Elections and Technology: Balancing Trust and Efficiency

Ceylon was the first non-white colony granted voting rights; however, one thing has remained unchanged over all these decades: How we cast our vote

In 2016, Sri Lanka marked 85 years since introducing universal adult franchise, which gave each adult citizen one vote irrespective of any other considerations.

Ceylon was the first non-white colony to be granted this right in 1931, and we have maintained sound electoral traditions for the better part of a century. At the same time, we look for ways to ensure that the results better reflect voter intentions. A new delimitation committee has recently completed its work, and the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, gazetted in June 2015 but not yet adopted, proposes significant changes to the current elections system.

However, one thing has remained unchanged over all these decades: How we cast our vote. Then and now, we mark our choice on a piece of paper, using a pencil. When voting closes, these ballot papers are manually counted and tallied. Can the ballot process be modernised and made more efficient? Are technology options secure and affordable? How are other countries moving forward in this respect? These questions are worth asking as part of our common endeavour to make democracy work better.

One thing is clear, though. The spread of information and communication technologies (ICT) has already changed voter behaviour and election campaigns. Smartphones now empower citizens to engage with candidates and monitor elections in innovative ways. Relevant information, images and videos are being shared in real time through social media. Election authorities cannot ignore this reality. Their challenge is to gradually move into the digital age, while maintaining the integrity and legitimacy of elections.

Anchored in trust
Elections are complex processes. They entail the interplay of voters, contestants and elections authority. Civil society and media also play significant roles. There are two fundamental questions in any election, whether at local, provincial or national levels: Will the voters believe the election results? And will contesting politicians accept the outcome (with losers conceding to winners)? Public trust is the cornerstone of elections. So, reforms and modernisation need to be pursued in ways that would enhance – and not erode – that trust.

“At a moment of profound political divisions and growing distrust between citizens and their governments, transparency, accuracy and credibility are more important than ever. Of course, the larger electoral context encompasses a free press, including equal access to media for candidates, protection against violence and fair campaign finance laws,” notes a recent report published by Atlantic Council, a think tank in the United States that held a series of international forums on the future of elections during 2015.

The report, titled ‘Democracy Rebooted: The Future of Technology in Elections’, was authored by international electoral expert Conny McCormack. It carries recommendations for governments and the international community on how best to keep up with the advent of technology in elections. Technology can help meet this challenge by increasing efficiency, saving costs, and enabling faster vote counting and tallying. Speedier announcing of results is especially important for public perceptions of elections legitimacy in many developing countries. However, technology is not a panacea that can fix all problems faced by elections authorities.

Technology-enabled voting
Certain electoral functions – such as delineating electoral units, deciding where to locate polling centres and voter registration – are already benefitting from ICT. Yet, casting ballots remains paper based, and vote counting is still done manually in many countries.

Approximately one-third of democratic countries have so far incorporated available technology into their voting process, but others are shying away from doing so. In fact, the last few years have seen some countries expanding electronic voting and others reverting back to paper ballots.

One thing has remained unchanged over all these decades: How we cast our vote. Then and now, we mark our choice on a piece of paper ,using a pencil. When voting closes, these ballot papers are manually counted and tallied.

As the Atlantic Council report notes, “The complexities and competing priorities of a country’s political and cultural environment are critical factors when government decision-makers grapple with available voting system options.” It identifies four key benefits of electronic voting: greater accuracy; reducing ballot spoilage; greater accessibility for disabled or elderly voters; and enhanced speed in counting that can, in turn, boost public confidence in the results.

There are also real or perceived obstacles to adopting electronic voting systems. Chief among them are security and cost. Concerns about electronic voting continue to be raised even in countries that have used it for years. These debates are instructive for countries considering modernisation.

The integrity of elections authorities is a decisive factor in nurturing public trust and ensuring the acceptance of electoral outcomes. Such trusted institutions will find greater public acceptance when they introduce new election technologies.

Country experiences
There is a range of voting technologies to choose from – including optical mark-sense scanners and direct recording electronic voting machines. Voting technology is a growing international business, but some developing countries have innovated their own.

For example, India embarked on electronic voting pilots in 1982, which culminated with countrywide adoption in 2004. National level elections in India now involve programming around 1.4 million briefcase-sized, battery-operated electronic voting machines used at 930,000 voting locations. These units are locally made for under $300 each – much cheaper than the price of more sophisticated electronic voting equipment used elsewhere (costing $3,000-6,000 each).

When Brazil started electronic voting at national level in 2000, the software and national standards were developed by the country’s national space agency – it is still involved in independent testing and verification of voting machines. During the 2014 presidential election, some 114 million ballots were cast on 500,000 electronic voting units deployed across the vast country, and the results were released within just two hours of polling stations closing.

In the United States, where each state can decide on its voting system, there is a patchwork of technologies including ballot scanning, ATM-like electronic systems, ballot marking devices, punch cards and hand-counted paper ballots. Americans have been debating for years on producing tamper-proof, efficient voting machines.

Choices for Sri Lanka
Should Sri Lanka upgrade its old fashioned ballot system? That decision must be based on many considerations and after sufficient public debate. Elections are one of three phenomena we Lankans hold sacrosanct (the other two being public examinations and cricket). We expect the highest levels of integrity in all, and are often disappointed.

In recent years, exam-related blunders or scandals and allegations of corruption in cricket (e.g. international match-fixing) have caused dismay. Election violence has marred campaigning and voting processes on many occasions. The rampant abuse of state resources by ruling parties has violated laws and ethics.

Notwithstanding such imperfections, many among us have not lost faith in elections and their outcomes. One indicator is the high levels of voter participation. At the January 2015 Presidential Election, a record 81.52% of registered voters took part; and 77.66% of registered voters participated in the General Election of August 2015. As a politically conscious nation, we love to debate elections processes and outcomes. Yes, it is not a level playing field: reforms are needed in key aspects like screening candidates and capping campaign financing. But few would argue that election imperfections have seriously affected the final outcome.

Technology can help meet this challenge by increasing efficiency, saving costs, and enabling faster vote counting and tallying. Speedier announcing of results is especially important for public perceptions of an election’s legitimacy in many developing countries.

The trouble is that many politicians are not good losers. Losing candidates and/or their parties often allege manipulations or fraud immediately after an election.

Most such talk is not backed by evidence or followed up with court petitions. Maybe they don’t realise that such allegations have a residual effect by undermining the system’s integrity. One of the worst examples was the suggestion of a ‘computer jil-maat’ (or computer trick) in vote counting and tallying made by the JVP in 2010. Since then, politicians from other parties have also used this unfortunate term, despite the Elections Department (now Commission) and technology providers discounting its possibility.

Such loose talk by bad losers has made it harder for technology adoption in Sri Lanka’s electoral process. So, the independent Elections Commission must tread cautiously in modernising the voting system, learning from other countries’ experiences and mistakes. Wider electoral reforms – such as revisiting the proportional representation system and ensuring greater transparency of campaign financing – need to be tackled first.

In the medium-to-long term, modernising how we cast our ballots, and how it is counted and tallied would be essential to ensure that increasingly digitally savvy voters keep participating in elections. When policymakers finally agree to allow the sizeable number of overseas Lankans to vote, the Elections Commission will also need to find the best method to implement that decision.

Counting every vote properly is as important as making every vote count. We have much to do to ensure both.