Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How electronic voting led to better infant health in Brazil

Photo: Freedigitalphotos

Today we’ll share some thoughts about Thomas Fujiwara’s paper “Voting Technology, Political Responsiveness, and Infant Health: Evidence from Brazil.

Before 1996, when Brazil first implemented e-voting, about a fifth (23%, according to the 1991 census) of the adult population was illiterate. 

Yet the election system involved written paper ballots. Which meant this large number of people (most of whom couldn’t afford even primary education) couldn’t fill them in and cast their vote correctly.

This lead to a huge number of “residual” votes that couldn’t be assigned to any particular candidate – meaning that effectively many poor people were unable to select politicians who might help them. In fact electronic voting was introduced to save time and money counting votes but had the unintended consequence of making voting easier for these ‘forgotten’ citizens. 

According to Thomas Fujiwara in his paper, the introduction of candidate pictures and color –coded commands to the voting process – thanks to voting machines – was a turning point. Because it suddenly meant Brazil’s illiterate and poor had a voice. 

It also helped, as noted by the BBC, that a numeric interface (similar to the one used in telephones, something even an illiterate person knows how to handle) was used. 

Voters only needed to press the number for the candidate they wanted to support, and if they weren’t able to recognize written numbers, they could take notes with them to the voting station to select the right button. 

Then a picture of the candidate they selected was shown and through color-coded buttons they could approve or cancel their vote. 

So now, even those who can’t read are able to vote for their candidates of choice. And, since voting is compulsory in Brazil, there are even options to cast a blank or a void vote. 

Thanks to technology, now everybody is able to cast their vote, to make their voice heard, and to be sure that their vote goes to the choice they selected. 

This increased participation, and as a new pool of votes from the country’s illiterate poor could now be counted (instead of just being voided, like in the past).

In response, Brazilian parties and politicians decided to start investing more on issues that directly improved the lives of these less fortunate people. 

In particular, Fujiwara’s paper found out that after the implementation of e-voting, there was a rise all across Brazil in the investment in public health care. 

The author’s research found that there have been a growing number of prenatal visits and a decline in low-weight births in uneducated (and thus, the poorest) mothers, while this numbers didn’t change for middle or high-income women (who are more prone to attend private health institutions).

Since e-voting was implemented progressively throughout Brazilian states, Fujiwara could compare numbers from different regions at different times and see that indeed, e-voting caused these improvements to the health care of the poorest.

This means that, thanks to e-voting, Brazilian politicians are tending to the poorest people’s needs, as this new voting system brought light to an otherwise ignored (and big) part of the population that now has an effective way to claim their rights.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Electronic voting makes it into TED

Mr. Bismark during his talk. Photo: TED

Since 1990 TED has held conferences in different cities of the United States to address an array of topics related to Technology, Entertainment and Design. Using a rather informal setting, guest speakers present ideas and demonstrate their expertise in presentations lasting 18 minutes at most. 

In July, 2010, David Bismark attended TED to present a system he designed along with some colleagues, to guarantee transparent and verifiable elections. According to Bismark, the problem his e-voting system addresses is the difficulty each voter encounters to know that his/her vote was recorded accurately and that it actually counted correctly, while remaining anonymous. 

This new system relies on the use of a Precinct Count Optical Scanner machine to capture the intention of the voter. What is innovative about it is the design and particularities of the printed ballot it uses. Voters receive a ballot in which candidates are on the left side, and the ovals/square to mark the preference and a 2D encryption bar are on the right side. Once the voter marks his option, he/she proceeds to tear the ballot through the middle. The right part of the ballot, where options are marked, is scanned and then returned to the voter to keep as a registry of the vote. Now, not all ballots are the same. Candidates are randomly organized in the left side of the ballots, so once the ballot is divided into two separate pieces, nobody can tell for which candidate the marked vote is related to.

Although the system is quite inventive, it does not address many of the issues that are important in a electronic voting system. From the moment the voter arrives to the precinct, to the moment results are announced, an election involves 7 main steps: Authentication of the voter, activation of the voting session, voting, counting of the votes, results collection, consolidation and proclamation. 

