Why SA still loves ballot papers

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IOL ST Election Launch 990 INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS Pansy Tlakula, chairwoman of the Independent Electoral Commission. File photo: Boxer Ngwenya

Countries all over the world are turning to e-voting – and some are turning away from it. But South Africa doesn’t need it and stands nothing to gain by a conversion, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana

Johannesburg - Next year’s election will see a new generation of voters casting their ballots. These are voters born into freedom. Not only were they born free, they came into consciousness in an increasingly hi-tech society. They were introduced to technology much earlier than their older counterparts.

Because the “born-frees” are accustomed to the convenience of technology, they might find long queues and the use of ballot papers rather primitive. These folk only know a computerised world. This begs the question: is South Africa ready for electronic voting?

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) probed this question in March. The investigation was not out of character. For an organisation that has mostly been led by old-timers such as Johann Kriegler and Brigalia Bam, the IEC has been technologically savvy. It has won numerous awards as a result.

The idea of exploring the possibility of e-voting, however, did not emanate from within.

It was suggested by Kgalema Motlanthe during his acceptance of the 2009 election results when he was president. The proceedings at the IEC colloquium were quite enlightening.

E-voting is in vogue in the free-world. And it is not only happening in the West. Even in our own neighbourhood here on the continent, folks are dabbling in electronic voting. Ballot papers are old-school, they say.

Not quite, actually. E-voting does include a bit of paper.

It’s not just any paper, though, but the kind that is machine-readable. After marking their choice, voters insert the ballot into the machine, which reads the choice of the voter, tallies the results and issues them instantly.

There’s no manual counting of ballot-papers, but they’re available for verification should the results be in dispute.

Another form of e-voting does not use paper at all. Voting machines are more like touch-screens. In Brazil, they’ve even adopted features of phones and ATMs. This gives voting machines a touch of familiarity, especially for illiterate voters.

Voters make their choice on the touch-screen.

But because the process does not involve a ballot paper, there is no trail to verify the results. One has to trust that the machines were not hacked.

In other words, e-voting is not entirely seamless. It assures instant results but lacks transparency. It obviously depends on the kind of voting machines a country adopts. Context is equally important in determining whether a country migrates to e-voting. Some countries have found the technology unsuitable and reverted to manual counting.

Examples include Holland, Germany, the UK, Ireland and Japan. The reasons for the retreat vary. The inconvenience of constant malfunctioning of machines sapped the Dutch appetite for e-voting. The Germans couldn’t take the lack of transparency.

Their constitution prescribes that counting of votes should be public. Because electronic counting is not visible to the eye, the courts declared it unconstitutional. And Germans didn’t have the zeal to the change the constitution to accommodate e-voting. So they simply dumped the whole experiment.

After a few inconveniences, some countries can easily ditch e-voting. This has to do with the level of need. Some adopt e-voting to follow fashion trends, while others do so out of necessity. Trust and the size of the electorate are key in such decisions.

The Irish experience is instructive. Ireland was not desperate for e-voting. Voters simply wanted to know election results instantly and have bragging rights that they, too, are technologically smart. But e-voting turned out to be more of a problem than a convenient experience.

After adopting it in 2004, they abandoned it three years later. It showed discrepancies between the number of votes recorded by a returning officer and those recorded by the machine.

And there was no way of verifying whether the system had captured votes correctly. There was no voter trail. Nor did the electoral officials have any way of ensuring that the machines worked as expected. Only the IT experts knew how the machines worked.

Next were the astronomical costs of system. Estimates showed that the Irish would spend £11 million (R175m) per election.

The decision to return to paper came easily for the Irish. Manual counting hadn’t really been a problem for them.

Irish voters number roughly 3.1 million. Counting can’t possibly take long and results are announced relatively quickly. Electoral life under ballot paper was not unbearable.

Conversely, India needs e-voting. The country has 770 million voters. Manual counting was a mammoth undertaking. Thus, Indians adopted e-voting in 1999, after 18 years of testing it.

They had doubts over the credibility of the process, and the trial run showed that machines were prone to failure, some reflecting an incorrect number of votes and others failing to reflect the results.

But the Indians didn’t abandon e-voting.

They persevered and corrected it, developing voting machines that suited them and provided security against tampering. For instance, the machines stand alone. They’re not connected to any network. This makes it difficult to hack the system. And they can be operated by battery power, making them convenient for use in rural areas.

When not in use, they’re kept under tight security and 24-hour surveillance. A few months before an election, they are tested. A mock poll is conducted on machines chosen randomly by representatives of parties.

For a population the size of India’s, e-voting has the obvious benefit of shortening the electoral process.

Rather than taking weeks to be published, the results are announced almost immediately after voting ends. The machines are apparently cheap and easy to use, even by illiterate voters.

And, because they have resigned themselves to e-voting, the Indians are also investing in improving the system.

They’ve just developed a “voter-verifiable paper audit trail” (VVPAT) system. They obviously still don’t trust the machines. Machines can be hacked somehow. The VVPAT system ensures that they’ll detect such instances.

The Philippines has also found e-voting similarly indispensable. Though boasting 50 million voters, Manila’s attachment to e-voting has less to do with the voting population. It’s a remedy to a corrupt electoral process.

Vote-counting was fraught with manipulation, which led to numerous legal challenges against election results.

The introduction of e-voting in 2010 saw fewer legal challenges against the election. For the first time, the loser of the presidential election even conceded defeat on election night.

They consider machines more reliable than fellow citizens, who’ve previously tampered with ballot papers.

Not that machines are foolproof. The Filipinos don’t entirely trust them. They’ve kept the ballot papers in order to do a manual audit if in doubt about the authenticity of electronic results.

E-voting, therefore, is not compulsory. Whether or not a country adopts it depends on its particular situation.

However, a lack of trust in both the institution and people running the elections, and a torturous wait for results, makes e-voting desirable Neither of these situations applies to South Africa.

Our electoral process is immensely credible. Repeated polls have shown that the IEC is trusted far more than any of the public institutions.

And the swift response of the electoral court recently over an incident at Tlokwe indicates a fully functional system.

For now, manual is still safe.

* Mcebisi Ndletyana is head of the Political Economy Faculty at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent


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