored points in light of the forthcoming nationwide automation, TE must take action to optimize the system. It is vital to keep developing the machines so that e-voting covers the whole process, from voter authentication, to voting, vote recording, tallying, and result transmission. Besides, it is important to make sure that the system is auditable by all stakeholders throughout all its stages.

Another pending issue to correct is ballot design. During the election, deputy candidate Alvin Weeden’s picture was left out. The incident generated confusion among voters, something unacceptable for any electoral process.

Panama knows now from the experience that electoral technology is the best ally to guarantee electoral results. However, it also learned that using it effectively is vital to shield the process and earn the country’s trust.