During Bismark's presentation, he failed to mention any special mechanisms to address security in the results collection, consolidation and proclamation processes. If in fact, his system has solved security issues in those steps, the authentication and session activation are still manual processes prompt to suffer human error, be it involuntary or intentional.

Also, by utilizing PCOS, the voter cannot be completely sure the vote was properly accounted for. As opposed to machines that directly record the vote, a scanner works as an interpreter. Interpreters open the possibility for error. 

One last inconvenience we see in this system is the fact that ballot printing is one of the most onerous costs for electoral commissions. Printing different models of ballots so that the right side of the ballot cannot be associated to any candidate, once separated into two, represents a heavy burden for the finances of the elections commissions.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Voter biometric authentication - From Ghana to Venezuela

A Ghanian voter going through the
biometric verification process (Photo:UK in Ghana Flickr)

Although in this blog we promote the adoption of voting technologies as a mean to enhance efficiency and transparency, we understand the fact that having appropriate technology is not enough to guarantee success in election administration. A trouble-free implementation of the technology is paramount to achieve legitimate results. Also, the technology to be used on election day needs to be properly audited and tested, and mechanisms to solve unforeseen problems need to be developed. 

Two drastically different experiences serve to illustrate this point: the Venezuelan presidential elections held in October 7, and the December 7 elections in Ghana. 

In Venezuela, and for the first time in the history of elections, biometric devices were used to authenticate 100% of the voters. The elections ran smoothly, voting ended on time, and the results were published only two hours after polls closed. Opposition leaders conceded the defeat immediately. The very few problems encountered by voters on election day were solved according to a well designed contingency plan.

On the other hand, on December 7, Ghana headed back to the polls for the tenth election since democracy was reestablished in 1992. Although Ghana took an important step to increase electoral efficiency and transparency by automating this part of the electoral cycle, a poor implementation of the biometric system led to important setbacks that forced officials to extend voting for an extra day. According to the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers, 18% of polling stations across Ghana had some kind of problem with the biometric devices. In those regions were problems were reported, 33% of polling stations had difficulties. An inconvenience of this magnitude gave all the right to the opposition parties that lost the elections to complain, and served as basis to support their fraud claims. Political instability followed the elections, and post electoral violence erupted in certain cities. 

A few facts explain the different outcomes that biometric authentication had of in these two countries. In first place, the Venezuelan electoral commission was executing its eleventh automated election. The experienced gathered in eight years alongside Smartmatic, helped enormously. For Ghana, this was the first automation in their short democratic history.

Another determining factor was the fact that the Venezuelan platform was thoroughly revised prior to Election Day. More than 22 audits, tests and pilots were carried out in order to guarantee that the system worked properly. Technicians from all parties involved participated. In Ghana, the biometric platform was not sufficiently revised and that is one of the main arguments used  by opposition parties to explain the fraud allegedly committed. 

Also, in Venezuela, automation covered the entire election, from end-to-end, whereas in Ghana only the authentication relies on technology. Opposition parties claiming fraud in Ghana had little or no records to sustain their allegations. Authorities must ensure to build trust in the platform by allowing everyone to audit and review the system. Ghana and Venezuela are two good examples of what to do, and what not to do when it comes to automation.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Internet Voting, Strike Two!

Image: India Times
In a previous post we mentioned how the alluring idea of Internet Voting was captivating audiences the world over. And no wonder why, the convenience of casting a vote from a personal computer, or a tablet, while seating in front of a TV and watching a sitcom, could hardly be debated. However, we also pointed that we are still have a ways to go until a secure, transparent, and accurate online voting solution hits the market. 

Two recent episodes involving notorious brands (TIME, OSCARS) and this novel technology, left clear evidence of its shortcomings, and serve to illustrate the forces preventing this widely popular idea, from spreading throughout the world.

