Despite a setback in The Senate, the government is determined to push ahead with comprehensive electoral reform based on a new electronic voting system. The Indy consulted with a range of experts to analyse the debate.
On 24th November the opposition-controlled Argentine Senate blocked a vote on electoral reform that included the implementation of a new electronic voting system as proposed by President Mauricio Macri.
The government-sponsored bill had already been approved by the lower house of Congress in October, but the delay in the Senate means it will not be sanctioned before the end of the legislative year, and therefore not applicable for the mid-term elections in October 2017.
However, the government says it will continue to push for the reform, and the debate over the electronic voting system – known as the Single Electronic Ballot (BUE, in Spanish) – continues in Argentina, where it has already been deployed in the province of Salta and the city of Buenos Aires. Various forms of electronic voting are also currently present in countries such as Brazil, Canada, Estonia, India, the USA, and Switzerland, while other states such as Germany, Norway, and the Netherlands have abandoned it after a short period of use.
The argument for implementing it is that it will get rid of many problems with the current system, including instances of electoral fraud, and allow the votes to be counted faster. However, many experts are against it as they believe it creates more problems than it fixes and could even reduce the transparency of the vote. At a more fundamental level, critics also say that it takes the vote out of the citizens’ hands and places it firmly in the control of the government and the company developing the relevant software and hardware.
Voting is compulsory in Argentina for citizens over the age of 18. The exact voting system varies from province to province but the majority use multiple paper ballots. This means the voter enters a “dark room” where there are a number of ballots to choose from (or there should be). The voter takes the ballot of the candidate or party they wish to vote for, seals it in an envelope, and then puts into the ballot box.
The voting system is considered by many to be complicated and outdated: in primary elections, open and compulsory since 2011, voters can be asked to choose between dozens of party candidates for president, National Congress, and provincial legislatures. Critics also say it is vulnerable to tampering, particularly through the stealing of ballot papers, leaving voters in some areas unable to select certain parties.
Leandro Querido, director of Transparencia Electoral, an NGO which promotes democratic values in Argentina and Latin America, says that there are plenty of problems with the current system. He lists these as including “the stealing of ballots, manipulation of electoral documents, the dragging out of the release of the results, and fraudulent provincial elections.” He says the system also puts smaller parties at a disadvantage as they have fewer resources to print their own paper ballots and have their own observers to verify that they are being made available across all voting stations.
Querido claims that, as a result of these issues, many citizens perceived that their vote did not count.
Macri made electoral reform one of the key pledges of his 2015 presidential campaign, having already introduced the BUE system in the city of Buenos Aires as mayor and amid allegations of fraud in the gubernatorial election in Tucumán. The reform proposal was presented in June, including the introduction of electronic voting nationwide. Macri called it an “important step forward for our democracy.”
According to the proposed new system, citizens will be able to cast their vote in four easy steps:
Magic Software Argentina (MSA) is the company that could be implementing the electronic vote if it is eventually sanctioned into law. The company’s official website claims that it is the most “trustworthy and transparent integral system of the vote using technology… [and it had] strengthened and sped up the traditional suffrage system, maintaining unaltered its greatest virtues.” MSA says the system is secret, secure, transparent and equal.
A promotional video for the new electronic voting system used in the Buenos Aires mayoral election in 2015.
In an interview with La Nación Sergio Angelini, the CEO of MSA, said that it was the only system which exists in the world in which it permits the user to verify what they have voted for – in other words check that what is printed on the voting slip is what has been registered electronically. “This is an important difference to the concept of electronic urns, which exist in other countries and may be the origin of where the name ‘electronic vote’ came from.”
Germany began trialling electronic voting in 1998 and it was increasingly used until a legal claim in 2005 led to the process being abandoned a few years later. The underlying judgement was that the use of the electronic machines did not allow the vote to be carried out in a transparent way and the that special precautions were necessary to prevent the wide-reaching effect of possible errors or deliberate electoral fraud to safeguard the principle of the public nature of elections. However, the outcome did not rule out the use of voting machines, as long as the machines meet the transparency requirements and that the votes are recorded in another way besides electronic storage.
“Nowadays we talk about Argentina as a third generation of technology because it has this. You will have heard of a lot about the famous ‘German failure’ which we have had in mind as it tells us that the user needs to be certain that their voting process and their vote is going to be considered,” said Angelini. “This technology has transcended the hard criticisms which the technology has in electoral matters.”
Despite these assurances from the company in charge of creating the BUE system, other civil rights groups and technological experts have warned of the dangers of introducing the electronic vote.
Beatriz Busaniche, the President of Fundación Vía Libre, is completely against the proposed changes, telling The Indy that “this technology is not appropriate for any democracy.” Busaniche highlights that the Argentine constitution establishes the principles which should be respected in an electoral system in a democracy. These are: the secrecy of the ballot, the integrity of the vote and the possibility of all citizens to audit the election and participate with full knowledge and understanding of the process.
Voting must be accessible, equal, secure, transparent, accountable, secret, sustainable, ready and cost effective. The ballot must remain secret to prevent anyone from influencing the vote of a citizen, the votes should be counted under public scrutiny and any materials or procedures involved in the process should be “open to public inspection and review prior to and after any election.” Votes must be accurately recorded and counted, and all counting methods and results should be available for public review. “There does not exist any system of electronic voting in the world which allows us to watch out and look after these principles in an appropriate way,” she adds.
