No more manual counting: is Malta justified in joining the voting future?

When other countries have had their electronic voting systems fail, facing threats of a mass hack or even backtracking and going back to traditional paper voting, should Malta be thinking twice about its new counting system?

The sound of democracy... vote monitors bang on the Perspex wall as votes are counted
The sound of democracy... vote monitors bang on the Perspex wall as votes are counted

Maltese elections are unique in the way hundreds of party activists and canvassers congregate inside the national counting hall to monitor the live count of votes, collecting tallies of the data as it is read out to calculate samples, and hit the Perspex separator wall hard when a vote is incorrectly counted.

The process, which usually takes over three days to fully complete, usually delivers a first-count vote tally within 12 hours, but sampling of votes delivers a clear picture of who the winner is within the first hour of sorting.

In November of last year, the vote counting hall in Naxxar was transformed to include a fully-functioning electronic system from Idox, a Scottish software company. Their technology will be used for the European Parliament and local council elections in May this year, less than two months from now.

E-counting will be used in a bid to speed up the process and to minimise human error. Voting will still be a manual endeavour via a ballot paper.

But the Nationalist Party has said that it has no faith in the electronic vote counting set-up after its officials noticed serious shortcomings during test runs of the new system. After a second run of tests, PN MP Beppe Fenech Adami said in parliament that the vote-counting machines still had an error rate of 20%, an alarming figure especially in local council elections where winners are sometimes decided by a handful of votes.

During the first test run, the system had rejected 40% of the votes for being “dubious” – that is, delivering an incorrect voting preference or ballot sheet – with the scanner unable to identify certain markings on the ballot papers.

The Electoral Commission has declared it is satisfied that the system will guarantee an accurate result, and that this will be achieved in a short amount of time. But the commission also announced that further tests would be carried out in the presence of both political parties.

Labour’s delegate to the Electoral Commission, Louis Gatt, told MaltaToday that besides the e-counting system, there would be 26 adjudicators present while votes are being counted – one from each party and two from each district. “When the Nationalist Party said it did not trust the process, it’s only because of a test that Idox carried out without informing either party,” he said.

Since the scanned images usually produce a lot of ‘noise’, meaning a foggy rendering due to the movement of the ballot paper in the machine, Idox had used a kind of tape at the top and bottom of each ballot paper, Gatt explained.

This is to reduce the movement of the ballot paper as it went through the electronic device.

“To the Nationalist Party, this meant that certain details could be masked, that the ballot papers could be tampered with,” he said, adding that this issue was also addressed when it was decided that each ballot paper, during the scanning process, would be issued with a unique number.

“This gives traceability to the whole process. It would be easy to compare the scanned images with the physical ballot papers, not to mention the fact that the images will also be displayed on many screens in the counting hall for the counting hall agents to scrutinise,” Gatt said.

While the system will deliver faster counting results, it does nothing to change the way we vote on the day – such as delivering precise data on how people are voting. But Partit Demokratiku expressed its concerns on possible clientelism and abuse since political parties are allowed to retain scanned ballot sheets for up to three months after an election. The PD claimed that voters who are willing to offer up their vote for a favour may be identified from the pattern of their voting preferences on the ballot sheet, making themselves recognisable without having to illegally take a photo of the ballot sheet in the voting booth.

But what was the experience of other countries with regard to the electronic voting system? Is there something we can learn?

Brazil: a largely fool proof system

Brazil was the first country to adopt an electronic voting system back in 1996 and to make voting fully electronic in 2000. In 2010 – the presidential election, which involved more than 135 million voters – the result was announced 75 minutes after the end of voting.

This was done through half a million machines the size of desktop printers.

According to the pollster Gallup, however, only 14% of Brazilians see elections as honest.

Gerardo de Icaza, Director of the Department of Electoral Cooperation said that electronic voting has “not produced a single solid case” of tampering.

However, the Superior Electoral Court in Brazil invited hackers to test the system and said that while it’s quite impossible for a politician to commit large-scale fraud since the machines are not connected to the internet, someone with access to the software can easily manipulate results without being detected since Brazil lacks a “voter-verified paper audit trail.”

Felipe Seligman, a reporter on the judiciary, said that electronic voting made Brazil’s elections more reliable, not less.

Estonia: voting from home

Estonia was described as a pioneer of electronic voting by Forbes and others.

It has the cheapest form of voting in the world with just €2.32 per electronic vote.

Estonians use their smart identity card to log into their own computers and vote online from home or from abroad while travelling.

The system allows them to keep changing their vote up until election day. This eliminates some concerns over vote buying and coercion.

For those who don’t wish to use this digital form of voting, traditional paper voting is still fully available.

While a number of internet experts said that the system could be easily compromised by hackers back in May 2014, Estonia has implemented cryptographic measures since then and the Estonian Information System Authority described the experts’ analysis as a political attack rather than a technical one.

India: current fears of mass hack

These past few weeks, foreign papers were reporting on fears of a mass cyber attack on the electronic voting system in India.

Being the size of a continent and with a population of around 1.3 billion, one of 1.6 million voting machines around the country is bound to malfunction, especially since these are battery-operated to cater for areas missing electricity.

Back in 2014 an Indian cyber expert seeking political asylum in the US claimed that the 2014 general election was rigged through the electronic voting system.

Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar, a state in eastern India, said that the technology strengthened people’s right to vote and with the recently introduced verifiable paper audit trails, everyone’s minds should be put at rest.

When a vote is cast, a paper slip is printed containing the serial number, name and symbol of the candidate and remains exposed through a transparent window for seven seconds. After this, this slip automatically gets cut and falls into a sealed drop box.

Authorities have decided to tally these slips and compare them with the electronic result but authorities said that this could be expensive and time-consuming.

Netherlands: a return to paper

In 2006, the Netherlands decided to re-evaluate the use of voting technology when it came under fire.

The Dutch Minister of the Interior at the time, Johan Remkes, withdrew the licence of 1,187 voting machines from manufacturer Sdu NV because the General Intelligence and Security Service proved that one could eavesdrop on voting from up to 40 metres using Van Eck phreaking.

This is a special equipment that is used to pick up side-band electromagnetic emissions from electronic devices.

The machines used were a direct-recording machine, displaying a digital ballot that can be activated via a touchscreen.

A group of computer experts called ‘We do Not Trust Voting Computers’ pressured parliament to establish two independent commissions to consider the past and future of electronic voting.  The Election Process Advisory Commission said that the equipment was not sufficiently transparent and verifiable and that voting by paper ballot would be the most appropriate method. Electronic voting was discontinued in 2007 and has not been reintroduced.

Scotland: a precursor of the Maltese model

The Scottish government paid £6.5 million to Canadian IT consulting company CGI to re-introduce e-counting in 2015. E-counting was first implemented by Scotland back in 2007 but this had resulted in a fiasco with more than 140,000 ballot papers rejected by e-counting technology during the counting process.

Scotland decided to give it another go via CGI and its Glasgow-based partner Idox, the same Idox that the Maltese government paid for its voting technology. In 2017, Scottish local government elections reported no problems whatsoever with the e-counting technology and Idox even offered e-counting training.

The results of the local council elections were delivered just hours after the end of voting. It’s important to note that all the countries mentioned above, bar Scotland, have adopted a fully-electronic voting system while Malta will only use its technology during the counting process.