Election Management in a Digitalized Era

By Gopal Krishna Siwakoti, PhD*

Background

In the contemporary world, information and Communication Technology (ICT) is increasingly becoming an important tool in the electioneering process. Election Management Bodies (EMBs) in most of the countries are compelled to leverage ICTs in the process of delivering democratic elections. The introduction of ICT into the electoral process is gaining a lot of interests among the voters and other stakeholders as well across the globe.

Protection of data and privacy are the issues of critical concern in the biometric voter registration and subsequent ICT protocol in the election regime. This is so especially when rapid global technological advancement and social media networks have to some extents obliterated the notion of indigenousness and the scope of the conventional national sovereignty. There are several international agreements and recommendations determining requirements of protection of personal data in terms of legislation and practice of authorities and institutions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)-1948 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)-1966 have ensured the right to privacy of the citizens in all spheres and categorically the ‘secrecy of ballot’ is the key provision enshrined in both the instruments. Provision of the right to privacy is also the part of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Some of the key areas of ICT incursion include:

  • General Administration of the EMB’s activities;
  • Boundaries Delimitation/Administration;
  • Voter Registration and Update;
  • Voter Verification and Authentication;
  • Electronic Voting;
  • Vote Tallying and Transmission
  • Dissemination of Elections Results; and
  • Election Observation and Monitoring

Laws Governing Data Protection

While using ICT in elections, it is vital to determine which type of personal data is necessary to register to vote and how the data will be managed to provide the necessary protection to maintain confidentiality. Establishment of data protection commissions with the authority to safeguard against potential abuse of personal data is also essential together with the instituting a data protection register where all registers and databases containing personal data must be registered. Such registers are to be maintained by an authorized data protection commission. And most importantly, the determination of the ways of enforcing citizens’ rights under the data protection legal framework is the key to safeguard the sanctity of the election by engendering public confidence in the entire process.

Fundamentals of ICT and Citizens’ Rights

Developing and maintaining an accurate voter register and producing reliable voter lists can be extremely complex. The accuracy and completeness of the voter register is of critical importance, as non-registration prevents citizens from enjoying their right to vote and therefore inhibits universality of suffrage.

Personal data of voter registers and voter lists can be used only for purposes of elections and – within this framework – for the purposes provided for by law. Sensitive data such as persons deprived of the right to vote and personal identification codes of voters shall not be publicized. In other words, the voter register does not need to include personal data other than that which is required to identify a voter and establish eligibility. Any requirement for additional information, such as ethnicity in certain societies may create scope for discrimination.

Similarly, only officials who maintain civil registers and voter registers may access this data for completion of tasks related to the population register and the voter register. Citizens have the right to access their data and be informed about when, where, and which agencies and for what purpose their data is being used. Citizens also have the right to initiate legal remedy procedures in the case of any inaccuracy, deficiency, or misuse of their data. Officials and institutions such as data protection commissioners, data protection committees, or human rights commissioners have the responsibility to safeguard information contained in the population register and the voter register; they have the responsibility to initiate action if they believe any unlawful use of data is occurring. Similarly, authorities and other concerned bodies processing the data of voter registers and voter lists should take necessary safety and security measures to prevent abuse or damage of the data.

Technology and National Ownership

Elections are a sovereign process. Each country are independent to determine their electoral model and the technicalities of the electoral cycle. To the degree permitted, the security of an election should fall within the ownership and control of a national authority to reflect sovereignty and avoid allegations of international interference. However, in some circumstances such as, post-conflict or transitional elections, international technical expertise may be needed to support the EMBs in order to attain the credibility of elections with a swift, reliable and transparent process.

