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Is electronic and Internet voting suitable for T&T?

Monday, March 9, 2015
Science and Society

In 1892, the mechanical lever voting machine was first used in the USA. Modern voting machines are however of the electronic type. The General Accounting Office report of 2005 noted “direct recording electronic systems (DREs) include hardware, software and firmware used to define ballots, cast and count votes and maintain and produce audit trail information.” 

The DREs were first introduced in the decade of the 1970s and they capture votes electronically without the use of paper ballots. They are similar to ATM machines with either push buttons or touch screens.

Proponents of DREs argue that they are secure, able to definitely capture the voter’s choice and are easy to use. A big advantage is that results are tabulated a lot faster and further, they are quite accessible to the disabled. Opponents respond by saying that voting machines give too much power over public elections to machines/their manufacturers and agents. Also there is the issue of the machines being hacked. As is common with any technology, there are risks associated with its use. But the moot question must be this, do the benefits outweigh the risks (both real and perceived)?

DREs are used by all voters in all elections (national, state and municipal) in Brazil and India. It is also used on a large scale in Venezuela and the USA. India, with a population of some 1.2 billion, would be hard-pressed to use only paper ballots and one can only imagine the size of the time lag between voting and the verification and announcement of results. In fact, even with the use of voting machines, the elections are done in phases. It is well known that the longer the counting period, the more likely are charges of vote rigging. 

The population of the world’s largest democracy seem to be quite happy with electronic voting machines. On the other hand, the second largest democracy seem to be rolling back its usage. An issue raised in the USA has been the so-called “flipping” of votes whereby a vote for a candidate of one party is registered as a vote for the candidate of the other party. This is by no means a regular occurrence but one case is enough to cast doubts on the entire process. 

This is the big problem that faces voting machines. Not everybody, particularly those in the west, seem to quite trust technology with their “sacred” voting rights. This is curiously for they do trust technology (to the extent that they use it with adequate security guarantees) with their money and personal information.     

Of course, the regular high-profile mass hijacking of electronic data really does not help the cause of voting machines. But banks and businesses continue to computerise and digitise processes and information in spite of hacking episodes. Naturally, security measures are being continuously monitored and improved to minimise the risk of being hacked. So it would appear, that to overcome the reservations and objections to DREs, public confidence must be built up and sustained. 

One possible path could be the use of Internet voting for specific elections. Countries in which this happens include Canada, Estonia and the state of Gujarat in India where, in six municipalities in 2010, voters were able to cast their votes over the Internet. This was done from their homes or polling stations.

In T&T, blessed to have a plural society, comprising of tribes and the self-righteous, self- proclaimed “tribe-less” but cursed by its fractious nature, confidence in the technology will have to be engendered. Now, one-man one-vote has, more or less, become the norm for choosing the leadership in political parties. So a logical starting point might be the use of Internet voting in these elections. The numbers would be small enough for pilot tests which might allow for greater acceptance in municipal and national elections.   


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