The Electoral Laws Amendment Bill of 2020 is to be amended so as to give the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) no more than the capacity to pilot an electronic voting system in particular districts, the portfolio committee on home affairs said at a meeting in Parliament earlier this week.

Under the present wording of the Bill, by contrast, the IEC has the power to introduce an electronic voting system for the entire country simply by stipulating ‘a different voting method’ for future elections at all three tiers of government. The IEC’s decision may be made by regulation and without reference to Parliament – and will override all existing legislation to the contrary.

That this wording is now to be amended to allow the IEC to conduct a pilot study only is a tribute to the mass opposition to the Bill that was so quickly mustered. More than 12 000 written submissions were sent in to the committee by the IRR, the Dear South Africa public participation platform, various other organisations – and thousands of individuals who objected to an electronic voting system being foisted on the country without good reason or adequate public consultation.

In response to the objections raised, the committee has now acknowledged that a potential shift to an electronic voting system is a matter of great moment. The issue must thus be properly considered and debated by Parliament before any decision is made. According to both the committee and the IEC (whose representatives were present at the meeting to respond to the public’s concerns), it was never the intent – despite the wording of the Bill – to allow the commission to usurp the role of the legislature.

However, if the IRR had not blown the whistle on the intended change – and if so many thousands of people had not rallied to the cause with the help of Dear South Africa and other organisations – the Bill would have been pushed through the public consultation process so quickly and so quietly that most South Africans would have remained entirely unaware of its existence and importance.

Dangers to democracy

The immediate risk has been averted. But South Africans should have no illusions about the dangers to democracy that an electronic voting system would bring.

In many countries around the world, electronic voting systems – no matter how secure they are held out to be – have proved themselves vulnerable to overt penetrations by actors wanting to discredit elections; to covert penetrations aimed at intimidating voters; and to surreptitious penetrations that can be used to change voting outcomes.

In addition, even where no manipulations have in fact occurred, the known vulnerability of electronic voting systems undermines public confidence in election outcomes and makes their accuracy more difficult to establish or defend.

Most of the current court cases querying the results of the US elections earlier this month deal with mail-in ballots, but there are also concerns about the probity of America’s electronic voting systems. Most commentators in the mainstream media are nevertheless adamant that there is no credible evidence of fraud and that the results as counted in various strongly contested states must now be accepted and officially endorsed.

But since electronic voting systems are notoriously vulnerable to manipulation in various ways, the more appropriate approach would be to keep an open mind and wait to see what evidence President Donald Trump is able to assemble and bring before the courts.

Unprecedented abuse

That some in the US media have instead ‘cut away’ or stopped reporting on what the president or his White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany have to say on the issue is an unprecedented abuse of the proper role of the media. Which is to inform the public as fully as is possible, so people can make up their own minds.

Why are electronic voting systems so much less secure than traditional manual ones? The critical factor is that traditional voting systems are far simpler and far more transparent. They also provide a clear paper trail and can be observed at every stage.

According to analyst Robert Duigan, in a paper entitled An introduction to vulnerabilities in electronic voting: ‘Traditional safeguards for ballot security have the advantage of being legible to the entire public, and violations of protocol are easy enough for anybody to comprehend. Violations are less ambiguous and easier to detect.’

By contrast, he points out, an electronic system is far more complex, which means that ‘the checks and balances required to ensure security are large and complicated, and have many more points of failure too’.

‘Technical expertise’

Attacks require ‘a high level of technical expertise’ but they are also ‘far more difficult to detect’ and can bring about distortions ‘in a far more systematic way’. Attacks can come not only from ‘malicious outsiders’ but also from ‘insiders’ wanting to skew an election result. Moreover, ‘electronic systems are only transparent to a tiny selection of technicians, whose access to voting procedures is controlled by the state’.

Some people believe that blockchain technology will in future make these systems invincible to manipulation, but this too is far from clear. And even if a fool-proof system can initially be devised, vulnerabilities are likely to develop over time.

Says Duigan: ‘Because of the length of the design, development and procurement process, voting machines often have a lifetime of 20-30 years, and it is almost impossible to prepare decades in advance for potential vulnerabilities, which multiply as technology advances.’

In addition, ‘the companies that supply the infrastructure for electronic voting have a material interest in downplaying the risks and vulnerabilities inherent in the equipment they sell’. And a ruling party with an interest in manipulating electoral outcomes has every reason to avoid the best possible system and to opt instead for one that is vulnerable to abuse.

The risks of manipulation are particularly worrying in South Africa, where the African National Congress (ANC) is well aware of how its electoral support is slipping. Last year, it won its 57.5% majority in the National Assembly with the support of only 26.5% of eligible voters. In addition, the latest Ipsos SA opinion survey (which was conducted from July to September 2020) indicates that, if a national election were to be held forthwith, only 50% of the respondents canvassed would vote for the ANC.

