E-vote for citizens abroad gains traction in Spain

Voting for expatriates tends to be a controversial issue in many countries, not only because the laws of several nations curtail the exercise of this political right, but also because the logistic required to let foreign nationals vote often hinders the process.

To turn this around, Spain is looking for solutions, and e-voting is considered as one of the tools to surpass the limitations faced by expatriates.

Early this year, Catalonians complained about the lack of legislation regulating political participation for expatriates, and about the absence of a technological mechanism to solve the difficulties of organizing elections outside the national territory.

More recently, the Central Electoral Board has spoken about the need to rescue the political rights of Spaniards residing abroad by means of e-voting.

The president of the board, Carlos Granados, has proposed the adoption of an automated model to solve the difficulties Spaniards who reside abroad face in order to vote. This was mentioned to the commission in charge of studying voting reform.

For Granados, although the so called voto rogado – i.e. ”pleaded vote”, where the voter must previously communicate their will to vote to an institution that may grant or refuse their request – is indeed constitutional, its application has meant delays and procedures which have reduced turnout. Granados states that they are looking for legal changes that allow the use of electoral technology as an alternative to conventional voting mechanisms like postal voting or voting in consulates, which should be kept nonetheless, but with “improvements”.

These statements join the recurrent claims from voters abroad, who usually face technical and logistical hurdles that curtail their democratic rights.  Some of these include the reception of wrong electoral materials at the diplomatic missions or the remote location of polling centres, usually consulates or embassies.  They also face difficulties to register and validate their condition as voters, primarily due to the request by some nations to have legal residency, or the fear of disclosing their migratory status.

Facing this reality, Spain finds itself in a good position to open the doors to change.  With it, they would make the political participation of all their citizens more viable, but this would also pave the road to select the safest and most effective voting model for all the republic.

Headlong schedule puts remote voting in Catalonia at risk

Since the proposal of automating the voting process for Catalans residing abroad was presented last April, the project has been moving swiftly, to the point that it is taken for granted that automation will take place in next year’s autonomous elections.

The Governor’s office councilwoman Meritxell Borràs, who has been leading the initiative, states it was proved during the September 2015 that traditional postal voting or having to vote at diplomatic seats in other countries “does not seriously guarantee the right [to vote]”, since only 14,781 out of the 196,065 Catalans residing abroad voted.

The urgency to revert this minimal turnout is the driving force that keeps this project moving full steam ahead. However, the haste with which it is advancing could jeopardize its goal, because the adoption of new technology requires that no stages should be overlooked.

So far, the government of Catalonia passed the draft bill that establishes the implementation of an Internet voting model for Catalans enrolled in the CERA (Electoral Census of Spaniards Residing Abroad).

The legal initiative also contemplates an action plan that appears to be thorough for every single stage, but which is also risky since it sets a 10-month deadline for its fulfilment after the law passes:  “Hiring Internet voting services, implementing the technology, executing advertisement campaigns, pilot tests and effectively using the system within an electoral process”.

The plan laid out by the Catalans could mean the adoption of electoral technology by this important Spanish autonomous community, given that the vital phases for its safe and transparent adoption have already been laid out.

However, the success of this endeavour once the law passes will depend on whether the deadlines that have been set allow for the full completion of every stage. Electronic voting is designed to safeguard the will of every voter, but in order to do so it needs to be adopted flawlessly.

This draft bill states that Catalan voters can choose between postal and Internet voting; the latter would require them to enrol on a website, and confirm their identities in order to get credentials to vote.  It is expected that voting will take place from a computer, tablet or smartphone.

Borràs stated that “the experiences in other countries confirm [Catalonia’s] determination to adopt electronic voting”- Catalonia is well under way; hopefully the momentum they are showing now will keep over time.

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.