Fri, Jul 16, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Authorities nervous of electronic voting

While fast and convenient, experts warn that online voting would be open to fraud, manipulation and cyber-terrorism

By Adrian Addison  /  AFP , HONG KONG

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

They held elections within days of each other: The Philippines, a lively democracy where politicians get shot dead in the street, and Britain, the rock solid “mother of all parliaments,” but the Asian state’s quick-fire digital vote made the European nation look more like a grandmother as its citizens stuck to the old style of dropping bits of paper in battered old boxes.

It was hoped electoral automation in the Philippines would cut rampant cheating, where ballot boxes went missing or were stuffed with fake votes and local officials sometimes simply fiddled the results themselves. There was also the logistical nightmare of collecting votes from a country made up of more than 7,000 islands.

The May 10 poll, which was overseen by the government authority Comelec, had some minor glitches, but Comelec Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal said: “Definitely it was a success.”

“Everybody knows that it worked. There were some kinks that need to be ironed out, but it was generally successful,” he said. “Ask the people on the streets, ask the citizens’ organizations [that] monitored the elections, the teachers who conducted the elections, they say the same thing.”

In Britain, there were angry scenes outside a handful of polling stations that had closed before thousands of people had voted on May 6, leading some commentators to describe it as a “third world” ballot.

“It’s largely a legacy of the Victorian era,” said Jenny Watson, the chairman of the Electoral Commission which sets the standards for running elections for Britain’s 45 million voters.

“It’s not sensible to have a system that was designed when 5 million people were eligible to vote,” she told the BBC.

In the Philippines, Venezuelan company Smartmatic won the contract to run the electronic election. Voters still had to go to a booth and mark a piece of paper, but it was fed into a machine for counting, not a ballot box.

The results were then sent electronically to election headquarters in Manila, with 30 copies printed out and sent to stakeholders as a backup.

“Electronic voting can bring credibility to a country with a bad history of fraud and whose officials are not considered legitimate,” said Cesar Flores, the company’s president for Asia-Pacific. “Electronic voting will be the norm in 20 years from now and only a few countries will remain counting votes manually. It is not a question of if, but when.”

“As long as the system is auditable and recounts are available, the benefits significantly outnumber the possible risks,” he said.

However, it is exactly these risks that make the world’s electoral authorities nervous.

Ingo Boltz, an Austrian electronic election expert, urges caution in adopting automated voting. The human element in traditional elections, he says, can often be its greatest asset.

“With a traditional ballot box, every layperson can, without the use of expert knowledge or tools, follow and verify every step of the election process,” he said. “As long as an observer is physically present, the process is completely transparent to the naked eye. The price of automated voting is the delegation of these tasks to a handful of information technology experts and most IT security experts agree it is basically impossible to guarantee that an e-vote system does exactly what its programmer says it does. We are obliged to trust that programmers are incorruptible.”

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