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Opinions of Sunday, 23 August 2009

Columnist: Baafi, Alex Bossman

Let Us Consider Electronic Voting

By Alex Bossman Baafi

Even though this country has used the electoral process and the ballot box to select our political leaders successfully on many occasions, what happened during the last 2008 presidential and parliamentary elections and the current skirmishing going on in Akwatia in the Eastern Region are nothing to be proud of in a country that is fast establishing itself as haven of democracy in Africa. During the 2008 general elections for example, both the NDC and the NPP traded accusations and counter accusations against each other and labeled the strong holds of these leading political parties no go areas. That is to say, Ashanti region was a no go area for the NDC whilst the Volta region served same for the NPP. We all heard about the mayhem and Vote rigging machinations that were alleged to have taken place in these two regions and that continue to cast an iota of doubt about the credibility of our electoral process in the minds of certain political pundits. In my humble opinion, investing in electronic voting will be the best way forward in ensuring free, fair and transparent general elections that will lead to a more lasting and credible democratic dispensation in this country. When the people of a country believe firmly in the fact that the ruling president and members of parliament were genuinely elected without fraud then, they own, cooperate and fully participate in the governing process. The elected officials themselves with confidence become the truly representative of the people. Such situation brings peace, unity and support from all sides of the political divide to contribute meaningfully in support of the ruling party during its mandate without many challenges. In this article, I will like us to share the success story of the electronic voting in Venezuela for us to appreciate how electronic voting holds the key to securing, deepening and promoting much more credible electoral process we are looking forward to establish for other African countries and perhaps the world to emulate.

WHY ELECTRONIC MACHINES? Venezuela’s 1998 Organic Law of Suffrage and Political Participation, passed before President Chavez took office, requires that elections be conducted with electronic voting machines. The law was part of a larger effort to reduce the possibility of fraud through ballot-box stuffing that was prevalent throughout generations of Venezuelan elections. The machines standardize the way Venezuelans vote around the country, and the electronic tallies provide a faster and more accurate vote count than manual methods. The touch-screen machines are easy to use and have the potential to greatly reduce the time voters spend inside the voting center. Since the year 2000 the National Electoral Council (or CNE by its Spanish acronym) has progressively perfected the electronic voting system by, for example, making it possible to fully audit the computer software that is used as well as each step of the electronic voting process. Thank to these mechanisms, every aspect of the Venezuelan voting system has been thoroughly audited by electoral observers from Venezuela and from international organizations like the Organization of American States and the European Union.

HOW THE MACHINES WORK The SmartMtatic technology utilizes a simple, touch-screen system. The voter selects his preferred candidates by touching the box with his candidate’s name and the associated party logo. Once the selection is made, a screen will appear, again displaying the candidate’s name and requesting the voter to confirm his selection. Once confirmed, the machine prints a paper receipt, which the voter may check for accuracy before depositing it in a locked ballot box. Under an agreement between the CNE and participating political parties, a full 55% of the paper receipts will be audited after the vote to ensure that their numbers match the electronic vote tallied. The electronic data is encrypted and sent to the National Counting Center for a nearly instantaneous vote tally. The official vote count is announced after the paper audit has taken place. The process outlined above was utilized in the 2005 National Assembly elections, which were observed and approved by international observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union. In its final report on the 2005 elections, the OAS noted that voter privacy was respected and that all Venezuelan’s right to a secret ballot was upheld.

PROTECTIONS AGAINST FRAUD Venezuelan elections authorities have invested in a unique technology to ensure that no party can manipulate the computers in order to affect the outcome of the vote. The source code necessary to access the machines is split into four equal parts, which are then divided among stakeholders, including a representative from the CNE, opposition parties, pro-government coalitions and international observers. In order for any change to the coding of the computers to be implemented, each of these parties must be present and access the machines simultaneously. For legitimate purposes, such as testing the machines and auditing the vote, each party will have access to the computers, but any unauthorized tampering is rendered impossible. Just before 2004 referendum, officials from the Carter Center received a full presentation of the Smartmatic machines and stated that they were very impressed with the presentation that they received the security measures that were shown to them, and the functioning of the machine that they witnessed.

THUMBPRINT MACHINES Venezuela has enlisted a separate technology to ensure that voters do not cast multiple ballots at different polling stations. Computers at the entrance of polling stations record the thumbprints of each voter as they enter. The thumbprints are stored in a centralized database, and observers are automatically notified if a voter has previously cast a ballot at another polling station. The thumbprint machines are separate from the electronic voting stations, so that the database records only who has participated in the election, not how an individual casts his vote.

CONCLUSION Venezuela’s elections are among the most closely scrutinized in the world, and its electronic voting apparatus among the most sophisticated, accurate and transparent in any major democracy. It is important to understand the basic facts regarding how the electronic voting machines function and note that we may have an opportunity to learn from Venezuela’s modern and transparent voting process. There are similar voting machines in many parts of the world that we can study as well to make informed decision. For example the voting machines in India could run several days on battery and could be deployed in the rural areas of the country where there is no electricity. It is my humble appeal to the National Electoral Commission (NEC) and the Government to invest now for us to start preparing for electronic voting in 2012 if possible. It is one of the best ways forward to true democracy and good governance for the benefit this country.

Email: abkbossman@yahoo.co.uk