The Case for Electronic Voting

The Case for Electronic Voting
Automation, along with efficiency, has become the key to successfully execute any large venture. Automation allows machines to complete mundane, repetitive tasks better and more efficiently than humans. As technology has progressed, automation is an ever-present engine in almost every field: e.g. it enables the high bandwidth required for the effective use of drones and self-driving cars; it operate farm machinery as well as the programs the robots use in their manufacture. It is key for security of networks and services to protect users and data from cyber-attacks. Simply put, it is essential to operating cutting-edge technologies in this age of the fourth industrial revolution. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is growing at a rapid pace and transforming every industry. Even banks are increasingly adopting RPA to become agile, competitive and profitable.

Why is it that we trust automation in every field of activity that influences our lives but when it comes to elections we don’t? The reason obviously does not lie in the weakness of the technology but in our mindset. The truth of the matter is that election anomalies are more likely to happen whenever there is more human intervention in the process. Intentional or otherwise, humans have a predisposition towards misreading ballots, mistakenly recording votes, or losing ballot boxes. Conversely, by removing as much of the human factor from the process as possible and instituting iron-clad security protocols, automated elections are exponentially more accurate and credible, and therefore provide a stabilizing influence on even the most volatile of political climates.

In Pakistan an army of school teachers hand-counts each and every vote during general elections

Undoubtedly, elections are complex. The logistics can be daunting. Yet, this is true for every election, regardless of how votes are cast or counted. If anything, technology generates efficiencies that make crucial processes more reliable, secure, and considerably faster.

The world is moving towards a Fourth Industrial Revolution that will open a new chapter in human development, enabled by extraordinary technology advances. However, the election process in Pakistan is a combination of 21st-century technology operating in the Middle Ages. The voter lists are computerized but in our previous election, 37 million voters still put a cross on a piece of paper and an army of school teachers sat on the floor of the voting centers and painstakingly counted the votes – 1,2,3,4,5,...8,001, 8,002, 8,003, 8,004, 8,005...15,124, 15,125, 15126. We don’t even trust scanners to record the votes.

Fundamentally, a well-designed Electronic Voting System reflects the will of the voter. On the other hand, whenever hand-marked ballots are used, it is the voter operator who interprets voter intent and the result is flawed.

Which way is the world moving in terms of voting? One indicator comes from a Google search which reveals 13 million websites related to Hand Counting of Votes but 98 million or seven times more websites that address the subject of Electronic Voting. There is a vast amount of information that has been fed onto the internet on Electronic Voting and a more focused search of the net reveals about 778,000 scholarly studies, some of which are highly detailed e.g. in 2013 USAID funded a study of 312 pages for the US National Democratic Institute on “Implementing and Overseeing Electronic Voting and Counting Technologies”. If you think that there is a specific problem with Electronic Voting, rest assured that many have thought about it before you and solutions are there. You only have to care to ask or look but critics in Pakistan form opinions on hearsay.

More and more countries are discovering automation to be that long sought-after antidote to election rigging. One third of the global population is already exercising its right to vote through the use of technology –  India, Brazil, USA, Philippines, Venezuela and Belgium. While these countries use electronic voting across the full spectrum of national elections a number of others like Australia, Canada, Estonia, Finland, France, Italy, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Norway, Romania, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, UAE, UK and Scotland use it in some form or the other.

We simply cannot ignore overwhelming evidence that the time to seriously start rethinking Pakistani elections is now so we can start reaping the benefits without delay. Pakistan should know by now the immense cost of poorly run elections.

Various reasons are to blame for all of election irregularities, but one of the most significant is the manual voting system. No one would dream of running a bank without the computers and software that are the central nervous system of these institutions. Every time you fly in a plane, you put your life in the ‘hands’ of a computer for most of the trip, albeit with some human supervision. If you happen to be in hospital in critical condition, your life-support system is likely to be controlled by computer software. Keeping technology out of election administration is detrimental to the integrity of the overall process. However, in Pakistan, every single step in the voting process right from the printing of ballot paper to polling day and final declaration of result is carried out on manual base system. It is high time to invest in elections with unquestionable outcomes.

Brazil, a nation of 221 million, is a positive reference for well-run automated elections for over 20 years. With nearly 147 million voters spread across the world’s fifth largest territory, the country’s election authorities decided to automate its elections in the 2000s. The logistics have always been challenging. They use some 500,000 voting machines to capture the vote of every eligible voter. An outstanding feature of Electronic Voting is that automated counting increases the speed of results many fold. An official in the Brazilian Superior Electoral Court stated that, “In the 2018 presidential election, we announced the winner only 2 hours and 16 minutes after the polls were closed. By that time, we had already counted 96.7% of all votes, cast all over the country.”

Critics of the government’s efforts to introduce Electronic Voting in Pakistan should understand that by automating elections, Pakistan is not re-inventing the wheel. There are tried and tested methods to implement large, mission-critical projects like automated elections. The ECP can solve the logistical difficulties of improving elections without jeopardizing their legitimacy by using standard practices from organizations like the Project Management Institute.

Concerns on the security of the vote can be laid to rest by just looking over our eastern border where the conditions and stresses of national elections are very much the same as ours. The voting machine in India is called a direct recording device where the voter has to visit a designated center to cast their votes. The machine itself consists of a control unit and a balloting unit connected using a long cable. Several layers of seals ensure that the machines are not tampered with in any manner. There is a double randomization process which makes it impossible for any person to know which machine will be used in what constituency: this is done to safeguard that machines are not pre-programmed to cast ballots in favour of a particular candidate. Even the final placement of the list of the candidates on the balloting unit is not known till the last day of withdrawal of the nomination before the election, so tampering with machines is virtually an impossible task. The candidate names are placed in an alphabetical order, giving it even more variability.

One concern expressed in conducting Electronic Voting is that 40% of our population is illiterate. Venezuela is probably one of the earliest countries to regularly conduct Electronic Voting since 2004 and while its illiterate population is relatively small, comparative results of surveys of over four elections indicate that up to 95% of illiterate voters acknowledged that using electronic voting machines was “easy” and “very easy”. 73% of illiterate voters considered the election technology used in Venezuela as “advanced and very modern” and in a 2015 survey, 95% actually preferred automated elections.  Election technology has become an ally for election administrators to tackle illiterate voters’ marginalization.

In this age of technology, is it right to assess whether a person is literate in relation to his education? The adoption and penetration of technology is growing in Pakistan and a year ago, there were 164.9 million users of mobile phones dialing numbers, passing messages, carrying out calculations, etc. Surely familiarization with this technology has made them literate enough to punch a button on a voting machine. IT skills and digital knowledge are growing all over the world, and as more and more people start operating within the envelope of technology, their trust of manual systems will diminish and so will their trust in organizations like the ECP which refuse to move ahead. The Election Commission of Pakistan and all the stake holders should embrace electronic voting, not fight it.

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