Can the internet help make elections fair and efficient in developing countries?
A presentation “eParticipation: Citizen Consultation ePlatform –Mexico City Case Study” was given by Edgardo Torres-Caballero, the General Manager for Latin America for Scytl who talked about how ePlatform developed by the company helped Mexico City successfully conduct an electronic consultation through which the city residents cast their votes on-line to select public projects.
Scytl has managed electoral events electronically in over 20 countries around the world using the ePlatform technology. Scytl has developed this platform based on the idea that the internet can help make electoral processes more transparent, fair, efficient, and accessible to citizens. The presenter noted that this will encourage more participation and therefore, improving the quality of participatory democracy. A key feature of ePlatform, as noted by the speaker, is the security measure of the highest security standards currently established that assures integrity in results by enabling audits by independent experts, securing citizen privacy through special encryption and preventing results from being modified by a patented technology. The platform has also been adapted to the blind and visually impaired, making the process even more inclusive.
In countries where fairness and transparency in elections are major issues, the platform could potentially be a powerful tool for the citizens to cast their votes and have their voices heard. Fraudulent and unfair practices have significant implications beyond the immediate election by creating a negative cycle of excitement, disappointment and apathy for the future elections. Every election brings new hope -- hope of change, hope of better days ahead -- yet people end up being disappointed by disingenuous electoral processes and results. This vicious cycle of excitement and disappointment makes voters increasingly cynical and apathetic to the electoral process, resulting in less turn out in future elections and therefore, detrimental to participatory democracy in the long-run.
However, the internet voting would be difficult to implement in developing country contexts unless certain conditions are met. Although these are not exhaustive, the following reasons could be considered. First, there would have to be a universal access to the internet such that all eligible voters can vote through the internet without any difficulties. This would include the availability of the internet and internet literacy (even at a minimum level) and, sustained electricity with no black-outs. Second there would have to be a way to ensure that when people are voting on-line, they are voting alone and no one is being coerced. Third, internet voting would have to become much cheaper so it is not cost inhibitive. Perhaps, the involvement of non-profit entities, either in the development of the technology or the management of the technology would be good as private sector involvement in countries’ elections may be met with skepticism in some countries. Finally, there would have to be a change of heart among the politicians who are currently benefiting from the chaotic, unregulated, paper-based voting to want to invest in such a technology.
The challenges of internet voting and its slow adoption have also been exhibited by the experiences of developed countries. According to International Experience with E-Voting: Norwegian E-Vote Project a report produced by International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), only eleven countries have used the internet as means of voting and, out of that number, only seven have any intentions of using it in the future. Among the small number of countries that are currently using internet voting, most of them are specifically for expatriate voting or local elections, and not for the entire electorate or for more significant elections (e.g., presidential or prime ministerial).
The IFES report cites four specific areas of challenges that the early adopters of internet voting have faced: trust in internet voting; the secrecy and freedom of the vote; the accessibility of internet voting; and electoral stakeholders and their roles. According to a CNN article Why you can’t vote online yet, adoption of internet voting in the US has been slow mainly due to cyber security concerns – that the integrity of votes could be compromised by skilled hackers.
In this environment, the wide adoption of internet voting in developing countries will most likely take a while. This is not to say that internet voting would not be useful in future or that it has not been in many countries -- technology is rapidly improving, internet access is growing and people around the world are calling for fair, accessible and efficient voting systems. The debate on the most suitable technology for elections will most likely continue and it would be interesting to keep an eye on it.
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