The first one of these episodes, which we termed Strike One, occurred in December 2012 when the traditional Man of the Year award from TIME Magazine opened online voting to the general public through a website. Although the selection of the winner is not based on this online election, it is used to get a feel of what audiences are thinking. TIME executive editor Radhika Jones said "While we don't make our selection based on the poll results, it's always interesting to see where some of our preferred candidates end up". 

But theory only resembles reality in theory. The smart PR move was overshadowed by a group called 4Chan who hacked TIME's web site to rig the elections, and gave Kim Jong-Un Korean Leader the first prize as Person of the Year 2012. Much to the regret of the organizers, the experiment turned costly, at the very least from the PR perspective.   

This incident surfaces one of the most pressing concerns facing online voting, that is, security. As of now, there is no way to fully guarantee the integrity of the elections when the votes are cast through the Internet. 
Strike two is an on-going story involving the 85th Academy Award nominations for the 2013 Oscars. This year online voting was introduced as a means to facilitate the casting of the votes. To avoid security glitches like the ones TIME magazine suffered,  strict security measures were taken into account. However, in this case, if the developers of the voting platform succeeded keeping away hackers from intervening in the election, they also succeeded keeping the more than 5,700 members eligible to vote from casting their vote in a user-friendly fashion. 

Since voting began on December 17,  numerous complaints were made, forcing authorities to extend the voting deadlines until January 4th. According to a lengthy analysis by The Hollywood Reporter, the complex password system developed to avoid voter impersonation was proving cumbersome for most voters. Log in problems were not confined to those who stereotypically present problems  with computers as even the most tech savvy members of the Academy expressed discomfort with the new system. 

In our opinion, Internet voting will probably not see a strike three, and most likely will hit a home-run when it is mature enough, nonetheless, to avoid being called out, this at-bat needs to be delayed for a while.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

E-voting will attest its value again in 2013

Image: Everystockphoto

Guiding the world through the path of automation is no easy task. Some countries have yet to learn some hard lessons with the use of archaic manual methods. In order for the nations to finally modernize their electoral systems, they need proof that e-voting is really the way to go. Last year we saw some impressive models of the effectiveness of voting technology —and the ineptitude of manual voting—, which should be enough to convince anybody of the need for electoral automation. However, it doesn’t stop there. Here are some of the aspects where e-voting will confirm its worth once again in 2013.

Elections like the ones we saw last year in Russia, Ghana and Zimbabwe exposed the frailty of manual voting methods. With paper ballots, voters cannot be sure that their preference will be reflected in the results of the polls. Zimbabwe has a second chance to carry out a transparent electoral event now that it will be holding presidential elections this year, but since these will be carried out with manual methods, we might as well be expecting the same dreaded results that came out from last year’s internal referendum, if not worse. The recurrence of crimes such as ballot stuffing and identity theft breaks people’s trust in their electoral institutions. E-voting eliminates these problems easily. 

Elections need their results to be released to the public immediately after the closure of polling stations. The longer the announcement of final outcomes is delayed, the more the voters are prone to suspect their fairness. The chaos that took over the elections in Honduras should serve as a cautionary tale for other countries, as the final numbers for their November 18 primary elections were not known yet by the end of that month. This failure to deliver results on time could be immediately linked with corruption, which is unacceptable. Electoral technology does not allow for these inexplicable lags, as final results can be made public a few hours after closing the election. 

Bringing back the Russian example, it is incredibly easy to breach security in manual elections. The implementation of transparent ballot boxes and more than 180,000 security web cameras did nothing to prevent the blatant occurrence of carousel voting and ballot stuffing during the March 2012 presidential elections. It becomes obvious then that any effort to eradicate electoral corruption paired with the use of manual methods is destined to fail.

When it comes to set an example about how audits can guarantee transparency to an electoral process, no country comes better than Venezuela. During last year’s Presidential election more than 16 audits certified the correct performance of the system before and after the election: from the voting machines, electronic ballots, and the biometric voter authentication system, to the transmission and totalization of the results. 