That the Bill is now to be amended to give the IEC nothing more than the capacity to pilot an electronic system in certain districts is a major victory. But the danger has been postponed, not eliminated altogether.

Skewed

There remains a great risk that the IEC’s pilot studies will be skewed to the outcome the ANC wants – the introduction of an electronic voting system that is open to manipulation and will help the ruling party maintain its failing grip on power.

Though a major battle still lies ahead, developments around the Bill are encouraging thus far. They also show the vital importance of free speech and an independent civil society.

Without the interventions, in particular, of the IRR and Dear South Africa – and their capacity to get the story out and mobilise support for their concerns – there would have been little to stop the headlong progress of the Bill through Parliament.   

[Picture: Adi Goldstein on Unsplash]

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22 COMMENTS

    • “Never” is a long time Graham. Eventually the electorate will tire of eating “cake”, and the storming of the Bastille would become inevitable. I can’t remember who said the following but I like it – “You can fool some of the people some of the time – but not all of the people all of the time”.

      • The ANC will not be voted out under any method. Last night ACE was interviewed on SABC news about what the ANC is doing about the SABC retrenchments. Ace said, not verbatim, the ANC must use its power to take control of the SABC. He clearly sees the ANC and the Government as one. No separation of powers. No allowing for the board, whom the ANC appointed to be independent. He said the board members who wanted the retrenchments were rogue and did not understand public broadcasting. He said the minister would get them to toe the line or get rid of them.
        When asked about the escape of the Bushiri’s and the incompetent cadre deployees, he washed it away by saying that all deployed cadres were competent – a complete turnaround of those who were deployed as SABC board members !
        He said all of the right things which will ensure continued voter support. The ANC can fool enough of the voters for a long enough time so as to completely trash the country and they will then continue to preside over the trash, as it is done in Zimbabwe.

  1. How will an electronic voting system work in areas where there is so much illiteracy and with it intimidation? Just another tool for the ANC/EFF to manipulate people.

  2. Donald Trump tweeted in 2012 that Obama was getting Romney votes that were switched by the machines…

    Electronic voting is a sure-fire way to cover up fraud by the party in control – the ANC.

  3. Proper use of the blockchain will allow for accurate and fair electronic voting. This is however, somewhere in the future as the technological application, while available, has not yet been confirmed.
    Thank you Daily Friend and IRR for the heads-up!

  4. I can only echo the comments.
    I watched a presentation by Robert Duigan, much food for thought.
    Well done Dr Jefferey, IRR, and Dear South Africa.

  5. Quite incredible the revelations by the independent media about the Dominium (and named others) ekectronic voting systems used in the USA and how they were programmed to “swing” votes to the “favored” candidate.
    Even more incredible the detailed reporting about SCYTL in Spain and the CIA “server farm” in Germany that was used to “swing” votes in 3rd World countries as well as European countries according to a pre-determined algorithm that ensured that the “chosen” candidate wins. Sick!
    Sydney Powell has supplied a lot of this information to the legal teams investigating election fraud in the USA.
    Implicated eLectronic voting systems, their owners and managers will be relegated to history. Some will be tried for treason.
    Verifying votes and counting by hand with observers is the future.
    Robert David Steele’s “Public Intelligence Blog Daily Update” at RobertDavidSteel.com & TheSteeleReport.com has a lot of information on what is happening right now in this regard. So does the Simon Parkes website. Simonparkes. org. Both are clued up an up tp date!

    • Great comment, thanks.
      The argument in favour of electronic voting is usually “efficiency”, but a simple hybrid solution would take care of that – and still provide the opportunity for audits and recounts.
      Have a touch screen that registers your vote electronically and, after on-screen confirmation that the correct choice will be recorded, print the results on a continuous paper roll visible through a window. The voter has the immediate opportunity to raise the alarm if what is printed does not correspond to their choice. Optionally it could also print a copy of the receipt on an external printer – like a cash register receipt – for the voter to keep.
      In this way votes can be tallied in real-time and yet provide an indelible printed record for cases where there are disputes.

  6. “That the Bill is now to be amended to give the IEC nothing more than the capacity to pilot an electronic system in certain districts is a major victory.”
    I disagree that this is reassuring. This proposal should also be vigorously opposed. I see it as the thin edge of the wedge!

  7. As an Information Technology specialist with nearly 40 years of experience in the industry, I can tell you that an electronic voting system, properly designed, will be far less likely to be manipulated by anybody, than any of the current voting systems out there today.

    Electronic Voting machines are a stupid idea, because, as one of the commentators stated, the machine is nothing more than a hardwired calculator which can be interfered with. The other problem is that these machines have to be reprogrammed for each election, at a massive cost in time and money.

