Election reforms dominate the news cycle. Government and opposition officials have exchanged heated volleys in the media and on Twitter, but you get the feeling that people are passing each other, signs of virtue rather than genuine honest engagement. And more critical is that there is a definite lack of homework across the board.
Consider the larger problem of trust. The Prime Minister claims that electronic voting machines (EVMs) “are the only answer to regaining the credibility of elections”. The opposition believes it is just another means of “stealing elections”, “a wolf looking after sheep”. This is a familiar refrain in the history of democracy, an allusion to a quote that is often incorrectly attributed to Joseph Stalin: “Those who cast the vote do not make any decisions. Those who count the votes decide everything. “
Which side is right? Research studies confirm that EVMs have significantly reduced electoral fraud in India, notably by curbing ballot box filling and stand registration, and by reporting election results quickly. EVMs were also a great success in Brazil, where they were introduced about 25 years ago. Aside from minor issues, they continue to enjoy a good reputation.
But next to Brazil we have Venezuela, which introduced EVMs around the same time, and the contrast in public perception couldn’t be stronger. The suspicion is so pronounced that activists sarcastically comment that President Nicolás Maduro would even defeat Jesus Christ on the ballot. Paper traces and machine checks cannot allay these concerns.
International researchers have identified suspicious patterns in voting results from the Chavez era. In the recent elections to the constitutional assembly, the EVM provider Smartmatic itself issued a public statement confirming that the voter turnout had been manipulated by at least one million votes. Fraud concerns are also commonplace in places like India, the Philippines and, more recently, the United States.
The questions we really need to ask ourselves: Why are EVMs successful in some countries and not in others? Can we identify the profit factors? And if we look at EVMs specifically, can we build them to maximize the element of trust?
Shouldn’t Pakistan build an electoral system in which individual citizens can check for themselves whether the votes cast actually count, instead of just focusing on outdated machines? Technology makes this possible
The government is promoting India-inspired EVMs – low-cost, compact machines with a simple counting mechanism for instant reporting of results and a voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) to identify machine failures and resolve disputes. The weakest link here are the administrators and the electoral staff, who must be explicitly trusted in order not to tamper with the machines, cram the ballot box or violate the integrity of the paper path. This EVM model is now increasingly being called into question within India as well.
And there is growing evidence that the world is beginning the transition to a novel and vastly superior electoral paradigm. Recently, there have been revolutionary developments in electoral technology that offer radical transparency in the conduct of elections.
Imagine this hypothetical scenario: On election day, our citizen Azra goes to the polling station and identifies herself as an eligible voter. In the cabin, she selects her candidate on the machine and presses the button. The machine records its voice and, like a conventional EVM, spits out a trace of paper, but with a notable addition: it also prints and gives Azra a take-away receipt, a small slip of paper with a unique serial number, and a confirmation code with a sequence of random-looking ones Character. With this code, she can cryptographically track her voice. The receipt does not show the choice of their candidate. Azra can’t use the receipt to sell her vote.
After the polls are completed and the results announced, electoral officials will post copies of all supporting documents on the ECP website. Azra uses the serial number to find hers and compares it to the physical copy she is holding. If someone changed their voice, the two copies won’t match, and she can file a complaint using her physical receipt as hard evidence.
Statistical analysis shows that even a tiny fraction of voters, if they checked their votes in this way, would almost certainly see large-scale manipulation. Azra can also press a button to confirm that the election result was calculated correctly.
The cryptography that makes this possible is complicated, but not unfathomable. Patriotic citizens with a programming background could sit down for a few evenings and write this software for themselves – basically independent audits. QR codes, smartphone apps, and mobile SMS services could make this whole process a breeze. These “verifiable voting solutions” are developed for EVMs and internet voting.
This paradigm is now de facto the holy grail of electronic voting – where every citizen would have the opportunity to scrutinize every critical step of the election while sitting in their home. The technology is supported by leading information security specialists and expert panels.
The US National Academy of Sciences – arguably the most authoritative scientific institution in the world – is particularly emphatic in its recommendation: Do not even think about holding Internet elections unless it is a verifiable voting system. and do not deploy it to internet voting without deploying it on EVMs first.
Such systems have been tested several times in small elections, including national elections in Australia. The first national deployment took place in the parliamentary elections in Estonia in 2019. We’re close to commercial development: Microsoft has partnered with leading EVM vendors like Smartmatic, Hart InterCivic, Dominion Voting Systems, Clear Ballot, and others to bring this technology to justice. Ambitious pilots are planned in collaboration with Columbia University. The pandemic has slowed things down, but change is underway.
There is a great opportunity here for us to jump on that wave, but we are completely in the dark. We have no technical expertise in voting technology. We are separated from international trends. Our national debate mainly recycles discussion points that are over a decade old.
And the real irony is that even if we don’t train on a war basis, it can be assumed that India itself will likely move on, even if our brand new, shiny, India-inspired EVMs roll off the line for verifiability. The Indian Electoral Commission, in collaboration with IIT-Madras, has actively investigated Estonia’s new electoral system.
A pilot project was planned for the local elections in Hyderabad last year. Public awareness is also high. In my 10 years in the field, the most eloquent and compelling argument I have seen for this technology actually comes from Indian civil society. This emerges from a citizen group report that I previously wrote for Eos with the provocative title “Is the Indian EVM and VVPAT system suitable for democratic elections?”
To paraphrase your argument: India prides itself on having the largest democracy in the world. Existing EVMs have “defects” [that] seem almost fatal for electoral democracy. “Wouldn’t it be fair that elections also embody the principles of democracy? Why not build a system in which individual citizens can review and check elections to their own satisfaction – that they themselves confirm that the votes they cast actually count?
We urgently need this way of thinking in Pakistan.
The author teaches at NUST. He has a postdoc in electoral security and advises the government and the ECP on electoral technologies. He can be reached at email@example.com
Posted in Dawn, EOS, May 16, 2021