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Electronic voting is failing the developing world while the US and Europe abandon it

March 10, 2013
Obsession
Modern States
March 10, 2013

It was supposed to be the most modern election in Africa. Kenyan authorities, hoping to avoid the chaos of the 2007 election, decided that this time the country would use a tamper-proof, state-of-the-art electronic voting system where voter IDs would be checked on hand-held devices and results transmitted to Nairobi through text messages.

But everything that could go wrong did. The biometric identification kits to scan people’s thumbs broke down; a server meant to take in results from 33,400 voting centers sent via SMS became overloaded; and some election operators forgot the passwords and PIN numbers for the software. Polling centers went back to hand counting ballots and results were delayed almost a week, until March 9 when Uhuru Kenyatta’s win was announced. And every day before that people feared a repeat of 2007 when results were delayed and violence erupted, killing 1,200 people.

Kenya’s troubled electronic voting experiment is part of a strange dichotomy where electronic voting is on the way out in most Western countries, but taking hold in emerging economies, possibly to their detriment.

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More Latin American countries were experimenting or using e-voting machines in 2012.(International Foundation for Electoral Systems)
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Most of Europe was not using electronic voting in 2012.(International Foundation for Electoral Systems)

In the US and Western Europe, more states have been opting out of electronic voting systems and returning to paper out of worries over the number of glitches and, as we’ve reported before, the inability to verify that electronic votes or the software on machines have not been manipulated.

In the US 2012 election, 56% of voters cast paper ballots that were optically scanned (pdf. p. 75) while only 39% used electronic voting machines. Similarly in Europe only two countries–Belgium and France–use electronic ballots. Out of eight European countries that have experimented with electronic voting, six reverted back to paper ballots.

In contrast, developing countries in Latin America and Asia are embracing e-voting. As in Kenya’s case, moving to electronic polls is seen as a way of boosting democratic credentials, possibly increasing voter engagement, and demonstrating technological progress. Following Brazil’s lead, Venezuela, Paraguay, Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico have all implemented some form of e-voting (page in Spanish). India also uses electronic ballots across the country; and Pakistan is considering similar technology.

The problem is that these countries face the same issue of e-voting transparency, but there’s little movement to fix the issue. In Brazil, a law to require verification of votes at electronic polls by 2014 was revoked in 2011 (page in Portuguese). And in India, an audit trail for electronic ballots is not likely to be in place in time for the country’s general election next year.

The greatest danger, Democracy Reporting International notes, is that these governments see electronic voting as a silver bullet (pdf, p.3) to fix all of their electoral problems. Governments then divert public funds to expensive electronic voting experiments, instead of on ways to eliminate ballot buying, voter intimidation, and post-election violence–all of which can still happen in the context of e-voting.

While Kenya’s elections were largely peaceful, at least 15 people were killed and the results have already been contested by the opposition. Perhaps some of the 11 billion Kenyan shillings (about $130 million) the country took in to prepare for the race could have been better spent on things other than those hand-held ID-verification gadgets.

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