Trust, ballots and technology | By Dr Basit Shahzad

Trust, ballots and technology

VOTE is an instrument to determine the will of the  people quantitatively.
For this purpose, paper-based  (physical) voting has been in practice since decades and its associated challenges and characteristics are well known.
The paper-based voting system has gained maturity by either eliminating/or at least minimizing the challenges associated with it.
Now, since technology has already become an integral part of our life and is widely being used for facilitation, ease, trustworthiness, reliability, transparency and fairness, it has now become a pertinent question in Pakistan that whether the electronic voting should be adopted or not?
Before discussing further about this question, however, it is important to differentiate between electronic voting (e-voting) and Internet voting (i-voting) which are significantly different, though sometimes they are erroneously used interchangeably.
Internet voting primarily is a type of voting where the users can respond/vote by using Internet to vote irrespective of their geographical location.
Electronic voting in contrast provides a localized and indigenous voting platform where the voters reside geographically inside the country where the elections are being held.
The voters use the local platforms and frameworks (e.g. electronic voting machines or EVMs) that are provided by the Election Commission of that specific country.
The establishment of the electronic voting infrastructure in the country requires a gradual development and deployment that passes through every possible type of testing. Since the stake of the stakeholders are very high, the run-time errors and failures can be catastrophic.
Though some countries like Estonia are using the e-voting systems yet there are significant reasons that number of developed countries use paper-based voting.
Countries like Austria, Irelands, Netherlands and Germany are among the countries who adopted the e/i voting at some level experimentally and later on abandoned it due to problems with security, transparency, paper trails of the votes, re-verification of the votes and dispute resolution in case of a conflict or appeal.
Likewise, alleged cyber intervention in recent elections in the United States, and experimental intervention of the cyber hackers in Indian election are already known and widely discussed.
In countries like Pakistan, questions have kept on arising about the fairness of the elections every time they are held.
It is also important to mention that our literacy rate is low, there is a larger digital divide in the country, there is lack of trust on the developed EVMs, the stakeholders have raised their concern about the usage of technology in far flung areas and the stakeholders have questioned the intentions of the government about the deployment of the EVMs.
In such circumstances, where a significantly large number of voters are unaware of the use of voting machines, electronic voting may not be an instant solution.
Though the electronic voting may bring a revolutionary change in the voting process, yet the adaptation should be gradually incremental.
In the first instance, the EVMs may be used in school/college union election, then in local bodies election, later in the by-elections and lastly in the national elections.
The system must attain a gradual trust of the stakeholders before it can be deployed to form the national government.
The exercise may take 5-10 years and should not be hassled to break the trust cycle. Trust on technology, can’t be gained through shortcuts.
It is also important that recently developed EVMs are widely tested from the perspective of the hardware and software being used. The equipment and the algorithm have to be beyond any iota of doubts.
The Election Commission or the development team of the EVMs may request a public/open scientific testing of the machines and the algorithm used to program the machines.  In order to ensure the transparency of electronic voting the human intervention is to be reduced.
In the recently developed systems, it has to be seen that if these systems are free from errors, beyond the control of the human intervention, dependable, secure, flawless and have been developed with good intention.
All these parameters need to be strongly positive before the gradual deployment of the system can be thought of.
In recent times Blockchain has emerged as a secure, dependable, flawless and automated technology to ensure transparency in many areas of digital governance, including electronic voting.
The author has developed a Blockchain based e-voting framework that uses BJPC (Basit & Jon’s Proof of Completeness) to implement transparent blockchain-based electronic voting platform in the country. It is evident that the digital governance will bring prosperity to the nation.
There will be reduced losses and eliminated corruption in the country. If there were to be one factor transforming the whole nation that will be digital governance.
The gradual deployment of extensively tested systems will help in bringing social transformation in the country.
Once the society is on the way of transformation, it will become more equal for haves and have-nots.
—The writer is contributing columnist, based in Islamabad.
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