Voting simulations to ensure successful elections in Ecuador


Smartmatic machines are already in Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas. Photo: El Comercio.

Simulating an election before the real one takes place is a tool that not many countries use, but which can be crucial for the success of the actual voting scenario. This experiment not only allows the people in charge to evaluate the technical and logistical performance of the process: it is also a priceless way for voters to familiarize themselves with the dynamics that will be in place when they exercise their right.

Ecuador has understood and accepted this reality. The country will hold elections on February 23rd, which will be historical, since three different e-voting technologies will be tried out simultaneously; this has the final goal of automating the country’s voting system. However, in order to leave nothing to chance during the upcoming elections, the country will first execute four voting simulations.

Next month, the Ecuadorian local elections will be predominantly manual. However, the provinces of Azuay and Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas, as well La Morita  (a section of Quito), will be pioneers in the use of voting machines in the country. During these elections, 23 provincial prefects, 221 mayors, 1,305 councilmen and 4,079 parish board members will be chosen.

These four different simulations are to include all the steps that need to be fulfilled during a regular, formal election. The Ecuadorian National Electoral Council (CNE) organized two nationwide technical trials (on January 26th and February 9th) where the system’s technical and logistical components will be put to the test, just as they will be on Election Day. The simulations include a monitoring of the deployment, contingency and roll-back procedures of the electoral material, the voting proper and the transmission of results.

Added to these two macro-level tests, a voting simulation will take place on February 1st in Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas, using technology provided by the London-based Smartmatic. In Azuay, a province that uses the same e-voting system as the Argentine province of Salta, the voting equipment will be tested the following day.

CNE national advisor, Juan Pablo Pozo set the record straight: the voting simulations will allow authorities to evaluate the installation of the equipment, the voting, tallying and transmission of results. They will also test the efficiency of the system and perform the necessary corrections before the elections.

By organizing these simulations, Ecuador is meeting its obligation to check the readiness of its automated voting system before elections take place. The nation’s commitment guarantees not only the operability of the system, but it also gives citizens a chance to learn to use the instrument they will use to reaffirm their political identity: the vote.

Russia and the transition to electronic voting

A little over a week ago, Russia held local elections in 74 of the 83 federal entities. More than 24 million voters were called to the polls to elect about 3.200 positions, for which 50.000 candidates were nominated. This big event served as a “rehearsal” for the December elections, and it was notable that several locations used electronic voting.

Russia has been interested in the automated electoral system for several years now, but it was in 2010 when Russia approved the legislation to modernize its electoral system. In that year, the secretary of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) Nikolai Konkin, visited Brazil to attend the presidential election and assess the applicability of the Brazilian model, which uses keyboard machines that automate the elections 100%.

“This electronic voting experience will be taken into account for the modernization of the electoral process in the Russian Federation. The CEC is developing the appropriate program, which is expected to be approved this November”, said Konkin last year when he visited Brazil as an international observer.

In the following months, Russia laid the foundations for electronic voting, and in March 13th 2010, several of its provinces experimented with a modern automated system. Bashkiria was one of the provinces that experienced e-voting, using machines with audio guides to guide the voters in simple and fast steps to complete the voting process.

The machines deployed worked as follows: once the voter was proven to be eligible to vote and received a card to activate the voting machine, the touch screen presented the nominated candidates. The citizen had to touch on the screen for marking his or her choice, and then pressed the confirmation botton. Then, the machine printed a paper proof of the vote. When the voting process finished, the votes from the ballot were counted, aggregated and transmitted to a computer center. An information Centre provided by the CEC, allowed the Russians to know the results in real time.

Another technology tested in Russia were the “mobile” or “itinerant” voting machines used in this occasion.  These machines were taken to the houses of disabled voters, who couldn’t mobilize to the polling stations due to illnesses or age factors. The displacement was monitored with the Russian navigation satellite system GLONASS.

The results of the e-voting implementation in Russia are being fully analyzed. The criticisms of the process that have been made by the political actors haven’t been technological in nature, but political. For this reason, the CEC has declared the process as successful.

The United States modernizes its electronic vote systems

Last November, Americans returned to the polls for midterm elections. The partial replacement of the House of Representatives and the Senate not only brought the recomposition of the first legislative bodies but also it showed how the United States, under pressure from citizens, experts and parties, had to drive technological improvements in its various electronic voting systems.
The intricacy of the U.S. election automation starts, not from the technological complexity, but from the fact that each county of the 50 states of the nation, has the power to administer the elections. Because of this, currently there is room for more than three thousand opportunities for implementation of electronic voting, and to date almost all the variations from the manual and automated counting votes (mechanical, punch cards and optical drive) have been used, to fully technified elections.

The debacle of 2000 in Florida was the main incentive to aim at the renewal of the voting system. In that year, many errors in the counting of punch cards forced the recount of millions of votes, which delayed for various weeks the results and prompted the intervention of the United States Supreme Court. The process was that voters punch holes in cards to indicate their preferred candidates, then the ballots were processed by machines for counting votes, but in that event, many votes were not registered as they were not recognized by the readers, as many holes were left “hanging” and could not be read accurately.

Following these events, in 2002 the norm Help America Vote Act was approved (Voting Assistance Act), which ordered to improve electoral practices across the country promoting electronic voting.

In the recent elections several changes were patented, and among the most dramatic is New York, which after 50 years of using a system based on lever machines, they migrated to a mixed scheme. The voter may choose to use the manual voting ballots and optical scanning reader of his vote, or a touch screen machine vote. Previously, each candidate was assigned a lever, and voters entering the voting booth, pulled a handle to activate the computer and proceeded to pull the levers to mark their preferences.

Another advance was seen in Florida. In the State, the much questioned punch card system was abolished in all counties and decided to return to the old system of paper  ballot and pencil, but the counting was automated, as each voter casted its ballot by an optical scanner that recorded the vote and was then transmitted an aggregation center. Some counties used touch-screen computers specifically for the disabled.

Although these two states and others like Texas and California discarded the antiquated machines used for decades, this nation still has a long way to catch up with more developed countries in the implementation of electronic voting. Clear examples go, because after several days, five seats in New York had not been allocated by the closeness of the results. However, this would not happen, if the software and hardware used allowed an accurate count, and also if they had machines that cast a proof of vote for subsequent audits.

The existence of a receipt of the ballot, currently exists, and Venezuela is the proof. In this country, next to the 100% automated voting, the machines print a voucher which is deposited in a traditional urn at the end of the process can be counted to compare the result with the one issued by the team. The audit is met later in 54% of polling stations, while in the U.S., activist groups pressure to allow in only 5%.

New York and Florida represent just two examples of the changes seen in recent U.S. elections, buoyed among other companies, Premier Elections Systems & Software andHartInterCivic. Although progress is substantial, the Voting Assistance Act requires more, and certainly in subsequent elections there will be changes that will strengthen electronic voting. This will rest in in the hands of government authorities that the country will stop systems that validate the speed of automation, but will also allow the security and transparency to come out as winners.