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e-Voting: Election fix or hacker’s paradise?
Incidents of double voting and spoiled ballot papers that could fill a few seats in Parliament has begged the question whether SA is ready to roll out electronic voting.
Unlike its BRICS counterparts, India and Brazil, and even neighbouring country Namibia – all of which have championed e-voting – SA’s electoral commission has stuck to using paper ballots and manual counting, 25 years into democracy.
But experts Fin24 spoke to argue that e-voting is the way to go, as it could strengthen the integrity of elections.
“South Africa is a digital society, we are a G20 country. There is every reason to embrace that (e-voting), and at the same time every reason to learn how it was done overseas and to take cyber risk seriously,” Professor Bruce Watson, head of the Department of Information Science at Stellenbosch University said.
There are three ways in which e-voting can be interpreted. Either by voting using a machine on which the vote is directly recorded, or by voting with paper and using optical scanning technology to count the votes, and online voting, he explained.
Isabel Bosman, a student at Wits University who is conducting research into the strengths and weaknesses of e-voting- has read extensively on the topic. She explained that e-voting can allow for voting to take placed remotely or in a supervised environment. Bosman also recognises the use of biometric devices to scan voter finger prints as part of e-voting processes. These biometric devices could possibly eliminate the need to stain a voter’s finger with indelible ink because it is linked to the voter’s ID number and can be used for registration and at voting stations.
Starting the transition
Bosman is of the view that voting by paper and introducing electronic counting is a good option for SA to start the transition to e-voting. Online voting requires an internet network, which needs to be secure. Accessibility is also a consideration for online voting, as not all citizens have internet connections.
“If an electronic voting machine in a central polling station is implemented, it will be far more accessible than online voting and will be supervised to ensure the integrity of the election as well,” Bosman said.
The advantages of e-voting include reducing the risk of spoiled ballots and reducing the time it takes to count votes and make results public, Bosman said.
Referring to recent reports that some voting stations ran out of ballot papers, Bosman explained that e-voting can mitigate the risks associated with manual methods of voting, including double voting.
But there are drawbacks to e-voting, which Bosman and Watson both highlighted. This includes hacking to alter votes, Bosman said. For example, when a voter chooses a particular party on one end if the system, in the background the vote could go to a different party, she explained.
“Some countries have used electronic voting and then abandoned it because of data security concerns,” Bosman added.
To ensure secure electronic voting, legislation would have to be introduced as it will contribute to the constitutionality of implementing e-voting, she said.
Watson also highlighted that there is still an opportunity for fraud to take place through electronic voting. Other risks include computer failures- which may not be related to hacking. Watson recalled how some countries had incidents of computer failures which resulted in votes being lost. But the risks are manageable if there is a coherent strategy by government or the electoral commission, he explained.
For example, software used should be open for inspection by academics, experts and even political parties. Similarly during voting there should be constant monitoring to reduce the possibilities of hacking.
When asked if e-voting could reduce incidents of human error, Watson said that human error won’t completely go away with e-voting.
“If someone misunderstands the ballot and if you put them in front of a machine, they might still misunderstand the ballot in front of a screen,” he explained. However, e-voting could reduce human error to the extent that it is involved in the management of ballots, for example e-voting could reduce the potential of losing ballots.
Watson also explained that SA may not have switched to e-voting yet because of the costs associated with it, in the case of machine-based voting.
“Each machine will be expensive and will need to put in remote places,” he said.
With internet-based voting, there is a challenge in that it will rely on the large-scale roll-out of digital ID cards by Home Affairs which could take a number of years, Watson explained.
Based on her reading, Bosman has said she had found among the reasons the IEC has not implemented e-voting is because there is a lack of political will, as political parties have resisted it.
According to an opinion piece on the use of biometrics instead of indelible ink, authored by Mandy Wiener and published on News24 – IEC vice-chairperson Janet Love said that the electoral commission does not find the use of voting technology appropriate nor cost effective for SA at this stage. However, the IEC is constantly evaluating the prospect of including voting technology, Wiener wrote.
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