Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bangladesh exploring e-voting technology for future elections

Many democracies clear across the globe have adopted e-voting technology in varying capacities and the popularity of electronic voting machines, both for vote-capturing and for counting ballots, has been steadily rising. Brazil has had a long history with e-voting, for example, and countries like the Philippines and Estonia continue to set positive examples for the rest of the world to follow. 

While there is still much research and exploration to be conducted, a delegation from Bangladesh recently visited with election commissioners in neighbouring India and they were “impressed” by the Indian electronic voting machines. As the world's largest democracy, India has proven not only that e-voting technology is viable and advantageous, but that it can also be utilized on an incredibly massive scale, improving accessibility to its citizens. 

The Indian electoral system with its deployment of e-voting technology was designed from the start to be as cost-effective as possible, particularly given the grand scale of the Indian election, while still maintaining high levels of security and integrity. The Bangladeshi delegation, which was led by Muhammad Faruk Khan and consisted of 10 members from the Bangladesh Parliament, sought to “know the traits of conducting free and peaceful elections” from their Indian counterparts.

Harinshankar “HS” Brahma, one of India's Election Commissioners, emphasized the importance of increasing voter enrollment and encouraged the appropriate use of technology. He said it has been a real game changer in elections, addressing many of the major challenges that elections can face. 

One of the most common challenges is engaging the youth electorate and India has been largely successful with this, empowering the tech-savvy youth with political start-ups like Grassroute, MumbaiVotes and Know Your Vote. 

The Indian officials provided their visitors from Bangladesh with a demonstration of the electronic voting machines and how they worked in tandem with the voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT), a vital component for audits and recounts, ensuring that the correct voter intent was properly captured and recorded. Accountability is of great importance.

It is through delegations and meetings like this that the state of electronic voting can continue to improve and grow well into the future. Countries do not exist in isolation and it is through collective collaboration that they can leverage their expertise in a synergistic manner. This is why events like the EVOTE International Conference in Austria are so valuable, gathering together many of the most important decision makers from different democracies. The budgets and details may vary, but the primary objectives remain the same. 

The history and politics of the region are such that India and Bangladesh have not always gotten along as the keenest of allies, but major strides like this for mutual benefit can also help to foster goodwill and peace between nations. By encouraging further collaboration and partnerships between countries all around the world, e-voting technology can continue to be strengthened for elections of all sizes. It is far more cost effective to co-develop e-voting solutions than to develop them individually.

And by learning from the experience and missteps of those who moved to e-voting before them, Bangladesh can position itself to be as problem-free as possible for its elections in the future.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Internet voting improving voter turnout and securing the system

The Internet is used for just about every aspect of everyday life and it has become an integral part of the modern lifestyle. Friends communicate online through e-mail, social media and instant messengers far more often than they would send a regular letter through the postal mail. Companies conduct their business online, buying and selling their products and services. And in many parts of the world, correspondence with government agencies can also be performed through the Internet, filing income tax returns and applying for employment insurance benefits. Why hasn't Internet voting become just as widespread and commonplace?

Internet Voting, Election, Positive Impact

In the case of the town of Ajax near Toronto, Canada, Internet voting was incredibly popular in its recent municipal election. The election was held almost exclusively online and voter turnout, at 30.4%, was significantly higher than the voter turnout in the previous two elections: 23% in 2006 and 26% in 2010. There is still much room for improvement in terms of voter turnout, but the trend is positive and a full 92% of people cast their vote online. 

And while Internet voting does appear to have a positive impact on voter turnout, it should never replace all other forms of voting. The online system is convenient, to be sure, but Ajax supplemented that primary system with the opportunity for voters to cast their ballot over the phone or at one of 10 polling stations with computer terminals set up on Election Day itself. The goal of Internet voting is to improve accessibility, not hinder it. Internet voting is particularly effective in substituting for postal voting as the ballot can be received and tabulated instantly. This also saves significantly in cost, both for the postage and for the printing of paper ballots. 

However, not all systems are made equally. While the online voting experiment in Ajax was deemed a success, there were significant issues experienced by the nearby town of Innisfil, also in the province of Ontario in Canada. Voters were unable to access the Internet voting system “due to technical errors.” Reportedly, the top cause for the online voting issues was that some people typed the website code into a search engine rather than into the address bar. 

Worse yet, overall voter turnout dropped by six percent compared to previous elections in Innisfil. 