Furthermore, there is controversy surrounding the electronic chip in the ballot which is used to store the citizen’s vote in the BUE system. Before the 2015 Buenos Aires mayoral elections, Alfredo Ortega, a specialist in cyber security, managed to hack the contents of an electronic ballot and showed it was possible to vote multiple times for the same candidate or multiple candidates at once with one ballot.
Busaniche agrees that this makes vulnerable the principles of integrity of the vote. “We also found out that with a mobile phone which most people have nowadays, available on the Argentine market, they could violate the secrecy of the ballot” she said, since with a mobile phone you could tell who a citizen voted for.
Despite Angelini’s claims that MSA’s technology “does not provide for any way for external intrusion”, a programmer named Joaquín Sorianello hacked the electronic voting system to show its vulnerabilities. In an interview with La Nación he said he found manuals of the machines on the internet which he says is like “leaving all the keys of the security system out on the internet.” His house was raided in June 2015 and he was investigated by the Computer Crime section of the Metropolitan Police, even though Sorianello says he only wanted to expose the faults in the system to MSA and the public. The case against him was officially dropped in August 2016 and he said on twitter “I did the MSA a favour.”
In October, a number of Argentine universities released a joint statement titled “We say no to the electronic vote.” One of the experts involved was Sebastián Uchitel, Director of the UBA/CONICET institute of Investigation of Computer Science.
He believes that the electronic system does not guarantee vote secrecy or the integrity of the result. “It is not clear which serious problems it is trying to solve compared to the system we already have,” he tells The Indy, adding that the problems with the current procedure can be solved with another type of system.
For example, Uchitel claims that the issue of ballots being stolen can be solved with a “single ballot where all the candidates are on the same slip.” Even serious cases of ballot boxes being burned would not be address by an electronic system that still includes an urn for paper votes. The bottom line, according to Uchitel, is that the state has to guarantee the security of the elections, and that has nothing to do with them being electronic or not.
Uchitel agrees that technology can be useful to improve efficiency of results gathering – including a system of scanners to quickly count votes, with an obligatory recount of a significant sample of the paper urns – but says “it is fundamental that it is out of the dark room and that the vote itself is manual.”
“Many people do not realise our inability to produce information systems that are invulnerable” says Uchitel, who formed part of a group of IT experts that earlier this month gave a live demonstration in Senate of how the system could be adulterated. Uchitel says many of the vulnerabilities can be exploited to violate an election “they [the general public and politicians] have an arbitrary vision of what we can do: if we put in enough determination we can construct a secure system. It’s a little bit like the story of the Titanic.”
Moreover, Uchitel says that the faults in the current system are considered to be “local”; irregularities can occur at one polling station but it is extremely difficult to co-ordinate fraud across the country. On the other hand, Uchitel says “a hack of the software will be replicated in all the urns of the country; you need one intelligent person to be able to access all the urns.”
The problem even stretches to logistical problems. In 2015, the Macri campaign was preoccupied with not having enough observers for each polling station as his party lacks the grass roots political structures of the now opposition Peronists. But Uchitel notes that observers are still needed to make sure no one changes the computer or software “the observers are needed independently of the system which we have, and the electronic system is worse since you need to have observers who are even more trained.”
The government has criticised the senators that blocked the proposal last week, with secretary for political and institutional affairs in the Interior Ministry Adrián Pérez saying: “This is a law seeking transparency, but many feudal governors took it as a law against their territorial power.”
Leandro Querido at Transparencia Electoral also claims that the “attack” on the bill now is coming from a few senators, most of who are in the opposition and from provinces where political rights are permanently violated. “They are opposed to that reform as they know perfectly well that with the electronic ballot they are going to lose power.” He also pointed out that there are problems with all systems of voting if they are not properly controlled.
Though the electronic vote will not be implemented next year, President Macri remains defiant, telling local newspapers that “electoral reform is non-negotiable… we are heading towards an electoral system that will end cheating and vote stealing.” The president also hinted that a single ballot system could be debated as an intermediate option for the 2017 mid-terms.
This single ballot method – already used in some provinces – has the support of Pablo Secchi from Poder Ciudadano, the Argentine version of Transparency International, who said that the electronic vote has being pulled back in a big part of the world and doesn’t provide the necessary guarantees or agreement between experts to “bring about a change of this significance.” For him, the government’s insistence on pushing for an electronic voting system “seems more like a motivation of appearing modern than effectively having transparency in the system.”
Secchi notes that one of the arguments against the single ballot system is that there are too many political parties and candidates to represent them on one single ballot (in Catamarca province last year the single ballots were over a metre long). However, he counters that it “could be replaced by a series of ballots according to the candidates that are local, district or national.”
Most agree on the need for electoral reform in Argentina and the governors who rejected the electronic vote for 2017 declared that “the block will continue analysing tools which make the electoral system better, guaranteeing the full reliability of results and facilitating political competence of all the democratic forces which participate in Argentine politics.”
What remains to be seen is what form the electoral reform will take, and whether it will implemented by the time Macri may be running for re-election in 2019.
*The text has been amended. The original version stated that electronic voting was in use in Norway, whereas in reality it was abandoned in 2014.