    Manual ballot voting is cheaper by comparison, but not by much. However it’s still, by far, the easiest and most affordable way to manipulate election results, especially by the ruling party, since, as the government, they own the printers that produce the ballot papers, they are also in control of the electoral commission, the transportation of ballot papers before and after the election as well as the counting centers and counting officials.

    At any point in this manual process a box of ballots, containing an unknown number of votes for the ruling party, can be exchanged for a box containing a predetermined & pre-prepared number of ballot papers with an exact number of votes in favour of the ruling party. The same “suspect” box can even just be added to the boxes already there.

    At any point during the election day, the electoral commission knows what the voter turn-out is and a 65% turn-out can be “manually” increased to a 70% or 75% turn-out with a few extra ballots added to the pile.

    So, don’t be fooled by people telling you that paper ballot elections are more trustworthy or accurate.

  8. A compromised voter’ roll should be our first concern.

    The IEC was exposed by a court of law, (in Tlokwe) for listing voters without addresses.

    Those ‘ghost’ voters were bussed in to vote in marginal wards … of course in favour of the ruling party!

    To prevent election fraud we should scrutinize the IEC’ voter’ roll.

    After that Tlokwe incident of election fraud, a judge instructed the IEC to provide addresses for every voter on the voter’ roll. The IEC haven’t as yet complied with the judge’ order.

    After many years and spending millions in taxpayer money, the voter’ roll of the IEC is still not in compliance with the judge’s instruction.

    Did the ‘ghost’ voters determine the results of the recent by elections … AGAIN?

  9. Anthea, great article – just one concern that the pilot testing is just a devious way of postponing its introduction by our corrupt government.
    AMO – I have 52 years experience as an IT Specialist (on 5 different platforms) and you are only correct to state that an electronic voting system would be better than a manual system (where the processes of observation and verification of valid voters are monitored correctly and efficiently), will be if the electronic voting system is on a standalone electronic device that has no external network connectivity capability and where the voting system itself has been tested extensively over a period of time and the actual source code of the system has been verified by more than 1 external totally unbiased expert of the language in which the software was written. Having said this, I agree that using the blockchain methodology/principles could be utilised however the number of people in the world that could “certify” the actual code to be tamper-free is possibly 2 to 5 people in the world.
    Last year at the Black Hat Convention in Las Vegas, a demonstration by an attendee black hatter demonstrated to the audience that he could remotely from his cellphone, take over an ATM and play DOOM on the ATM (I think you will be familiar of the stated game) – so much for the 7 layers of security involved in ATM networks (that is what we had at Boland Bank when ATM’s came to being in the RSA).
    In the 1970’s to 1987’s about, most Software developed were on mainframes and the program code were verified by unbiased non-authors of the code as well as tested extensively over a period of time for various types of “finger-troubles” as well as logical simplicity and foolproof correctness.
    However since the advent of Client Server development (especially on the Windows platform, similar to Windows itself) when the “time-to-market” marketing concept became more important than the actual correctness of the software, software were churned out and sold as soon as it seemed “stable” (which meant that the developers were aware of a number of errors (more than 600000 in the case of Windows 8 when it was released and sold).
    In the USA they have already proven, after scrutiny of the Dominion system that the “algorithm” (program itself) was faulty and switched huge batches of votes under certain conditions – this was no human error but rather fraudulent programming by the developers – then in addition it could also be hacked remotely and the data altered (like the DOOM explanation previously mentioned).
    We are now living in an era where the test results of the COVID19 Vaccine that is under development by Moderna is stated as being NEARLY 95% effective whilst more than 98% of the world’s population have not died of the same virus (no disrespect to those that have died are intended) – In the early 1970’s it was statistically stated that the “most dangerous (sic) sport in the world was BOWLS since more people died while playing it than in any other sport” – the fact that these people died due to heart attacks due to old age was not taken into account – similar as the bloated number of deaths due to the current virus without stating what the comorbidities (?) were – this means that far less than 2% of the world’s population actually died from COVID19 ALONE.
    My points above were just to state that even if the Blockchain technology/platform is used (due to the limited capability of possible fraud/hacking at present, it could be hacked in future or manipulated in future.
    After stating the above, fraud and manipulation in manual voting is definitely still possible but can be minimised with proper procedures/processes and proper observance where the counting of votes are concerned.
    ‘Nuff said.

  10. How is it possible that on a daily basis millions of electronic banking transactions are made worldwide in an environment where there is enough trust in the systems that it would go through successfully (even though there are still incidents of fraud!), but we do not think that electronic election systems will be a better alternative if based on similar security functions, and maintained as technology improves? It is not that the current manual election systems are without faults …

  11. Another proposed scam.
    Manipulation by deception is always the intent of the most accomplished liars.

    There is also the requirement for some cadre enrichment with newer versions and updated software and hardware every four years, don’t forget that. A most convenient money maker

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