This demonstrates that Internet voting isn't necessarily the magic bullet for improving voter turnout and it is of paramount importance that municipalities and governments select reputable and reliable vendors to manage their elections. An adequate audit system needs to be in place and the i-voting infrastructure needs to be thoroughly tested. Estonia is perhaps one of the best examples of Internet voting done right with a high level of voter and ballot authentication. 

One issue that has been brought to light is that voters casting their ballot over the Internet can be coerced and their votes can be bought or sold. This is a problem inherent with any remote voting solution that is not supervised by election officials. However, this concern can also be remedied in a rather simple manner: multiple voting. By allowing voters to cast more than one ballot and allowing the latest one to supersede any previous ballots submitted, online or otherwise, even votes that are coerced or bought can be overridden by a newer ballot. This is how Internet voting works in Estonia. 

Online voting can be an incredibly powerful tool to improve voter turnout and to empower a democracy. However, it can and should not be the sole solution, as voters should have the option to vote in other manners. Regardless of which system is used, maintaining the security and integrity of the vote is crucial.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Scytl’s 2014: Annus horribilis, or may be not

2014 was a peculiar year for the noisiest, albeit not the only Spanish company specialized in voting technology and solutions. Despite some major setbacks resulting from ill-developed voting solutions, it managed to close a $104 million financing round this year.

Image: Pixabay
The year had a bumpy start for Scytl. For Ecuador’s 2014 Sectional elections in February, Scytl was to deliver a solution that would help the Ecuadorian Election Commission to process the tallying of the votes with the goal that results could be announced within 72 hours after closing the polls. Yet, one whole month after the election was over, Scytl was still counting votes and was still unable to provide final results. In the mean time, Ecuadorian authorities were confronting the herculean task of convincing public opinion that the results would “soon be announced”- were legit. As a result of the scandal and ensuing public unrest, Domingo Paredes, head of the electoral management body, declared that the Election Commission had unilaterally terminated the contract, demanded payment of guarantees, and began taking legal actions against the company. Oddly enough, after the fanfare published in Scytl's website news in February and March about projects "in the works" as if the February election had been "a successful implementation", there has been a complete silence on Ecuador the following months.

A few months later (June) Norway —one of the countries leading the crusade to make internet voting a reality, and a client of the Barcelona-based company—, halted i-voting experiments amid security fears. As evidenced in the video posted by the Norway electoral authorities (2:31:13), the secrecy of 54% of the vote was in fact compromised during the September 2013 pilot due to a bug in the encryption key. These cryptography issues were also reported in the Expert Study Mission Report from the Carter Center.

Even though bad news are the ones usually travelling faster, neighboring Peru seems not to have found out about Ecuador’s ordeal with Scytl. And only five months after the infamous incident aforementioned, the National Office for Electoral Processes (ONPE) of Peru experienced first-hand the mishaps of a poorly designed in-site Internet voting solution. In August, while conducting an Internet voting pilot using Scytl technology, voters ran into all sorts of trouble to cast a ballot. In spite of the simplicity of the contest –only 186 polling centers serving 34,672 voters– the company was once more unable to deliver up to the expectations.  

To cap off the year, on October 27, Scytl ran into trouble once again— this time staged by its branch in Canada, while providing its internet voting platform for elections in 20 Ontario municipalities.

According to the company, five election files had been mislabeled due to human error, creating tabulations problems that delayed results. On November 6, the 20 municipalities got together to discuss the issues and demand explanations. Scytl apologised and offered a discount of 25% from the charges for their services, plus a 10% discount on a future project, as if Ontario's woes were of financial nature. Read more here.

In spite of all these incidents, Scytl managed to raise over 100 million dollars from capital investors. Among them: Vy Capital, Vulcan Capitan and Sapphire Ventures, formerly SAP Ventures – the independent venture capital firm associated to Europe’s largest software company.

Scytl’s PR department deserves a standing ovation for not allowing such a poor track of performances ruin a financing round; especially in the age of global communications and instant scandals when such blunders happen.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The problems with e-mail voting

Most discussions surrounding how elections can and should be run generally focus on the core group of people who will make the trip to a polling place in order to cast their ballot. This makes a lot of sense, since the vast majority of voters in elections all around the world will place their vote in this manner, whether it is through a manual system or with electronic voting.

A smaller demographic would be made up of absentee ballots. These may be people who live in remote or rural areas and they cannot or wish not to make the journey to the closest polling station, which could be a considerable distance away. And then there is the other cohort of voters who are not physically present in the region or country itself, but these expatriates and citizens working abroad have just as much of a right to have their voice heard (though an official vote) as those who are physically present.