For a voting system, accuracy is essential during the phases of voting, counting and transmission of results, so that the intention of every voter is respected and taken into account. Last year, Mongolians had the chance to employ an e-voting system that promised to be fast and reliable. However, the use of the Precinct-Count Optical Scanners (PCOS) developed by Dominion registered major inconsistencies between the electronic results in some precincts and the audits carried throughout, casting doubts about the credibility of the results.

2013 brings a new set of chances for electronic voting to attest its superiority over the dated and even dangerous manual voting methods. We hope to see more nations choose to successfully automate their elections in order to preserve the reliability, speed, accuracy, auditability and security of their electoral events.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

2012: An electoral year in retrospective

Image: Freedigitalphotos

2012 was an exciting year for electronic voting and for democracy in general. Many countries around the world gathered their citizens around the polling stations, some of them using the advantages of electoral technology. Let’s take a look at some of the electoral highlights of the year:

March: Putin gets reelected in Russia
Amid accusations of fraud, Vladimir Putin was reelected Prime Minister of the Russian Federation with 60% of the votes. The NGO Golos, defender of transparency during elections, denounced more than 3,500 irregularities committed during the electoral event. The ruling party’s initiative to install more than 200,000 webcams at polling stations to gain credibility backfired because these actually registered several acts of bribery, ballot stuffing, carousel fraud, and misuse of voting coupons.

April: Burma moves forward on the road to democracy
Burma held parliamentary elections for the first time after 50 years of military oppression. Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who headed the fight for democracy in the country, warned about the setbacks that would emerge during the electoral event, such as damaged ballot cards and names missing from the register. These obstacles are typical of elections held with manual voting methods.

June: Mongolia debut a new voting system for Parliamentary elections
Mongolians went to the polls to select seventy six parliament seats using a new voting system: 2,446 Precinct-Count Optical Scanners (PCOS) were used across 1,905 precincts. In spite the benefits brought forth by automation, problems with the deployment and implementation of the voting technology, raised controversies regarding the validity of the result.

July: Elections in Mexico carried out with questionable electoral technology
Mexico was ready to take the leap from manual to automated voting last year, but leaving the automation process to an incompetent company was a huge mistake that threatened to leave the Latin American country completely devoid of the opportunity to modernize its electoral platform.

October: Brazil and Venezuela demonstrate the power of e-voting
Media outlets all around the world commended Venezuela for its use of electoral technology during their last presidential elections. Meanwhile, Brazil took the challenge of leading more than 140 million voters to the polling places to assign more than 5,500 posts through e-voting, and the challenge was swiftly overcome. These two countries offered proof that vote automation is crucial to carry out multiple elections at the same time with fast and reliable results.

November: USA reelects Obama
Americans attended the polling stations to reelect their incumbent president. Amid the confusing use of different voting methods between constituencies (encompassing both manual and electronic voting), and an audit system that is not exempt from failure, people elected Barack Obama for a second term. 

December: Ghana elects its President amid technical snags
Ghana embraced the modernization of its elections by implementing biometric authentication at the polling centers, but technical glitches led to long delays in some areas. In a tight race, incumbent president John Dramani Mahama of the National Democratic Congress defeated its rival Nana Akufo-Addo.

In 2013 we will be watching as nations around the world walk into the modernization of their elections and the improvement of their democracies.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The alluring idea of Internet voting

Image: The Pragmatist Blog
The extensive use of the Internet in almost all phases of our life has made the following question a recurring object of arguments and disagreements: How far are we from Internet Voting?

The idea of casting a vote at the moment and place that best suits the voter is indeed a very powerful one. Nonetheless, are we ready?

In a sense, it could be argued that, in the case of the US, postal voting paved the way for Internet voting by creating the legal and political conditions to allow early voting and remote voting, two key features for this convenient method to cast a vote.

