Can electronic voting guarantee free, fair and credible elections? (1)

Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that: “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

This will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government, this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

This declaration affirms that a free, fair and credible election is one in which the people have the opportunity to participate. Every adult should be free to run for office, speak out in support of a candidate and vote for their choice without fear.

This presupposes that when a voter casts his or her vote for candidate ‘A’ it is expected that the voter’s choice or intention would not be altered in anyway, so that it would be counted and declared as such at the end of the election.

If anything untoward happens along the process to alter the voter’s intention the election has failed to meet the expectation set out by Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Interestingly the 1992 Constitution of Ghana guarantees this right.

When elections are manipulated they lack credibility, people would lack confidence in their leaders, little time would be spent on the development of the nation as most of the time would be spent challenging the credibility of the government and the result is that the nation would suffer.

Our old people say:”The one who cuts the path does not see that it is crooked, it takes an independent observer to point that out.”Generally elections are prone to errors as such it is important that political parties, observers, political scientists, researchers and election administrators work together to eliminate these errors as and when they become apparent.

Are you wondering how errors can arise? Do not look far errors can arise during preparation of electoral materials such as the voter’s register, printing of ballot papers, the voting process, counting and collation of results among others.

It is also true that if the manual system of voting is automated without eliminating the errors inherent in it, the error rate will be increased while at the same time creating new opportunities for election fraud.

At this juncture it would be useful to define electronic voting or e-voting. Electronic voting is a term encompassing several different types of embracing both electronic means of casting a vote and electronic means of counting votes.

Electronic voting technology can include punched cards, optional voting systems and specialized voting kiosks (including self-contained direct recording electronic voting systems). It can also involve transmission of bal-lots and votes via telephones, private computer networks, or the internet.

In general, two main types of e-Voting can be identified, e-voting which is physically supervised by an independent electoral commission (e.g. electronic voting machines located at polling stations) and remote e-Voting where, voting is performed within the voter’s sole influence, and is not physically supervised by representatives of an independent electoral commission (e.g. voting from one’s personal computer, mobile phone, television via the internet (also called i-voting)).

Proponents of e-voting say it is convenient because with a well-designed software and system, the voters can simply use their own equipment with the minimal time and skill to finish the voting process.

This eliminates long queues at polling stations and better addresses accessibility issues for persons with disabilities, those suffering from illness, those serving in the military or living abroad etc.

It improves mobility, as voters are able to use mobile devices such as ipads, Samsung galaxy and iphones to vote any time anywhere. It also involves less cost as using electronic voting saves money from reducing the personnel expense for example, expense for location management and administration fee. It also saves paper as voting is done online.

Tally speed. By clicking just a small button one can submit his voting to the system, this is faster than the traditional one done by people.

In spite of its advantages critics of electronic voting argue about the security issue. The system can be hacked, for instance in a mock voting exercise in 2010 hackers gained access to an online voting system created by the District of Columbia (United States of America) and altered every ballot on behalf of their own preferred candidates.

Furthermore, the inequality problem comes up because those people with low salary might not be able to afford the equipment for electronic voting. Those who are not computer literate might lose their privilege in voting. In Ghana a chunk of our illiterate population would be disenfranchised should we opt for electronic voting anytime soon.

On the other hand it would cost the state a fortune to find the money to make computers and other equipment available at all polling stations for voting purposes.

There could also be virus attacks, power outages or malfunction in internet connectivity as well as the possibility of servers shutting down or crashing. This shows that electronic voting is best suited for areas with uninterrupted power supply.

Apart from these critics have mentioned the issue of fraud and coercion. They say remote internet and telephone voting present greater opportunity for fraud and coercion or vote buying.

Fraud occurs when someone votes on another person’s behalf without their permission, whereas coercion takes place when a voter is pressured by others to vote in a way that he or she would not have otherwise.The Raleigh Telegram carried reports that in the 2012 elections held in the USA, voters wanted to vote for one person but the machine showed a different person on the screen. Other reports said machines failed to work for several hours.

Douglas W. Jones of the University of Iowa, Department of Computer Science delivering a keynote address at the Second Inter-American Meeting on Electoral Technology in Panama in March 1, 2004, urged election officials to “concentrate first on creating voting procedures that are inherently secure and error resistant before seeking to automate those procedures.

At the same time you must resist the temptation to be modern purely for the sake of modernity. Voters and election officials should view with suspicion any technology for election administration that they do not fully understand”.

He also cautioned against trusting the voter or the technician who mans the computers because the voter may attempt to vote twice while the technician can do something unthinkable to favour the candidate of one particular party as such it should be ensured that whatever system of voting has safeguards.

The first safeguard should be oversight. Ideally, every step in the process, from ballot preparation before the election up to the final count of the votes should be open to public inspection, limited only by the requirement that there must be no way to connect a particular voted ballot with a particular voter.

Secondly it should be possible to audit the correctness of the vote in the case of a dispute.

Thirdly the ballots should be printed on special paper that makes it difficult to duplicate and should be well secured in boxes which would be opened only in the presence of all the parties involved.

Those clamoring for e-voting in Ghana should stop and ponder because there are big potholes ahead; the reality is that it will be better to deal with the loopholes in the current manual voting system than to ask for wholesale electronic voting with its attendant problems in the next general elections.

For instance after the landmark verdict by the Supreme Court in the 2012 Election Petition it became obvious that it is not easy to battle out election disputes in the court of law.

Some of the contenders have therefore openly sworn to make sure that measures are put in place to forestall any irregularities at the polling stations in the next general elections. We are yet to see the measures being considered and how successfully they would be rolled out.

However one thing is clear and that is the fact that time is running out.

The other day I overhead two friends discussing elections. One of them believed that without cheating it would be difficult to win elections but the other thought otherwise. The one who believed in cheating outlined methods that some people have used to manipulate elections. The methods he outlined included stuffing ballot boxes with thumb printed papers, snatching ballot boxes from opponent’s strongholds, defacing ballots with ink or pencil marks during sorting and counting, inflating or deflating figures during collation.

The other friend seemed familiar with most of the methods outlined but he wondered how defacing of ballots could be possible. He therefore asked for an explanation.

“Before the ballot boxes are opened the official with the intention to cheat either inserts a pencil (lead) under his fingernail or smears an amount of ink into his hair. During sorting he manages to mark portions of the ballots with the pencil or intentionally scratches his hair to stain his fingers with ink and use same to blot parts of the ballots. By so doing he renders those ballots invalid,”the friend explained.

Satisfied with the explanation he remarked:”Wonders will never end, if people can design such ways to manipulate elections then we should not hesitate to scrutinize every process and the officials that have a role to play in our elections.”

The foregoing shows that electronic voting on its own cannot guarantee free, fair and credible elections. Voters, Technicians, Political Parties, the Electoral Commission, Observers and the Security Agencies would need to play their respective roles honestly to make it happen.

 By Godfred Blay Gibbah

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