To address this growing demographic, the Election Commission in India has submitted its recommendations to the country's Supreme Court to facilitate remote voting by Non-Resident Indians (NRIs). While there are considerations for casting a ballot through proxies or through electronic voting machines, another proposal calls for email-based ballots that the NRIs can send directly to the Election Commission. 

From a convenience standpoint, this may appear to be a sound proposal. Under an existing ordinance, non-residents could vote, but they would still need to register and come back to a local polling station. However, many NRIs “cannot afford to travel, or they only come once in many years,” according to petitioner Dr. Shamsheer Vayalil. Email can provide near instant communication and it is already a technology familiar with the grand majority of users globally. 

However, email-based voting presents multiple problems that may be difficult to overcome. First, emails inherently carry a significant security risk, as the messages can be intercepted and mailboxes can be hacked. Second, the identity of the voter cannot be suitably verified as there are no existing measures to guarantee the correct person is casting the vote. The email account can be compromised and even if it isn't, the email address can be easily spoofed by those wishing to commit election fraud. Third, it can be difficult to maintain the level of privacy and confidentiality required of an official ballot. Fourth, as the ballot is sent directly by the voter himself or herself, the sanctity of the secret ballot is compromised without further measures being taken to protect it.

Voting by email has its merits, but these challenges are too overwhelming to make the system viable for most intents and purposes. There are suitable alternatives that present their own set of challenges. The 2014 Brazilian general election saw the ambitious deployment of over 900 voting machines to nearly 100 countries around the world. The electoral court oversaw the process of preparing, sealing, shipping and deploying these electronic voting machines. A similar strategy was utilized by the Philippines with precinct count optical scan machines in major international locations. 

The cost and logistics involved with deploying electronic voting machines globally can be significant and this is another reason why turning to an existing infrastructure, like the Internet, must be explored. To this end, while email-based voting might not be the best idea, it may be possible to use far more secure protocols that are specifically designed for the purpose of casting, recording, and securely transmitting a ballot over the web to the appropriate officials. A vote through a secure website or with a secure application may work far better, so long as the protocols are in place to verify the identity of the voter, maintain the secrecy of the ballot, and securely transmit that information.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Are biometrics the future of e-voting security?

Combating electoral fraud will always be a major priority for any given election, as the electorate must have confidence in the integrity of the election and respect the election results. Each voter needs to be properly and suitably identified, just as each ballot should be adequately and reliably verified. 

The traditional method of voter registration and voter identification typically came in the form of government-issued picture ID, as would be the case with a driver's license, but these cards can be forged and the electoral roll (sometimes called the electoral register or voter registry) can also be manipulated. Technology can play a critical role in improving both the convenience and the security of running and election, but as Joseph Hall from the Center for Democracy and Technology points out, an “uncontrolled platform” for online voting represents too much of a vulnerability. To mitigate and to overcome these problems, biometrics can be a very viable solution.

The implementation of a strong biometric-based voter identification system can address many of the common concerns and issues raised with electronic voting and with fighting electoral fraud now and into the future. The so-called “zombie vote,” where someone attempts to cast a ballot in the name of a deceased person who is mistakenly still included in the electoral register, can be eliminated, because biometric identification would be required. This is most commonly your fingerprints, but additional technologies like an iris scanner, or finger geometry recognition could also be considered.

The use of biometric technology in the context of a major election is not new, but it is still in its developing stages. It has already been used successfully to identify and authenticate every voter in the 2012 presidential elections in Venezuela and there are plans in place to adopt a biometric voter identification system in the 2015 Tanzanian national elections. This adds a much needed layer of security and accountability, as every voter is stringently identified. 

Experts have also recommended the adoption of two-factor authentication to further bolster the verification process. Voters would be identified by fingerprint or other biometric-based methods, in addition to a government-issued smart ID card or something similar. The concept of two-factor authentication is also not completely novel, as it is already available on a variety of online services like Google and Dropbox. The new Apple Pay system also uses the Touch ID fingerprint reader on newer iPhone devices to authenticate the user and to authorize the transaction. 

Indeed, looking ahead to the future, many of the technologies already in use with consumer and business space can be adapted for major elections. In the times to come, voters may identify themselves with a fingerprint scanner, a smart ID card, and by tapping their NFC-enabled smartphones on a reader at the official polling station before being granted access to a direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machine.

Technology is very much at the core of our modern existence and it infiltrates every aspect of daily life, from online socialization to online banking, secure mobile payments to the submission and processing of confidential government forms. There are technological hurdles to overcome with biometrics in the context of elections, but these are the hurdles that need to be suitably addressed in order for elections to move forward into the future.