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Using ICTs to reimagine the electoral process

Information and communication technologies ranging from open-source and GIS to blockchain can help boost credibility of the electoral process, without compromising on voter confidentiality and security
by Harsh Bajpai and Kazim Rizvi

The Indian general election of 2019 saw large-scale deployment of the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) technology. It worked by generating a paper slip containing the name of the party and the candidate selected by a voter using Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). The Election Commission of India has automated the voting process using EVMs since early 2000s. With the addition of the VVPAT, the electoral process now enables political parties, candidates, observers, and citizens to verify results, ensuring greater transparency.

With the use of EVMs and the VVPAT technologies, the largest-ever electoral exercise in the world that concluded in May this year provides us with an occasion to reflect on benefits and costs associated with deployment of different ICTs.

These technologies can enhance accuracy and security of the process and reduce costs, thereby improving voter experience. There are different stages before, during and after elections where technology can help make the process more efficient. For example, the geographic information system (GIS) technology can transform the exercise of delimiting constituency boundaries. Similarly, technologies are now available to streamline voter registration, electoral campaigns, and voting operations on election day. The VVPAT used by the Election Commission of India (ECI) in the 2019 general election is an example of technologies in the last category. 

Read more: Our Internet voting experiment

Open-source tech can address credibility, cybersecurity concerns

Every Indian election has been rife with complaints ranging from mishandling of strong rooms (sites for storage of EVMs after balloting) to procurement and security breaches in EVMs.

To enhance the credibility of the electoral process, Open Source Election Technology (OSET) can be an option worth exploring. It is not a new concept, rather the open source movement started around the globe in the mid-2000s in opposition to the Commercial Off-the-Shelf Technology (COTS). In the United States, Travis County in Texas, and Los Angeles and San Francisco counties as well as federal agencies like Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are working on voting systems based on OSET.

Democratic elections rest on transparency, trust, and security. If the equipment used in the polls is trustworthy, the turnout can be in huge numbers. Open-source technology allows that since it is open for public inspection and licensing, and is not controlled by a particular vendor. Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd. (ECIL) have been those vendors in the case of India.

Open-source technology is cheap, and it allows usage of software and hardware of choice, provided it is certified. The Government of India has already come out with an Open Source Software (OSS) Policy, and at least seven states have already been using it for various development schemes.

Cybersecurity has been a sensitive issue, especially in the wake of the recent Robert Mueller report on possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

OSET tools can help fight prolific hardware and software hackers, while allowing voters to verify details, and make informed choices through their independent judgment. The closed-source tools, on the contrary, make it difficult to detect vulnerabilities which makes it impossible to mitigate and attribute attacks.

In promoting cybersecurity, the reverse engineering process is crucial for virus analysts and cyber intelligence researchers. In order to prevent a breach, it’s necessary to know how a virus works, who was the coder, where it came from and what are its capabilities. Here, open-source technology can help detect weaknesses in the process at any point. For example, the U.S. National Security Agency has introduced a cheap source for cybersecurity defenders — a reverse-engineering tool called ‘Ghidra’ on open-source. 

Tech to enhance accessibility

EVMs used in Indian elections contain party symbols and candidate names listed side by side. There’s a button in each row which can be pressed to cast the vote. There needs to be a simpler electronic interface that is accessible to differently-abled voters. Election laws in the U.S. require all polling stations to have at least one booth fully accessible to differently-abled voters.In future, technologies like voice recognition and multi-touch displays can be integrated into the digital process. Such an interface can have provision for candidates’ photos, enabling voters lacking functional literacy to identify a candidate and cast their vote. The voice and face recognition technology can enable differently-abled voters to cast ballots. These solutions will be particularly helpful for amputees or those with failing limbs from muscle dysfunctions.

Read more: Unlocking Big Data for Electioneering

Big Data to deal with long lines

In emerging democracies, long lines of voters at polling stations are often viewed as a sign of the people’s faith in the promise of democracy. However, it can also be seen from the lens of voter inconvenience and as a cost on their time that can discourage many from voting.

There’s an entire science of waiting in lines known as Queuing Theory which has emerged through research like the Caltech and MIT Voting Technology projects. As the name suggests, it deals with better management of queues. Studies have been done around polling lines in multiple European nations, and in the U.S. by, for example, the Bipartisan Policy Center, suggesting that better management of polling station resources can significantly reduce wait times.

The application of web-based software tools that use Big Data Analytics (already in use by local election officials to collect data) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) could be the next shift that can boost voter turnout. The software tool using AI should include real-time analysis of these parameters: time arrival of voters, voters waiting in the queue, voters casting their vote, and voters leaving the polling booth. This data can then be entered into a database similar to the one developed by Stephen Graces and Rong Yuan (“Graves-Yuan Tool”). This new simulation modeling paradigm is already in use in industrial systems, and it can pave the path for a faster electoral process with greater voter confidence.

Blockchain is worth a shot

The use of blockchain technology in elections is worth more than just an experiment. Using a secure and tested interface, mobile voting can eliminate voter fraud and increase turnout. Furthermore, it will make voting more convenient for citizens residing away from their homelands, regardless of distance and time. It is also an advantageous tool for election commissions to maintain transparency, minimize the cost of conducting elections, streamline the counting process, and ensure that all votes are counted.

The case study of West Virginia elections is relevant here. The state election body has provision to verify the identity of voters using biometric tools such as a thumbprint scan before the voters can proceed with casting ballots on a mobile device. Each vote is part of a voting chain, where the third party participant mathematically proves it. Using blockchain, all election process data can be recorded on a publicly verifiable ledger, while keeping voters anonymous, with results instantly available.

The future of polling

In the future, polling place technologies will also play an important role in gathering data needed by election managers to make key decisions. Elections are emotional by their very nature as they take place in highly-charged political settings. Evidence-based decision-making is, thus, critical to enhancing credibility and fostering confidence. Political parties, civil society, and independent electoral bodies all have to play an active role in setting the myriad criteria for legitimate and credible elections. Lessons learned from worldwide experiences underline the importance of setting and communicating clear goals and expectations when a government is considering the implementation of modern voting systems, whether for the first time, or to replace aging equipment.

Read more: Working to ensure integrity of important elections this year, says Facebook CEO

Strategic planning in this regard will include visualizing the future, taking generational considerations and expectations into account. Since the awareness about better facilitating the elderly and the differently-abled populations is growing in many parts of the world, the ability of election technology to improve the voting experience of these groups will be important. Population mobility as a result of the changing nature of the global and national economies also highlights the need to reimagine the electoral process with the use of latest technologies.

Will young citizens avoid participation as they enter the electorate if they perceive the election technology to be increasingly antiquated and foreign? In the case of the tech-savvy young voters, the digital world is increasingly shaping their lives, and they will want the election process to resonate with the rest of their life experiences.

Kazim Rizvi is the founding director of The Dialogue, a think-tank based out of India working on the intersection of technology, society and public policy.

Harsh Bajpai is a programme manager at The Dialogue where he leads the work on technology policy.