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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