Elections & Technology : How to Incorporate New Systems into Our Electoral Processes Post-Covid-19

By Jack Vanderpump

The events of the last year have brought growing pressure for electoral stakeholders to embrace new technologies to address a number of the challenges that have emerged following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. For many electoral bodies, the last year has acted as a catalyst for many changes that were already underway, but for others it has led to a significant shift in thinking. In this timely moment, it is important to explore the implications of incorporating existing and emerging technologies into our electoral processes.

Over the last year, increased interest in the use of technology has been driven by a desire to reduce physical contact and promote social distancing. However, long term, technology is often part of a plan to help electoral management bodies improve efficiency and communication, streamline delivery and lower costs of operation. The use of technology in elections is also made possible by citizens, who are empowered by smartphones and other digital devices. This not only allows them to access modern technologies like e-registration systems and real time poll station data, but it can elevate them to observers of elections as well. The effective use of technology therefore can enhance both the efficiency and transparency of an election.

However, technology also comes with its own risks. The use of electronic voting systems opens our elections up to the potential of online hacking. Greater dependency on e-registration systems can have the unintended effect of disenfranchising those groups who are less digitally literate. And online systems can lead to high amounts of data harvesting, creating a bigger burden on data protection legislation. New technology also has to be well communicated to the public, not only so they are aware of how to use them, but also so that trust and transparency in the processes remains high.

The following article is a summary of a two-session day-long event led by the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies (ICPS) and the Association of World Election Bodies (A-WEB) that brought together leading electoral administrators and thinkers in the use of technology, and showcase a number of innovative technologies emerging in the world of elections.

Session 1:

Session 1 was moderated by Mr. Seung Kim, Adviser to the Secretary General of A-WEB and the panel was composed of six speakers, four representatives from Election Management Bodies (EMBs) from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia, India, and Uzbeksitan; and two industry experts. The four EMB representatives discussed the implementation of technologies in different electoral processes, while the two industry representatives presented case studies of the use of technology in elections, demonstrating the diverse array of technologies available for different electoral environments.

A common theme in a number of the presentations was low public trust and acceptance as one of the main challenges when implementing new technologies into the electoral process. Mr. Pavel V. Andreev from the Central Election Commission (CEC) of Russia argued that their use of remote electronic voting “works”, and that it had proven to be both secure and resilient. Yet, growing awareness and interest in technology in recent years, has led to low levels of public trust. For this reason, Andreev argues that digital voting, while an option, will never be a substitute for the more traditional in-person voting model. Instead it is the goal of the election commission to ensure that remote voting remains a viable option for the electorate based upon transparent procedures.

Mr Sonsard Malonda, from the Independent National Election Commission (CENI) of the Democratic Republic of Congo, also emphasised the importance of transparency to boosting the credibility of the use of technology. Malonda then added speed and data security as other key factors. For the EMB itself, the use of technology had allowed CENI to run three simultaneous elections in one day. Yet, disinformation was also a factor across the elections, which Malonda puts down to sensitivity and education. In response, the EMB has launched a number of capacity building programmes and information campaigns. This has been mirrored in Russia, where the CEC sought to boost public trust in the process via video campaigns, viral videos, infographics, card news and placards. The CEC also supported the holding of over 200 mock elections with over 1.2 million participants.

Mr. Evgeny Barkov, Business Development Director at Kasperskydiscussed their experience of supporting the Russian CEC in implementing remote voting through the use of blockchain technology. Barkov outlined the method of first using new technology in community voting settings (such as student government, apartment complex board elections, union elections) as a means to boost familiarity with the system before then incorporating it into governmental elections. By engaging the local communities in the voting process, as well as NGOs and other stakeholders, it was possible to not only improve trust in the system but receive feedback and improve its delivery. In the face of what Kapersky, sees as significant public skepticism of evoting, they recommend offering bottom-up initiatives such as educational activities like their Polys e-Voting Study and mock elections, as well as supporting EMBs through the use of financial and methodical instruments, which can help in the first steps towards the use of e-voting.

The session also examined the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Mr. Sudeep Jain Deputy Electoral Commissioner of India (ECI) surmised the issue as the struggle to run an election in a way that doesn’t compromise regulations concerning social distancing. Jain discussed a number of applications that the ECI has developed during the pandemic for different electoral actors (candidates, domestic and overseas voters) to support the use of monitoring, lodging grievances and tracking status in real-time, and overall provide a contactless experience to voters. Jain also recognised that the success of such technology depended on transparency at every stage of the process. The Central Election Commission (CEC) of Uzbekistan are also in the process of developing mobile applications for different stakeholders. Mr. Sherzod Alimov, Head of Information, Communication and Technology Department at the CEC, provided an insight into their Single Electronic Voter Registration (SEVR). This system is claimed to improve the completeness of voter registration rolls, improving registration of military personnel, as well as people in nursing homes, hospitals, detention centres and other public institutions.

Mr. Arnd Langguth, CEO of BioRugged turned the seminars attention towards Latin America and Africa, providing a number of case studies demonstrating how the pandemic influenced the work of the tech industry. One of the biggest challenges BioRugged faced stemmed from the shortened tender periods and the shortage of air freight capacity, placing a significant burden on the time delivery of not only the equipment, but also the necessary training of EMB personnel. Collaboration with organisations like the United Nations (UN) was key to overcoming this and ensuring the elections were held on time. There were also Covid-19 implications with the use of technology that include biometrics, touchpad, and fingerprint sensors. The procurement and regular use of disinfectant was the recommended solution, and Langguth confirmed that this not only ensured that safety protocols were followed but that the quality of images remained high when scanning.

