The unofficial speed of quick counting


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Ecuador uses the fast count system designed by Dominican Republic.

Electoral results, as a faithful expression of the people’s will, are the basis for the legitimacy of all posts at stake on an election. In order to guarantee this, many countries that depend on manual voting have resorted to what is called fast count or quick counts, which is no other than the unofficial presentation of the vote tally not long after the polling stations have closed.

This practice has been extended to minimize uncertainty in the face of the main flaws of manual voting: delay in the delivery of results, manipulation of minutes, and inconsistencies in scrutiny. The American ONG National Democrat Institute for International Affairs (NDI) states that handing the people “a highly exact and fast projection of the gathered and reported electoral results can prevent fraud, calm tensions, and allow those who assume posts as a consequence of elections to do so on the basis of public trust.”

What the NDI has stated is in theory what fast count seeks. However, in practice, the development of elaborate mechanisms to violate electoral results (hiring companies with political/partisan interests, unjustified delay in the delivery of the tally, inadequate selection of polling station samples, tampering, alteration of scrutinized votes) have smeared this electoral formula, which is based on the tally of votes from a random statistical sample taken out of polling centers to present an unofficial projection of results. The key to the success of vote recount is that the constituencies chosen to be scrutinized at the closure of polling stations respond to statistical criteria (probabilistic and random method) so that they reflect the distribution and weight of the electoral population. Thus, the selection and size of the sample will determine if the recount is reliable or not.

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Colombia has suffered serious problems with fast counting, as it is effective for some elections but harmful to others.

This method has been approved in Colombia, and its use reveals how ambivalent its application is, as while it has always allowed to find out accurate preliminary results fast during presidential elections, when it comes to legislative and regional elections, the election of multiple posts has caused the system to collapse, delaying the presentation of scrutiny and showing defects in the process.

On the other side, Honduras uses what is known as the Digital Transmission of Preliminary Electoral Result Minutes (TREP). The mechanism is based on the digitalization of minutes in order to be sent online with the aid of CTX (X Transmission Centers), which are composed of a laptop computer, a scanner, and a modem. Its most recent use —November 2012— revealed irregularities in the companies in charge of the system, plus an inadmissible delay in preliminary counts.

Finally, Ecuador recently adopted the Fast Count Project and Operational Plan, designed by the Central Electoral Board of Dominican Republic. In 2014, 1500 devices will be used to scan about 40% of the minutes, which will be sent to a consolidation center in order to establish trends and announce unofficial results two hours after closing the polling centers. In this case, carrying out the tally on such a large sample limits the error in the projection, as the tally becomes more exact with more scrutinized polling places.

In light of this reality, the “unofficial speed” of the results of fast counting shows an acceptable performance in some scenarios, but also logistic and procedural problems that undermine its raison d’être. When the results are not official, they become debatable and questionable, and that is the obstacle that must be overcome by the nations that use this mechanism as the way to make up for the delay in manual scrutiny during constitutional elections (Presidency, Parliament, Federal governments, etc.).

Ecuador is preparing to change with the aid of technology


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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.