Elections: When is Voting going Hi-Tech?

A Personal View – May 2014

Today’s general election in South Africa [7th May 2014] has brought this issue to the forefront again.  Essentially the whole process from casting one’s ballot to counting the votes is broadly similar to that done centuries ago. Clearly something is amiss as technology has improved vastly since then.

What are the disadvantages of the current system?

  • It is extremely costly and hence elections can only be held infrequently. Apart from the direct costs such as all the election staff, there is a day’s work lost for most people
  • The time taken to arrive at a result further hampering productivity
  • Possible tampering with the election results
  • Multiple votes being cast
  • One has to vote at a specified Polling Station instead of where one is located on the day

The first consideration is whether any countries use a fully automatic system for their national elections. As far as I am aware, there are none. Possibly for regional or municipal elections an automated system is used.

The question arises about why voting is not automated. The possible objections are as follows:

  • Security
  • Cost
  • Technology not reliable enough

Given human nature it is not outside our wit and competence to address all these concerns. In fact security should be least of the concerns as the system could include the following:

  • A manual hand written back-up
  • Biometric check of the Voter’s identity
  • Separation of the data of the person voting and the party for which they voted
  • Multiple recipients of the data transmitted
  • Reconciliation per Voting Station between the manual & the multiple versions of the electronic votes

As regards the cost, because this equipment can be used not only for General Elections but also Municipal Elections, the cost of the equipment can be recovered over a larger number of elections.

Biometric scanning of fingerprints and cellphone technology is not very sophisticated but is also extremely reliable. Nothing is fail-safe but is the existing manual system any better in reality?

An internet search reveals that there are companies offering comprehensive solutions.  An Organisation called Gilat has multiple solutions depending upon the level of automation desired. Here are some of the components of this system:

 PCOS (Precinct Count Optical Scan)

Gilat's PCOSIn this approach, the votes are made on paper (ballots) and there is a device at the precinct into which the ballot is inserted and scanned. The scan read for which party the vote was cast in favour of and transmit the final total to the central control station. Using this approach, a manual record of the voting can be compared with the electronically counted voted.  

 CCOS (Central Count Optical Scan)

In this approach, the manual ballots from a group of precincts [Voting Stations] are transported to a central location for scanning in batches.

 DRE (Direct Record Electronic) I

In this approach, the voter casts his vote on an electronic touch screen.

 iVoting (Internet Voting)

A secure system for allowing citizens to vote from a remote location (e.g. overseas embassy staff, military and marine forces, etc.)

 Consolidation Subsystem

This sub-system is responsible for gathering all of the voting information, calculating the results and producing the necessary reports. The CCS (Consolidation Canvassing System) consolidates nationwide voting results.

 Election Management Subsystem

The purpose of this sub-system is to allow centralized management of the election process and to provide real-time status of the elections during the process. The EMS (Election Management System):

  • Facilitates all election management activities
  • Imports list of candidates or project of precincts
  • Creates status reports of precinct information
  • Displays transmission status updates
  • Produces final consolidation reports
  • Provides declaration of winning candidates

 Transmission Subsystem: ETS (Electronic Transmission System) is designed to handle elections information transfer in the most efficient way taking into consideration the large number of sites and the nature of the traffic load and the sensitivity of the information. Polling sites communication will be connected using the most suitable network: satellite modem (VSAT), cellular or DSL

 That is only one system that is available but there are undoubtedly many more

There will doubtless be naysayers and technophobes who will decry the introduction of technology to this process. Any minor glitches will be sensationalised as if it is a major crisis when in fact it is not but its introduction is inevitable and just a matter of time.

Just imagine having the final election results no later than an hour or two after the closure of the Polling Booths.

However I do have a reservation to their proposal. Even this solution as envisaged by Gilat is outdated even though it might be a necessary interim step to the long term future.

Why not let people log into the Election’s Computer and cast their vote electronically? How about an Elections App for those with Smart Phones? There might still be the requirement for Voting Stations for those who do not have access to a Computer or a Smart Phone but that would be minor in the scheme of things.

I would vote for the latter solution!



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