When procuring ICT systems, the choice of the technology to use depends largely on the appropriateness of the technology in respect to specific environments, infrastructure development, social and political factors and cost of implementation and sustainability. General acceptance of the ICT in the electoral process must begin at the inception stage within the EMB’s (user “buy-In”) and early involvement and participation of the stakeholders. It is perceived that public acceptance of the use of ICT relates closely to the degree of public confidence in the implementing EMB. This is true to some extent; however, on the contrary, the ICT usage can greatly improve the public image of the EMBs. Some of the IT innovations are actually pushed by the opposition, the legislators, donors, international community or a combination, thereof, given the technological advancements. In this stance, EMBs are ill prepared for the implementation of such innovations in the usually short timeframes, and therefore the risks are high. Thus, EMBs should proactively predicate their technological need and plan accordingly as opposed to shying away.

Core Components of ICT

The following elements can be considered as the key elements in the use of ICT in elections:

  • Inclusiveness of the pubic and all stakeholders in the process of choosing and using the system and ownership of the electoral process;
  • Appropriateness in terms of ability for the new technology to address the very problems for which it is being acquired;
  • Transparency of the decision making process in regards to the technology acquisition and transparency of the technology (e.g. voter registration, tallying and transmission of results, and e-voting) to promote public trust in the integrity of the system;
  • Accountability towards understanding the impact of the technology on the integrity of the electoral process by average voter;
  • Accuracy and speed in vote counting, transmission and broadcasting (ICT tools should not been seen delaying the election process.);
  • Ensuring security and auditability of the election system as a whole to secure trust among the voter and the public at large; and
  • Sustainability and cost effectiveness to facilitate EMBs to enable them to effectively implement the systems in the long run and with minimum reliance on external technical support from vendors, external financial support, etc.

Additionally, the public should have full confidence in the accuracy of the voter register created through the use of ICT. For this, the authorities should ensure that the preliminary and final voter registers are published, and that copies are available for public inspection to allow checks for inaccuracies and omissions. Political parties, in particular, should have an opportunity to access the full voter register and where there are strong allegations or evidence of exclusion, inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the voter register, the authorities should take constructive and transparent steps to improve its quality, including opportunities for claims and objections.

Conclusion

The biggest challenge in the use of ICT in elections is how to ensure a sustainable, appropriate, cost-effective and transparent use of technology, particularly in post-conflict elections and in fragile and emerging democracies. As a general rule, the level of technological upgrades suitable for a given partner country should always be directly related not only to its capacity, but also to the trust and independence enjoyed by its EMB.  Such elements are decisive to the acceptance of the use of ICT by the public and, as a consequence, influence the level of trust in the electoral process.

In general, technologies should be implemented in a timely fashion before an election. They should be legally supported, operationally appropriate, cost-effective and sustainable. The core essence of the use of ICT in elections is that it must adhere to transparency and the entire process needs to be designed to add to integrity and legitimacy of the election.  On the other hand, technology should not be driven by vendor or donor interests to suppress other more important needs.  Also, the concerned agencies should refrain from introducing ICT too close to the Election Day.

It is but natural for general public to cast suspicion on the hi-tech strange machines used in the elections.  Public confidence on ICT largely depends on the existing political atmosphere of a given country together with the perceived independence of the EMB and other state machineries.  ICT is an enabling tool and therefore serves to enhance the existing processes for efficiency and speedy delivery of elections. If carefully planned and managed, it can be cost effective and saves money in the long run. EMBs should ensure best practices when acquiring the ICT with a view of ensuring successful implementation and eventual ownership. In that aspect of being an ICT tool, the question of “ownership” by the EMBs and the stakeholders is inevitable.

Finally, ICT itself cannot serve as a foolproof resolution or a magical instrument in the electioneering process. Long-term good governance, meticulous electoral cycle as well as promotion of sustainable and resilient capabilities are equally imperative. A well-designed technical programming towards strengthening both state and social institutions with a specific focus on confidence-building measures would help secure a conducive atmosphere for a free, fair and credible election.

The End  

*-Secretary General, National Election Observation Committee (NEOC)

-Associate, Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL)

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