Electronic vote, not a solution

by Digital Rights LAC on October 27, 2015


The 2015 Argentine election cycle uncovered the shortcomings left by the citizenship mistrust. The breaking point was Tucumán’s electoral process, loaded with clientelism, violence and cheats. Looking at this shameful spectacle, a claim raises: the adoption of a electronic voting system, represented by the experience in Buenos Aires City.

By Delia Ferreira Rubio, Doctor in Law

Each problem asks for its own solution and a machine that can fix all the weak spots in a electoral system such as the one in Argentina hasn’t been invented yet.

Ballot thievery can be fixed by a single ballot system in which all the candidates are  represented. The single ballot system implemented in Santa Fe and Córdoba has worked well in the past and is cheaper than the electronic voting system used on Buenos Aires City or in Salta.

Clientelism, the abuse of public resources for proselytism, violence against polling officers, urns burning, electoral supervisors who are subject to bribery to neglect their functions, the fraudulent delivery of Argentine documents to foreign countries citizens, the voter registration manipulation, the data manipulation on the provisional count; all of this can keep happening even if the electronic vote system gets implemented.

Furthermore, the implementation of an electronic voting system opens new windows of opportunity for the ever present bigots. In Buenos Aires City, a group of informatic security specialists detected issues that the audit directed by the High Tribunal had missed. Oddly enough the reaction for this, was the persecution of the people who detected the flaws.

The transmission of information via Internet can be target of unwanted interferences. Using codes and other forms of encrypted information adds a layer of mistrust. A line of code in software can modify the results, as demonstrated in some states in the US and also in the case of the system used in Buenos Aires City.

The implementation of electronic voting systems – in any of its variations, the “unique electronic ballot” included – must be analyzed thoroughly, keeping in mind not only the problems fixed by it, but also the ones that it might cause.

Modern and fast appears to be the new democratic values. But even if they are not, other values cannot be left aside in the sakes of quality in electoral democracy. Modern and fast but without the guaranty of secret ballot it’s bad combination; Venezuela and its electronic voting system is a living proof of that.

Modern and fast but without transparency cannot contribute to legitimize the elections; the abandonment of the electronic vote by the German Constitutional Court left that clear as day. Modern and fast but unauditable does not contribute to the integrity of the election process; international standards on the subject are unanimous in terms that a professional and politic audit should be allowed in the system as a whole. Modern and fast but privatized puts in risk of dependency the base of democratic legitimacy.

Volkswagen’s recent scandal puts in the spotlight the fact that the mere implementation of electronics cannot guarantee the fulfillment of regulatory parameters. Software alteration made possible for millions of vehicles to enter the market in violation of environmental safety standards. It happened for several years and it didn’t take a lot of people to fulfill the plan. Could the same thing happen with the electronic voting system? Indubitably.

Does the Argentine EMBs have enough technical capabilities to run the whole system efficiently? No, and on the districts where the electronic vote has been implemented we can perceive a growing privatization of the stages of the electoral process and the control of academic entities by third parties that failed -or refused- to see the system’s shortcomings.

Not even political parties are in conditions to efficiently defend their rights. In some cases even they are denied access to much needed information. Fiscalization of an electronic voting system is not satisfied with the mere presence of a “informatic overseer” watching how the machines turn on. In electronic voting systems tinkering is more subtle and can be done with the intervention and knowledge of very few people.

It’s very likely that Argentina gets on board -after the presidential elections- with the modification of the electoral system nationwide. If the resulting reform wants to contribute to the improvement of quality and trustability of the system it should embrace not only the analysis of  the voting tool (ballot) but also with other elements of the electoral process: sending the proper documentation, creation of the registration list and the final count. Today we must provide special attention to the provisional count that falls under the responsibility of the present government which, in turn, sends it to a third party private company. This count has the citizen’s attention but no legal value, nevertheless  has great political importance.

If the attention is only focused on the way that the votes are emitted, I’m afraid that the more serious problems of Argentine democracy will remain unchanged. It would be pitiful to once again lose the opportunity to add transparency and legitimacy to the process.

Nevertheless, we can face the scenario of a reduced discussion in terms of: electronic vote, yes or no. In such case, to my better judgment, the debate should be around a series of minimum guarantees.

First of all, this discussion should be a serious one and not based on false tales. In Buenos Aires City, for example, the law is clear demanding that the implementation of the electronic vote system should be approved by the Legislation. It wasn’t. What indubitably is an electronic vote system was given another name and this way the law got bypassed. This trick was spotted by the Justice system with the honorable exception of the then President of the High Court.

Any electronic voting system which is to be implemented must guarantee the vote secrecy. It must be avoided that under pretext of facilitation of the vote process, the act of voting for a personal preference transmutes into a mob of voters in front of a machine with alleged family members, friends or helpers.

Privatization of the electoral process must be avoided. EMBs’ tech dependency represents a huge risk in terms electoral transparency and legitimacy. EMBs must be have the necessary technical capacity and economic resources to be able to function independently.

A system wide audit must be guaranteed on behalf of the political parties and general public. If the system cannot be manipulated, then there is no problem to make it transparent. Informatic experts, CSOs, even regular citizens have the right to access technical information. Not only by hearings that constitute a mere formality, but also given the chance to analyze the system as a whole.

Transparency and auditability must be included in the counting process in the voting table, in the data register, the provisional counting and the final audit. Information must be available in every step of the process that includes electronic devices from printing and reading codes,  to data transmit, accounting and publication.

Information regarding vote counting, previous and final vote audit must remain available on the Internet in an accessible, friendly fashion, in usable format and in real time. This information’s importance and utility doesn’t two days after the election.

I believe that actually the most advisable thing to do is to adopt a unique paper ballot system before we can deal with the electronic vote. But even more important is to fix the clientelism, the abuse of power with electoral ends. If the way of making politics is clientelism (including on this term from the delivery of grocery bags to the politicization of social plans), the voting machinery won’t change a bit.

If campaigns equality is not guaranteed and limits are imposed to the opposition forces meanwhile officialism uses state resources to get financed, the voting machinery won’t change a bit. If some politicians and their followers are willing to be violent and burn the urns to win the elections, the voting machinery won’t change a bit, even if it is fast and modern.

Image: (CC-BY) NDeane / Wikimedia Commons