28 July 2023

In an era of fast paced digital and political change, the evolution of electronic voting has been a subject of intense interest and debate. In recent years, numerous countries have explored the potential of voting machines (e-voting) or online voting (i-voting), with equally mixed results and opinions. Some have made it a core part of an evolving electoral system, while others have hesitated or reversed course entirely.

From full democracies to less-than-democratic states, the use of electronic and online voting systems has been complex. International IDEA, an organisation that “advances, promotes and protects sustainable democracy worldwide” in addition to monitoring global democratic trends, has been closely observing these developments, shedding light on the shifting state across the globe.

Let’s explore some of the notable changes in recent years and the impact they have had on participating nations.

Slow going in New Zealand

After conducting earlier feasibility studies and having had proposals for larger scale internet voting rejected for more than a decade, New Zealand began allowing overseas voters to cast their ballots online in 2019. As a founding member of the Digital Nations, one might expect NZ to have embraced digital voting more fully, but the option remains unavailable to the general resident population.

Challenges in the DRC

Meanwhile the launch of electronic voting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2019 was met with contention and criticism both domestically and internationally. Despite a fire destroying a warehouse holding two thirds of the machines destined for the capital, seven million voter registrations wiped from official records due to apparent ‘problems’, threats of boycotts from candidates and a warning from US ambassador to the UN Nicki Haley, the implementation went ahead. The DRC now uses voting machines for national, but not municipal elections.

Uncertainty in Pakistan

In Pakistan, controversies around e-voting have been going on for years, with back and forth between different governments. In 2021, prototype electronic voting machines were demonstrated and immediately received pushback. Similarly online voting was allowed for Pakistanis living abroad. However in the runup to this year’s election, the government has rejected online voting and challenged the previous decision to introduce voting machines. The future of digital democracy in Pakistan remains uncertain.

Pushing forward in Bangladesh

For Bangladesh, the use of electronic voting machines goes back quite a way. First introduced in 2007 to address issues with paper ballots in an election for the Dhaka Officers’ Club, they were then used inconsistently in city elections, before finally implemented in six constituencies during the general election of 2018. Despite challenges and protests from political parties, a project to purchase 150 thousand new voting machines is ongoing, as are training programmes on how to use the machines, for those in rural areas.

A rocky road in Nepal

Nepal has similarly had a rocky experience with voting machines. The country has experimented with electronic voting for quite a while, introducing it for the first time in the 2008 Constituent Assembly polls in Kathmandu. An experiment which received a positive response. It was later used in six constituencies for by-elections but faced challenges due to the high number of political parties contesting and the lack of sufficient buttons on the machines. As a result, Nepal began developing its own voting machines but faced resistance from major political parties during discussions for their use in the 2017 federal and provincial elections. Consequently, the idea was rejected, however it is still hotly debated around election time.

The Iraqi experience

As one might expect, Iraq faced its own unique set of challenges when embarking on the journey of exploring electronic voting. A system was introduced for the first time in 2018 with the goal of ensuring quicker result announcements and a reduction in the chances of voter fraud. Requiring voters to insert ID cards which are then linked to individual machine readable ballots codes, there was a mix of optimism and warnings that such a system would merely give rise to additional difficulties. Within weeks the election quickly drew a barrage of fraud claims and manual recounts, however given the tumultuous political environment, it is unclear whether the claims were legitimate. It remains in place.

A Swiss redesign

Switzerland is another country where electronic voting has undergone a contentious journey. With the government pushing hard for widespread implementation until relatively recently, a report in 2018 and an ensuing cross party movement put a hold on ‘internet voting experiments’ until the system could be redesigned. As of March this year, several regions were granted basic licences to resume trials with Swiss Post’s system, albeit with continuous monitoring and evaluation in place. Those trials were renewed earlier this month after being deemed a success.

The broader picture

The experience of countries worldwide shows that the journey towards embracing electronic or online voting is not straightforward. The ups and downs, successes, and challenges faced by different nations highlight the need for a comprehensive and balanced approach to modernising electoral systems.

As technology continues to evolve, it is crucial for nations to strike a delicate balance between embracing innovation and safeguarding the integrity and inclusivity of their electoral systems. By learning from one another’s experiences and investing in robust security measures and feasibility studies, countries can pave the way for a future where e-voting and i-voting enhance democratic participation on a global scale.

One of the most often cited and successful examples in digital democracy is Estonia. Over the years, Estonia has refined its voting system and demonstrated how technology can enhance accessibility while maintaining the integrity of the process.

However, even there, there is no shortage of challenges. Trust in digital infrastructure, it would seem, has to be built from the ground up, often over a long period of time.

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