On voting and technology

Coming from India, the world’s largest democracy, and having lived in the UK and US, both strong democracies of their own, I have always been interested in the subject of voting, and with the advent of technology, specifically e-voting and how that can change voting behaviour. I’m currently reading Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, and one of the (many) interesting quotes in it is this:

…(the) cyclotron of social betterment is propelled by technology. Society evolves in incremental doses; each rise in social organization throughout history was driven by an insertion of a new technology.

So how come then, electronic voting machines never really took off here in the Western world even though they are used in what many people think is a less-developed country, India?

A long time ago, I tweeted something to this effect and was directed to two useful resources: this article in Wikipedia that clued me in, amongst other things, to the fact that Brazil was the first country in the world to ‘conduct fully electronic elections’, and this University of Birmingham research on the practice and theory of electronic voting by Mark Ryan.

There is a lot of research to support the fact that electronic voting isn’t safe and so on, though one of the most interesting comments (via e-mail) was by Samanth Subramanian, a friend I discussed this with a while ago (and whose words I’m quoting with permission):

There’s something surprising about this issue that one of my professors once told me. In the so-called Third World, public sentiment — by which we particularly mean the sentiment of the lower middle classes and the vast numbers of poor — is WITH electronics. Somehow (and my professor cited some surveys that had been done about this) these people tend to feel their vote is safer and less likely to be manipulated if it is cast electronically.

In the First World, on the other hand, public sentiment is apparently WITH paper; again, with paper, people in countries like the UK seem to feel that their vote is safer that way.

This is a weird inversion, very counter-intuitive. But that might be one reason why a country like the UK or the US does not switch to all-electronic voting — simply because, in a survey of its voters, a majority would not want it.

Anyhow, the reason I suddenly pulled all this together into this post is because I’ve noticed a couple of interesting events over the last few months: one, this article about Hari Prasad, a winner of this year’s Electronic Foundation Pioneer Awards, who was arrested (and later freed) in August for his research on the vulnerability in Indian voting machines, based on confidentially getting access to one.

And two, this TED talk by David Bismarck on e-voting without fraud, which I think is a big step forward:

I think technology will find a way to solve this issue to everyone’s satisfaction somehow. Bismarck’s research may well be some part of the answer.

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