Building democracies with technology

October 9, 2008

Back nearly 20 years ago in 1989, it seemed as if nothing stood in the way of the worldwide spread of democracy. Today, in 2008, we know better. From natural resources to culture to infrastructure, many factors can make it difficult for democracies to grow and to thrive. Yet as we search for ways to help new and old democracies flourish, we often overlook the simplest solution, one staring us right in the face -- the voting process.

From Kenya to Thailand to the United States, voting problems have undermined public confidence in elections and caused lasting damage to institutions. From legitimate disputes about hanging chads to the wildfire spread of conspiracy theories, doubts about the integrity of voting breeds destructive cynicism. The result: growing numbers of citizens lack confidence that election results truly represent the will of the people, not the power of hidden vested interests.
This undermining of democratic legitimacy is a tragedy. And it’s a tragedy that must not be allowed to continue. Every election held today should be nearly flawless in its accuracy, completely transparent, and 100 percent auditable.
Why? Well, because the proven technology already exists to make fair and reliable elections a near certainty. In fact, it’s being used today in the most unexpected places.
Take the recent August 11th election in the Philippines Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). In a country like most, with its fair share of democratic setbacks -- including persistent accusations of fraud -- the ARMM (considered the epicenter of it) held its first automated election. What happened?
Speed, accuracy and transparency are what happened. Last year’s ARMM election took weeks to count, dogged by accusations of fraud. This year’s took 24 hours, with results accepted by all political parties.
Here’s why. The auditable solution delivered a level of security none could question. Each machine stored each vote in seven different locations, making hacking or tampering with results a near impossibility.
In contrast, traditional paper ballot elections, where the marked ballot is the only record, can be subject to human manipulation or damage. Just think what happened during the now seminal 2000 United States presidential election -- when paper ballot “hanging chads” forced an unelected body, the U.S. Supreme Court, to choose the winner.
Electronic voting, of course, has its fair share of critics. Some point to flaws in particular solutions that can be addressed and improved. Others, unfortunately, push “black box” theories of voting, i.e., once you put the vote into a computer you don’t know what happens to it.
Beyond violating common sense -- we all trust computers with our very lives when we fly and with our livelihoods when we bank -- the black box theories ignore two facts. First, as mentioned, the best auditable voting solutions have more checks and balances than the U.S. Constitution. In other words, votes stored in multiple ways and in multiple places are very hard to manipulate without detection. Second, the best systems are truly Auditable Voting Systems, like the one used in the Philippines, which include voter verified paper trails.
What does that mean? Simple, it means each and every voter gets to see a paper receipt and confirm his or her vote has been correctly recorded. Just as important, if concerns over election results arise, this parallel hardcopy trail can be quickly and rapidly audited.
Auditable voting, moreover, is good for the bottom line and the environment. For instance, the fact that there is no need to print, customize, and transport millions of paper ballots for every election cycle saves money and trees.
In a world in which democracy remains the best hope for humanity’s future, we must not let unfounded fears stand in our way. Nothing builds the trust necessary to support democratic institutions faster than confidence in electoral results. And nothing delivers such confidence faster than fair, accurate, and transparent elections. In short, the best auditable voting solutions are actually an open box -- letting the light shine clearly in on the beating heart of democracy.