How electronic voting systems could work in South Africa

As more systems around the world go digital, many have suggested that voting should follow this trend.

Cyril Ramaphosa seemingly agrees, as he recently said “we are going to have a discussion with the IEC about going digital. Many countries have gone digital and we cannot be left behind.”

The IEC already uses certain digital processes to streamline the election process, but this only takes place on the back-end – vote slips are scanned and then added to a central digital database.

In contrast, the actual voting process encountered by South African citizens remains completely manual, as does the vote counting process.

Public perception and data security

Grant Masterson is the senior programme manager of Governance Institutions and Political Processes at the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa.

Masterson said that one of the most important considerations when deciding whether to implement a new, digital electoral system is public perception.

“Any changes to the electoral system need to be consensual and avoid controversy,” said Masterson.

He added that unless there is a compelling reason that shows how a change brings about additional benefits, the implementation is likely to run into resistance.

He said a good example of this can be found in Botswana, where opposition parties criticised the implementation of an electronic voting system. They claimed that such systems were prone to manipulation and hacking.

However, while Masterson acknowledges that electronic voting systems aren’t foolproof, they aren’t necessarily as vulnerable as many believe them to be.

“Any electoral system has got some form of weakness or areas of manipulation. It’s probably over played with digital systems,” he said.

Possible electronic systems

According to Masterson, when Ramaphosa talks about digital change, two of the most likely possibilities are:

  1. Biometric voter registration – where voters register with fingerprints, retinal ID or photo scans. These are then checked when the voter presents themselves at the voting station.
  2. Actual electronic voting – where you actually use a machine to cast your ballot, such as is the case in Namibia.

Additionally, said Masterson, the digital tabulation of results has become increasingly popular.

“EISA is seeing that in recent years, technology election issues are more on the back end than on the front end,” he added.

Where it makes sense

Masterson highlighted that there are two specific scenarios where front-end electronic systems have shown particularly high levels of value and success.

The first is in incredibly large countries, where elections can span extensive periods of time. In these scenarios, electronic voting systems offer an efficient way of letting more people vote in less time.

Masterson said that a great example of this can be found in India, where the technology moves between states and allows for a speedy and continuous electoral process.

The second scenario is in countries who have incredibly large numbers of candidates running for election. In these situations, large ballot papers would otherwise need to be printed, which use more paper and are cumbersome to transport and use.

This was the reason that electronic voting systems were implemented in the DRC – where hundreds of candidates run for election. However, unfortunately, the DRC is also an example of where public perception resulted in a negative reaction to electronic systems.

The perception was so bad that a warehouse burned down because it was housing about 2,000 electronic electoral devices in Kinshasa.

Ultimately, believes Masterson, it is important to balance public perception with the benefits that electronic systems can provide in each scenario.

Now read: South Africa’s general elections – the technology behind the voting

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How electronic voting systems could work in South Africa