Session 2:

Session 2 was moderated by the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies (ICPS) and included: Commissioner Thomas Hicks, former Chair of the US Election Assistance Commission (EAC); Greg Essensa, Chief Electoral Officer of Elections Ontario; Dr. Didier Chilito Velasco, Director of National Identification at the National Civil Registry of Colombia; and Mr. Ovidiu Oproaica from the Permanent Electoral Authority of Romania. The webinar also had a number of industry voices including: Dallas Newby, Director of International Business at Dominion Voting Systems and Steven Griner, Vice President Sales of the Laxton Group.

Commissioner Hicks spoke on the benefits and danger of e-poll books, an online system which contains personal voter information. E-poll books were particularly effective in an election held during a pandemic, for they sped up the voting time, reduced queuing and thus helped maintain social distancing. Hicks also acknowledged how they impacted voters psychologically. On one hand they allowed voters to have certainty when casting their votes in otherwise uncertain times. However, there were concerns over security and thus trust. While e-poll books should be easily accessible and more efficient than traditional forms of paper voter registration, this should not come at the expense of security. At present, there exists limited regulation on who can access this system and therefore there remains a risk of private information being misused. To rectify this, the EAC are aiming to create a programme to outline security and accessibility improvements, and the responsibilities of those agents who can interact with e-poll books.

Hicks also commented on the prevalence of disinformation during the recent 2020 US Presidential election. On the question of who should lead on countering election technology disinformation, Hicks stressed the need for government agencies to collaborate, and that social media companies also have a role to play in preventing the contagion. Individuals also have to take responsibility and ensure that they understand the information that they are consuming as well as its origins. Transparency was mentioned again, this time in the context of the use of observers and recounts.

Greg Essensa spoke on Elections Ontario’s efforts to incorporate new systems into their electoral processes. Similarly to their neighbours, Ontario had made use of e-poll books which helped for that fast authentication process. Beyond that, Essensa explored their mission since 2018: to initiate a two-way discussion with electors via their Personalised Voter Communication (PVC) portal. For Essensa, the success of an election hinges on two things: 1) whether every eligible elector is aware of when, where and how to vote; 2) that the EMB knows who is eligible to vote and how they will cast a ballot. Previously, Ontario had relied on legacy media to inform electors, however the PVC allows them to go direct with personalised messaging. Such a system does not come without risks, which have been highlighted in different forms by the other speakers, but Essensa argues that through a multi-year process of developing standards and running simulations these risks can be mitigated and public trust maintained. For Elections Ontario, such technology offers the prospect of being able to more efficiently administer elections and allow voters to easily cast votes.

Oproaica reflected on the impact of the pandemic in Romania, and argued that it has perhaps acted as a catalyst for the country and its use of digital technology. This was noticed throughout the electoral process with a significant digital transformation occurring in the the electoral registry, monitoring turnout and fraud, electoral staff training, voting abroad, online candidate and party nomination, and registration of parties and candidates. The pandemic also paved the way for greater use of online training for electoral staff, including tests to ensure that staff were aware and able to uphold new protocols. An online platform was launched – with many of the features of Ontario’s PVC – to help ensure social distancing and inform voters about available and quiet poll stations. Oproaica was also aware of the integrity concerns surrounding the use of technology, and discussed the widespread use of technical support centres and the use of blockchain technology to dissuade voters of such concerns.

Chilito spoke on the Colombian Civil Registry's efforts to develop a digital citizen ID, which all citizens may carry on their smartphones. He explained the different security features included to prevent identity theft or document forgery. At the same time, citizens are able to carry out every day transactions both online and offline with the new digital ID and the biometric authentication system in place. The National Registry hopes that the wide use of the digital ID will promote a national growth in the digital ecosystem in Colombia. He added that the Colombian National Congress approved a bill for a new electoral code which provides a legal framework for the implementing of different technologies. The ultimate goal, he adds, is to increase transparency, security, and trust in the electoral processes.

This second session also included a number of industry voices. Dominion Voting’s Newby acknowledged the challenging year the organisation had experienced, especially following the US Presidential election. However, it put the challenges in the bracket of reputational – from their perspective and that of electoral observers, election results were accurate and upheld. Newby argued that what this election showed was the need for a transparent process. It’s critical that the technological process supports the results through methods like a pre-election accuracy test, which tallies a pre-known amount of ballot or entries to verify results are correct to build trust. There also needs to be a post-election audit, which can be conducted using statistical analysis, and an effective process for recounts and appeals – a crucial element in upholding public trust. Laxton’s Griner focussed his presentation on civil registration, but began by stressing a common theme: technology in elections is important but can only be developed in line with the public’s confidence. People still like to see a paper trail and often remain suspicious of technology. Technology can also benefits beyond the electoral process though – and this may help with improving trust in the electoral context as well. Many countries in Latin America, have a sizeable population that do not have a birth certificate, and the use of biometric technology can help address this and give people the documentation they require to more fully engage in civic spaces.


A common theme through all the presentations was that the effective use of technology is dependent on public trust. While technology can bring a number of benefits to the operation, administration and accessibility of our elections, if they do not receive the public’s acceptance then our democracies will be undermined more than they will benefit from any given technology. The solutions to this can best be summarised under the saying that “sunshine is the best disinfectant”. Transparency is key to showing the benefits of the system and assuring the public that no malpractice is taking part. This can take a number of forms from education before the pandemic, effective and personalised communication during the election, and post election options such as the ability to appeal and audit the system. Regulation of new technologies will also be required, helping to move from an anarchic space led by private companies, towards one that is governed by trusted and democratic officials.

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