Nepali Times Asian Paints
Are we ready for e-voting?



In a representative democracy, when the fairness of elections isn't guaranteed, the legitimacy of the system suffers. It makes it possible for election results to be used by demagogues to hijack democracy itself. It is not enough to have international election observers. No election in Nepal after 1991 has been wholly free and fair. The incumbents harassed the opposition, polling booths were captured and constituencies were jerrymandered to improve the governing party's chances of re-election.

The party in power used state security, hired local goons and spent lavishly, so that political aspirants without such resources didn't have a chance. This is what bred extremism and pushed the electorate towards the radical left. An unfair election can therefore undermine democracy.

Nepal's Election Commission is introducing electronic voting nationwide in several elections in the coming years. But e-voting is not a panacea, and just because we go digital doesn't mean there won't be hankiepankie. Technology is not always benign, in fact it can open up avenues for massive fraud, money laundering, terrorism and dictatorial repression.

The fact that a majority of people do not understand how information technology works gives immense power to the few who do. The mainstay of electronic elections are hardware and software. Sure, it makes voting easy and convenient, accurate and reliable results can be announced almost instantaneously, but what if the underlying software running the machine has been designed to cheat?

What if the circuitry has been redrawn to rig results? Who is checking if there are negotiations between political players and vendors to get 'backdoor entry' access to the electronic system? In case of disputed results or technological errors, do we have laws in place and the legal experience to handle them? Do we have the capacity for auditing, validation, encryption and data protection? When our government websites are so easily hacked and defaced, it is cause for worry.

There have been many cases of error, manipulation and fraud with e-voting, and not all are confined to developing countries. Big changes in electoral processes should accompany similar adaptations in our legal and administrative systems. When cheating is masterminded by the political hierarchy, that is where we need to clean things up. Technology by itself will not ensure honest elections. Any purchase of computers and software for elections should be scrutinised and the technology audited. Standardisation agencies should be well trained to deal with such systems, and until then, we should verify the systems through international agencies. The bugs within the voting hardware and software should be made public. There are alternative voting technologies that use free open-source systems that are maintained by the community, are hard to rig and have publicly listed index of weaknesses.

During the 2008 CA elections, the irregularities beat past records. Electronic elections alone will not make future polls in Nepal free and fair. There has to be a political commitment to play fair, and by the rules.

Bibek Paudel is a student of information technology and society, and writes about digital liberties.

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(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)