South Africa’s first democratic elections took place 25 years ago. Not much has changed in the way we cast our first ballots to the way we cast them in 2019, but digital change has tended to be exponential. It means things change slowly at first then suddenly.
South Africans equate their ability to vote with democracy, and it has always been a vital part of the process but as the majority of South Africans also know, many governments claimed to be democracies while limiting who gets to vote.
For many nations, rather than being actual democracies they are anocracies. It means they have elements of autocratic and democratic rule. South Africa before 1994 was an anocracy.
While the ideals of democracy were applied first in ancient Greece, it was less about moving towards something to be more inclusive rather than moving away from something which was too authoritarian. In that respect, no democracy has managed to be fully inclusive. First, because those in a democracy don’t have a direct influence on state decision-making, but instead elect representatives that then act on their behalf. The Greeks excluded women, slaves and foreigners living in Athens from their elections.
While democracies are intended to be inclusive none provide everyone with a vote. Women for the longest time have not been allowed to vote. The French Revolution is often seen as the founding of modern democracy for its ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality. The iconic image of Liberty leading the people is of a woman, but women did not get to vote in France until 1945 and then had to prove they were literate. It was only in 1965 that all women over 18 were able to vote. Saudi Arabia permitted women to vote in municipal elections for the first time in 2015. Women are still not allowed to vote in Vatican City, but there are fewer than 100 women with permanent residence there.
Women’s suffrage began in earnest in the late 1800s and was first granted in New Zealand. While a significant cause was the effort by female advocates, another influential factor was the male-dominated governments understanding that they would need the support of women in war efforts and began to introduce reform after World War I.
Other excluded groups were racial groups not in a majority. Minorities are typically marginalised by design as democracy favours majority rule. This was supposed to be in the contest of ideas but in many countries, those ideas are associated with ethnic, racial or language groups and so the most significant demographic population often also determine the majority rule.
The other traditionally excluded groups were those who did not own land, were determined to be mentally ill or too young.
Age limit is an interesting question for determining voting rights. Initially, it was 25 in many early democracies. A major protest in the US where citizens were able to be drafted to fight in wars at 18 but only allowed to vote at 21 saw the law revised to make the voting age 18.
Young people tend not to vote which might simply be because for the first 18 years of their lives they can’t and while parenting might embrace a more consensual way of raising children, it is not a democracy.
If it is fair to consider the age you qualify to vote, might there also be a point when you no longer qualify by age?
This issue affects established democracies more than developing ones in that the population breakdown creates an ageing majority and so even if young voters did use their vote it would likely be a minority. The issues facing humanity in the future are for the most part creations or sustained by the previous generations. It is fair to assume that their view of the past will recall it as being better than the present and so seek to try return to or keep policies from the past rather than support the call for new policies to address the damage done, which will affect the next generation more than the previous ones.
So what may be a better way to vote.
Making the current method easier is one way, and there have been incremental improvements for decades.
Elections in South Africa are building on a reputation for being able to manage the logistics, security and accountability of an election and to deliver a process that has upwards of 18 million to take part in an activity in 14 hours and deliver a verified result in no more than seven days.
We have already made the voters roll digital. While you might capture your details at a physical location, it will be entered into a digital system. The law requires it to be done in person, but the ability exists to do the registration digitally. The big step forward comes from Home Affairs that can digitally confirm your identity using personal information or if a biometric scanner is available using your fingerprint too.
Given that more and more mobile phones have that ability it will not be long before hardware allows at least a significant portion of the population to use a digital registration option and once that is in place, we can begin to use digital options for the rest of the process.
The big issue, though, is that it is not good enough to work for some or even most, it needs to work for everyone. Until the digital option is sufficiently widely available, we are creating a new way to marginalise those that lack the access or the knowledge to use the digital system from participating in the electoral process.
The most likely evolution then will be to begin digitising the physical process. Currently, the first step requires your ID to be scanned to determine if you are registered and eligible to vote. That is done via a scanner which prints out your location on the local voting roll. When you move to collect your ballot your name is first crossed off a list. That will be the next process to be digitised as the official will simply scan your ID again and confirm you are the person holding the document which may be done by asking you to scan your fingerprint. That will also allow the voting station to effectively ink your thumb and prevent you from trying to vote again elsewhere.
You will then receive your ballot paper. Power interruption and costs and limited function of mechanical devices suggest we will not use them. Instead, once enough people are comfortable with a touch screen, it will be a digital replica of the physical form allowing you to receive either and for both to look the same when it comes to the counting.
Once your ballot is marked it will be scanned as you insert it into the ballot box. This both speeds up the counting process and still provides for a physical record should the system fail.
Further, fail-safes might see a video feed capture you at the point you receive your ballot and then another when you file it. This will ensure voters get given the ballot papers they need and can satisfy any claims should a station have more votes counted than ballots issued or some other irregularity. It does pose the risk that you could calculate which ballot was yours, which is one of the cornerstones of voting in that it should be a secret.
The reason it needs to be a secret is less a voting issue but a way to mitigate the risk for political intimidation and preventing the potential sale of votes. Once we have a system that allows us to match a vote to a voter, we need to work to keep that information protected from anyone not involved in managing the election.
The scanned ballot is likely to be both a photographic image and a count for the party you selected. Should the ballot be spoilt or unreadable, the scanned version could be reviewed to determine its status.
Once scanned either the running total or the final count would be uploaded to a central location after the polling station had closed. In this scenario, those who can vote online could be shown a digital version of the ballot once they have done the same security checks and in effect will be able to create the same digitally marked ballot as someone in a booth.
While a manual system should allow officials to determine if they have enough ballots, a digital system could automatically send requests for more papers.
Having more access would shorten the voting queues and potentially even reduce the hours needed to allow everyone to vote. It means fewer volunteers and even voting stations may be sufficient to allow everyone to effectively and efficiently make their mark.
The most likely path to its introduction will be in by-elections, and municipal elections where tests can be performed in smaller groups and any weakness can be identified and mitigated.
The digital disrupted future
While the above are incremental improvements, they also enable the opportunity for even more radical improvements and unfortunately significant risk. Users are typically the weakest link in a system such as this and given it requires the most people to participate which is a significant opportunity to affect the outcome. With elections occurring in cycles years apart, funding tends to be ramped up as the election approaches, but an electronic registration and voting system would be potentially vulnerable all the time. Would the tight budgets of most governments be willing or able to spend the resources to effectively only replicate the outcome of previous years but with ever-increasing costs to maintain security.
This assumes the threat is external. The rise in authoritarianism and the possibility of state corruption means the higher risk could come from the government itself.
Which raises the last point. Building a sophisticated system is unlikely to be a competency of the IEC, which means it will need to find a partner to deliver the services. Australia’s Bureau of Statistics offers a clear warning in this regard. Australia’s plan to run their census in 2016 principally online saw a majority do so, but there was significant disruption to the system thanks to ineffective planning especially in dealing with attempts to block access to the site. Despite the issues, Australia, like other countries, will continue to expand and refine their process. Another digital first country is Estonia which has invested heavily in moving most of its services online, including voting. It has not solved all the issues but offers a good example both of how to approach the change and to note the very many potential pitfalls that may see it fail.