Now, although the Internet is the one technology that can make voting easier, promote participation, and make the task of casting a vote as simple as sending a greeting card, many experts agree that we are not ready yet to undertake this form of e-voting. Some of the main arguments against Internet Voting are:     
  • Coercion: As opposed to precinct voting, in which the casting of a vote is done in-site, Internet voting mostly occurs from a remote location in an uncontrolled environment. That opens the possibility for the coercion of the voter. Who can guarantee that the selection was done free from any kind of any pressure? At the moment, no one has the answer to that question. 
  • Access: Even in the most developed nations, access to Internet is not sufficiently widespread. Forcing voters to adopt this voting system could disenfranchise voters with lower income or older generations of citizens that may not be acquainted with this technology. 
  • Authentication: Internet voting opens the door to voter impersonation. How do you know that the cast vote really belongs to the person who sent the vote through the Internet? 
  • Security: As of today, there is no way to guarantee that integrity of the will of the voter is not compromised. Moreover, being a part of a world wide web, Internet voting can be attacked from anywhere in the world.
Although the UK, Switzerland, USA, and a myriad of other countries have experienced Internet voting in regional or other minor elections, Estonia is the only country brave enough to take a national security matter, such as a national election, to the Internet.

According to a research paper called Internet Voting in Estonia, published by Alexander H. Trechsel, R. Michael Alvarez, and Thad E. Hall, in the Voting Technology Project, Estonia managed to mitigate the effects of the arguments explained above, and carry out successful elections. The 4 keys to the success of the Estonian experience are:
  • Access: Widespread broadband Internet penetration. 
  • Legal: A comprehensive legal structure supporting Internet voting issues. 
  • Authentication: Identity cards distributed in Estonia posses an embedded digital certificate that, when combined with a unique personal identification number, allow for the authentication of the voter. This method depends on the voter's possibility to buy a $7 ID card reader and plugging it to his computer.  
  • Political Culture: a political culture that is supportive of Internet voting. Political will.
Although Estonia is a happy example of the possibilities Internet is opening for the elections industry and democracy in general, it must said that only 140,000, nearly 25% of the eligible voters chose to vote online, while the rest of the voters went to their pre-assigned precincts to vote. 

The idea of Internet voting continues to gain adepts; nonetheless, for the sake of efficiency, transparency, and legitimacy, there is still a ways to go.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Conservative South Korea elects its first female president

Park Geun-hye. Photo: The Star.

2012 was a year for elections in many countries around the world, and East Asia was no exception. Taiwan, Japan, and Korea called their citizens to the polling stations, with Korea being the most remarkable case as it elected a woman president for the first time in its history.

Park Geun-hye won the December 19 elections with 51.6% of the votes, the largest percentage ever gotten by a presidential candidate in the country. She is also the first woman to be elected president of Korea in all of the country’s constitutional history, and the second woman to rule the nation since Queen Chinsong from the Unified Dynasty (BC 57 – DC 935). Besides, Park’s election marks the first occurrence of a father and daughter having assumed the presidency in Korea, as her father, Park Chung-hee, was the mastermind behind the economic miracle that took the country out of post-war poverty while in power in the 1970s.

In a way, this is the triumph of progress and gender equality in a conservative, male-dominated society. However, Park Geun-hye’s landslide victory is mostly related to the nostalgia that older voters have for the so-called “Han River Miracle” led by her father. As the population ages, citizens in their 50s and 60s recall the stability and financial development they experienced during the 70s in spite of an often brutal regime, and their sentiment reflects on the way they vote. In this occasion, this bout of longing conservatism led to an unprecedented 89.9% turnout rate for this age group. Meanwhile, younger voters, ever fewer due to the current low birth rate in the country, demand political change but are becoming too few to be heard. This demographic tendency is turning Korea into a long-term conservative nation, as the rapid growth of the older population means that this age group will very likely be choosing the next president and the one after that.

In spite of the generational gap and its implications for the future of Korea, the 2012 presidential elections were a healthy exercise in democracy where the people intended for a woman to be given a chance to govern this country after centuries of male hegemony. The possibility of having people change the course of history of their country through elections is a very powerful reason to call for more efficient voting systems. In that sense, electronic voting is undoubtedly the best method to guarantee reliable and transparent elections that truly reflect the citizens’ intent.