Innovation in Electoral Technology: How will technology be utilised in the 2030s?

Innovation in Electoral Technology

By Jack Vanderpump

The ICPS Electoral Stakeholders' Network organised a virtual roundtable: ‘Innovation in Electoral Technology: How will technology be utilised in the 2030s?’ contributing to an understanding of the future of technology in the electoral space. Delegates from all over the world participated in the event, including four eminent speakers.

The first speaker to present on the topic was Peter Wolf, Senior Expert in Technology at International IDEA. Peter started the discussion with a historical background of the major milestones in the adoption of electoral technology. He mentioned the 2000 US Presidential elections with its ‘hanging chads’ controversy as the beginning of the global boom in e-voting. However, the progress from there to the present day has been rather slow, mainly because of the lack of trust that existed around the adoption of technology in elections. Despite that, there has been a slow but steady increase in the use of technology in the field. This progress witnessed an abrupt halt following the 2016 US Presidential elections, when global cyber scare was for the first time felt in the area of voting. This brought with it the realization to upgrade outdated technology so as to tighten cyber security. While it became possible to deal with the threats, a major concern that the continuous upgrades brought was that of cost-effectiveness. The third milestone was the 2020 US Presidential elections. This election witnessed the growing concern about the spread of disinformation, trying to undermine the efficiency of electoral technology. The 2020 global Pandemic was another major event that acted as an accelerator in the use of electoral technology. Wolf stated that the future voter would call for greater convenience, bringing more digitalisation of the electoral process. While an increased use of technology will bring with it valuable data, it will also raise issues of privacy, i.e. who should have access to this data?

The next speaker, Sy Mamabolo, Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of the Electoral Commission of South Africa, gave valuable insights into the current and future use of electoral technology in South Africa. In the sphere of delimitation, the country is currently using a Geographical Information System (GIS), which relies on paper maps. Mamabolo mentioned that in the future South Africa hoped to switch from paper-based to digital GIS, offering an opportunity for continuous delimitation. In the area of voter’s roll, South Africa makes use of a Voter Management Device, which has election-related applications including self-registration. Sy anticipated further advancement of these applications for the convenience of the voters in the future. He also hoped for an advanced system of biometrics relying upon facial. Candidate nomination is done via a hybrid model involving manual as well as technological support. In the future, South Africa plans to rely fully on technology for this step. Voting, counting and capturing of results is currently done entirely manually, but in the future, it is anticipated to have either a hybrid or a fully digitalised system that would allow efficient declaration of results. In all these steps the main constrain was identified as lack of bandwidth and connectivity as well as the high costs that modern technology entails.

The next speaker, Nimit Sawhney, CEO of Voatz began by explaining how the Pandemic did not drastically reshape the electoral space yet accelerated the process of change. He brought to light the use of alternative voting methods to people who live outside their home countries. Sawhney, while identifying the massive growth in the usage of smartphone as a positive trend in electoral technology also voiced his concerns regarding the security concerns it might give rise to. Smartphone/ biometrics, remote identity proofing and blockchain are to be the major pillars in the future. Sawhney mentioned how smartphone voting is already a thing with both the major parties in the US adopting it for internal voting. Sawhney then talked about sustainability in elections, a concept hardly discussed traditionally. The younger voters have been persistently calling for greater sustainability in the electoral process. Here too technology might be of help, with a potential of 50 percent reduction in resource consumption, with greater technological adoption. Sawhney then talked about major cyber threats like SMS and DNS blocking attempts, that the digitalised electoral space has faced. However, despite the threats, there are newer models of technology like the Mitre Attack, that are successfully rising up to the challenge.

Finally, Eduardo Correia, Chief Technology Officer of Smartmatic, agreeing with the earlier speakers mentioned how the adoption of technology in elections has been rather slow, but since the Pandemic, positive trends are emerging. He identified increased accuracy, transparency and accessibility as the three main themes where election technology will see innovation in the future. In the sphere of accuracy, Correia believed that increased use of electronic voter roll and biometric would make verification easier and voter experience better. Also, this will allow the voter to have more control over his own privacy and there will be a natural progression to ‘vote anywhere’. Technology will come closer to the polling booth streamlining the capture of election results and mitigating other threats. Correia advocated the use of Automated Polling Station by polling officers to increase accuracy and decrease the work burden. For counting of votes, which is prone to human error, Correia called for electronic voting as a solution. This would ensure integrity as well as consistency. In terms of increasing transparency, there is a potential for the development of E2E verifiability. This would ensure that ballots are cast as intended, recorded as cast and tally as recorded. For increased accessibility, Correia emphasised its importance for voters. To support his case, he gave the example of Estonia, the cradle of applied research in online voting and Los Angeles. Both these places have successfully implemented various aspects of electoral technology and have achieved an overall positive result.

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