The case for e-voting in a multi-channel system (PART 1)

On-site electronic ballots and internet voting can increase voter turnout, reduce operating costs, promote inclusiveness, and potentially improve the level of trust and accuracy in ballot counting, but...

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Published in Astro Awani, image by Astro Awani.

Malaysia needs to upgrade to a multi-channel voting system comprising on-site electronic ballots and internet voting.

Malaysia’s current election ecosystem is associated with high costs (RM1.1 to 2 billion depending on the mode), the difficulty for citizens abroad, students, people in rural areas and the disenfranchised to participate, a short time frame for postal ballots and a rigid/inflexible time and processes during election day.

Upgrading to electronic ballots and internet voting would require an upfront capital investment but in the long run, it would cut costs, improve efficiency, decrease human intervention and errors, and overall promote higher electoral participation and trust in the system.

The case for paper ballots is a strong one—the need for a physical paper trail for audit and higher trust perception when people see their physical ballots get cast into a box. But the availability of electronic tabulation technologies allows us to combine the marking of paper ballots that can be counted electronically.

Many technologies exist such as a punch card system and marksense (a voting system by marking paper ballots; think of the exam papers in school where we fill in the circles) which can be counted using electronic optical means.

Another evolution of this technology is the direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines. Think of it as an automated teller machine (ATM) for casting digital ballots. It can automatically tabulate the ballots and communicate with a centralised depository, removing the need for human handling and errors in hand counting. This can alleviate trust deficit issues regarding the handling by authorities.

A study on the use of DRE voting machines in Brazil indicated a reduction in ballot handling and counting errors, and empowerment among the less educated segments of Brazil’s population. Other countries, such as India and the United States, have reportedly seen large-scale use of DRE voting machines.

To meet the need for physical evidence or paper trail—as emphasised by voting experts—there are systems which provide a physical receipt of the ballot to the voter. In the event of any disputes, the receipts can be used for recounting and audit purposes.

Even though paper ballot casting and counting have gone digital, one still needs to go to these physical sites or polling stations.

This is where internet voting can play a crucial role.

Unlike electronic voting machines, internet voting means casting ballots over the internet via capable devices such as smartphones or personal computers. As a result, there is no need to be physically present at a voting station.

For some, it takes considerable time, money, and transport availability to vote. Youth with lower disposable income, students on university campuses, the poor and those living in rural areas are affected the most. For example, there could be half a million working Sabahans and Sarawakians in the peninsula.

There are also roughly 1.5 to 1.8 million Malaysian nationals abroad that may find postal voting ineffective due to the combination of issues such as the cumbersome process of dealing with two separate forms, a short time frame to receive and submit the postal votes, and the lack of independent Malaysian observers.

For the elderly and the disabled, even nearby locations can be hard to access.

Additionally, the Sabah state elections during the pandemic which resulted in super spreader events, and now with the risk of floods during the monsoon season, we are reminded of potential crises, be it environmental or health in nature, that can inhibit the democratic process.

Thus, internet voting remains a valuable channel not only in terms of cost reduction and improved efficiency but expanding inclusivity and electoral participation.

Estonia is widely cited as an exemplary country in implementing internet voting at all levels (local, national, and even at the European Union level). That said, we must understand a few things that make this possible for Estonia: they started early (in 2005), have a small population of roughly 1.3 million people, a relatively uniform and closely-knit society, high internet penetration where it is said that 99% of their government services are online, a tech-savvy population with high access to electronic devices, and sufficient experts in computer and information technology working closely with government bodies.

What are the benefits of internet voting?

In general, internet voting can increase voter turnout, reduce operating costs, provide better freedom and a longer time window for voters, promote inclusiveness, increase voter engagement, and potentially improve the level of trust and accuracy in ballot counting.

However, the evidence for voter turnout is more debatable and more of a mixed bag, compared to long-term cost reductions, which is a much more agreeable benefit of internet voting.

For Estonia, the share of online ballots increased significantly, which may not be the case for total voter turnout which appears to only increase marginally.

It has been reported that Estonia’s 2021 local elections saw a 47% share of online voters. This is a significant increase compared to the 2017 local elections which was already at an impressive 32%, which itself is a staggering jump since they started in 2005 when it was only 2%.

However, turnout rates have been less significant, roughly in the low single-digit improvement percentages. For example, one source mentioned increased turnout rates of 5% and 1.5% for national and local elections, respectively, while another source mentioned a 2% increase in voter turnout between 2007 and 2015.

As for cost savings, internet voting appears to be the most cost-effective and cheapest (in terms of cost per voter) voting channel due to the number of people choosing to use it and its lower costs, according to Estonian researchers.

The 2018 study conducted by Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia, indicates that an electronic ballot submitted via the internet can cost the country 7-8 times less than a vote cast in advance voting at a polling centre, in terms of cost per voter.

Dr Robert Krimmer, the e-governance professor at Tallinn University of Technology and one of the authors in the 2018 study, reportedly said that internet voting is half as expensive as paper-based voting methods.

Thus, for Estonia, cost saving and efficiency are bigger and clearer benefits than turnout.

Addressing the reasons for this observation is highly relevant for Malaysia to successfully implement internet voting.

For Malaysia, our significantly larger population could mean a relatively bigger share of elderlies, youths, students, and citizens abroad. Therefore, the turnout benefit for Malaysia could be much better than what was observed in Estonia.

The important lesson here is that most people who don’t care, will still not care even if accessibility has been improved with new technologies. The participatory equation is that of accessibility, trust in the authorities, education level and socio-economic standing.

The Johor state election earlier this year reportedly saw only 55% of eligible voters casting their ballots. Such a low turnout level cannot be solely explained by citizens who are abroad or people out of state. The rest didn’t participate, probably because they didn’t care enough or thought their votes wouldn’t matter as the “system is rigged”.

Hence, significant needle-movers are improved outcomes in education, income levels, and trust in the government systems, which ultimately means key structural and institutional reforms. But, of course, the most obvious need in this particular case is to make Malaysia’s Election Commission truly independent and operate transparently.

Most importantly, learning from Estonia’s experience, they have the political will to do so, pushing for decades against many challenges and criticisms to become the leader in internet voting.

Discussion on potential security issues, timeframe, requirements, and recommendations shall be covered in Part 2.

Ameen Kamal is the Head of Science & Technology at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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