09 November 2022
Democracy Technologies: Can you describe the service SkyVote offers? What was the motivation behind creating SkyVote?
Giovanni Di Sotto: SkyVote is a brand owned by Multicast. It bundles a number of services and products in the area of decision-making and governance processes. By decision-making, we do not mean just voting. Voting is certainly part of this process, but it includes the whole sum of actions that lead to a decision being made by a collegial body.
Multicast was founded in 2004. We are an IT company that deals specifically with securitisation, real-time communication, and telecommunications software. In 2014, given our knowledge of securitised communication systems, cryptography and other topics of this kind, a partner company asked us to adapt a voting system they were using. This was the starting point of this adventure that then led us, little by little, to make a series of products and services in the area of decision-making and governance processes. In fact, the motto of our company is ‘digital tools for decision making’.
Roberto Spagna: SkyVote is working on consolidating its voting products and building new platforms for digital government processes by adding digital tools for decision-making. To date, there are 8 platforms we are developing, of which only 3 are related to voting, the rest range from people management (such as primary management) to SkyVote Decision, which takes care of document distribution and approval processes.
DT: Can you tell us about the political primary held recently in Sicily, which made use of the SkyVote platform?
Spagna: The primary election project in Sicily (Presidential22 Sicily) was the first experiment of mass popular consultation using an online platform.
For the first time, three different parties brought together their electoral base to participate in a single vote and let them choose the presidential candidate for the Presidency of the Region of Sicily.
DT: What challenges did you face?
Spagna: The project immediately confronted us with a series of complexities linked above all to the certain identification of the electoral body. There was no database, and obviously they came from different worlds and parties. Organising a vote on such a heterogeneous basis was the biggest hurdle.
The first step was to try to build a database that would accurately collect the identities of an unknown and heterogeneous electorate. Through our platform SkyVote People, we set up a system for registering to vote by filling out an online form and uploading an ID. In this way, we quickly identified more than 43,000 people who would participate in the vote just a month later. The identification system used 2-factor strong authentication.
DT: How many people participated in the vote?
Spagna: Around 34,000 users voted, i.e. more than 80% of the people who had registered, aged between 16 and 87. Thanks to good communication and a strong information campaign, including tutorials and other actions, we provided assistance to an average of just 3.1 users per 1,000 voters who had difficulties with the voting procedures. The simple, easy-to-use system did the rest, and allowed a large voter base to cast their vote in less than one minute on average.
This was a complex experience, but it demonstrated that it is possible to get a large number of people, unknown at the beginning, to successfully cast their vote.
DT: What does someone need to do to cast their vote?
Di Sotto: Electronic voting has a number of peculiarities: it is something you usually only do once a year, so you have to be able to do it safely without too much explanation. This is the peculiarity that our systems have, we put a lot of emphasis on accessibility and on making sure that people can understand the system without reading guides beforehand.
The real difficulty today in e-voting is not the interfaces of e-voting systems, but rather the means by which users can prove their identity before voting. We have a statistic on this: for every 1,000 people who vote, we provide assistance to three to five users. Among these three to five people, the problem for half of them is that they cannot identify themselves, or that the procedures to identify themselves are too complicated.
From the regulatory point of view, here in Italy we are still quite at sea. I do not think that SPID (Sistema Pubblico di Identità Digitale – public digital identity system) has solved the problem, or at least not yet. Moreover, many regulations that were written thirty, sixty, even seventy years ago remain as they were. According to legislators, it is up to the technology to somehow adapt, and not the other way around.
DT: How widespread is e-voting in Italy?
Di Sotto: There is a fact that is a curiosity that not everyone knows, but the Italian Parliament, specifically the Senate, equipped itself with an electronic voting system in 1986. It was perhaps among the very first parliaments in Europe and the world to do so. It was electromechanical, and it obviously had the peculiarities of the technologies of the time. But back then, the number of parliaments that voted electronically could really be counted on your fingers.
Today, access to electronic voting, especially with respect to the private sector, is fairly well established. I could give you some numbers: over the last three years, out of six and a half million potential users from across all professions, more than half have used an e-voting system.
On average, at least 22 million people in Italy vote once a year. You vote for everything, there isn’t a person who doesn’t have to at least cast a vote on the budget in their apartment building, or for a school council representative. Many people also vote on the budgets of their professional associations. The need to express one’s opinion isn’t just part of democratic politics, it also applies to everyday communal decision processes.
DT: Is online voting widespread among Italian parties? What is the perception of online voting in Italy?
Di Sotto: That’s complicated. Political parties, except for the 5 Star Movement, which uses it by statute, do not want electronic voting. They don’t want electronic voting to manage their organisations, because it leaves total freedom of choice to the user. In Italy, the idea of unmanaged democracy is one that frightens parties.
Other parties have also tried to introduce elements of this kind, but they have done it either in secret by saying “we have it, but no one voted! They don’t use it”. Or they stir up a controversy surrounding the negative aspects: the perception that outside forces intervene to modify votes.
Nonetheless: In less than eight years, we alone have allowed around three million people to vote. This went beyond our project with M5S, obviously. In this area, like in so many others, there is a huge gap between the perception of politics and the reality. Politicians are afraid of instruments they do not control, or that they have to hand over to a referee. Society as a whole has accepted the idea [of doing these things online], partly because of the pandemic. In the end, I don’t understand why if I do a bank transaction that transaction is considered safe, but if I vote online I’m being ripped off.