Argentina: The debate over the voting system

by Digital Rights LAC on June 12, 2015

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In an election year, the attempt to adopt an electronic voting system in the City of Buenos Aires revives the debate on the convenience of using computers for election purposes, but most people fail to see the risks associated with this.

By Javier Smaldone*

In the province of Salta (sixth largest and eight most densely populated province of Argentina), an electronic voting system developed by a private company has been gaining ground over the last seven years. In the last primary and general elections held in the province, all of the citizens of Salta cast their votes using this system. In the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, capital city of Argentina, the company which developed the system used in Salta was awarded a contract, in January 2015, to implement a similar system to be used in the primary and general elections, and in a possible ballottage.

The primary elections held in several provinces last April triggered some repercussions on these regards. In Salta, the governing party highlighted the advantages of the system while the opposing parties denounced the existence of irregularities resulting from flaws in the system. In the province of Santa Fe —in which the “single paper ballot” system is used—, the effects of a disastrous provisional count were later healed by an appropriate final count, and many began to claim for an electronic voting system.

In the province of Mendoza —which still uses the traditional party-ballot system— the large number of political parties resulted in the proliferation of ballots, and in demands for the implementation of an electronic system. In the City of Buenos Aires, however, the party-ballot system was once again used as the result of the impossibility to adequately educate citizens on the use of the electronic system.

Thus, most Argentine provinces use one of three systems: the party-ballot system (one ballot for each party), the single-ballot system (a paper grid in which voters must mark options with a cross) and the electronic voting system. In the last case, the variety used in Salta, which is to be adopted in the City of Buenos Aires, was named by its owner, MSA, “single electronic ballot” (in a clear attempt to link it to the single paper ballot system, after the term “electronic voting” began to lose its reputation).

MSA’s system consists, basically, of a computer in which voters cast their vote by selecting candidates from each different category. Then, the machine prints the votes casted on a ballot previously handed to the voter by the election authorities, and records the same data in a Radio Frequency Identification chip (RFID), located within the paper. This ballot is deposited in a ballot box and the count is made by using the computer to read the contents of the chips, which may be visually checked against the information printed on the ballot.

This electronic system is much safer than other systems, such as the one used in Brazil —in which the votes are digitally “stored” in the computer used by the voters to express their will—, because altering the results by modifying the votes is much more difficult. That is why several non-governmental organizations devoted to the defense of civil rights have happily consented to its adoption in the City of Buenos Aires —one of the most important election districts in the country— and assess the possibility of extending its use to elections across the entire nation.

In the districts using the traditional system which requires one ballot for every party, the advantages of the “single electronic ballot” system are, theoretically, quite interesting: it eliminates problems such as the subtraction of ballots, the replacement of legitimate ballots with adulterated ones, and the stealing of envelopes to cast “chain votes”, among others. However, in the districts already using a single conventional ballot (paper), such as the provinces of Córdoba and Santa Fe, said advantages are not new: this mechanism already eliminates those problems without the need to incorporate any technology in the vote-casting process.

The proposed electronic voting system should thus be compared not with the party-ballot system, but with the single ballot system. If we do this, the only advantage posed by the former is that it allows for a faster provisional vote count (the one carried out after the polls are closed and before the final count is carried out by the judiciary, to reach the legally valid result).

And what about the disadvantages? For those who have no technical IT knowledge, it is hard to appreciate the problems and dangers —generally— introduced in an election by the use of computers, and —especially— by the system developed by MSA. A computer system is something completely obscure for ordinary citizens, who can only assess its response by means of the interface provided for human interaction, but know nothing about what the system does or allows others to do (either deliberately or inadvertently).

In the case of the system used in Salta, for example, most people are surprised to find out that the chip imbedded in the paper ballot can be read with a cellphone, even at a distance of a few meters (using special equipment). The 2006 video showing the experiment which led the Netherlands to abandon electronic voting —in which a group of hackers monitor who is being voted in the computer from a distance of 25 meters— usually stuns most people.

Whenever these objections are raised, the official response (by the companies and governments which advocate for electronic voting) is always based on alleged audits which eliminate all doubts regarding the reliability of the applicable system. But these audits can never be found: they are never published and the process used in the audit and the results obtained are never explained. And even if the audits are published, for the large majority of people they will mean nothing but a bunch of jargon: the word of an elite with a specific set of technical knowledge, which had access to the internal mechanism of the system through which everyone is supposed to cast their votes.

This is the quid of the ruling issued in 2009 by the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany: citizens must be able to monitor all of the essential steps of an election without having any special technical knowledge. And ‘monitoring all essential steps’ includes the preservation of secrecy. Even if the system is reliable enough to ensure that the result of the election cannot be altered, it is useless if it cannot clearly guarantee voters that their choices will remain secret. Otherwise, pressuring a vulnerable citizen would be enough to twist his or her electoral will. Again, the prevention of these practices is not enough, the system must also be evident for any person (as is the fact that no one can know which cells he or she marks in a paper ballot).

Technology is never neutral: it can be used for various purposes, for better or for worse. The massive use of cellphones with digital cameras required these devises to be banned from voting rooms in districts using the single ballot system when it was discovered that power brokers handed cellphones to voters and paid them once the cellphones were returned with a picture of a ballot with the adequate markings.

With the inclusion of a RFID chip within the ballot, voters no longer need to take a picture (which may be discovered by the authorities given that they are only protected by a small partition wall), but can carry the brokers’ cellphones with them and simply approach the ballot to them so that it can be read. And this is only an example, since the introduction of computer elements always entails the emergence of new risks which are not obvious at all.

The election process must be, as much as possible, within the hands of citizens. It cannot rely on their trust on the word of a government, a political party, or, especially, a private company. Information technology has clearly evolved, but not enough to provide the guarantees required for it to be used in a republican election.

Meanwhile, in Argentina, the debate is still open.

*Javier Smaldone – Network and IT system programmer and manager. Free software and culture activist – @mis2centavos