23 August 2023

Digital democracy might be on the rise, but it hasn’t quite ‘made it’. Not yet. Trust is critical, and the foundational digital infrastructure and security practices this trust is built on are still a fair way off. As a result, a lot of e-voting or i-voting systems are stuck in limbo.

Perhaps the best evidence of this is the failed, half-hearted, or sincere-but-incomplete attempts to implement online voting options in one of the most obvious use cases – overseas voting.

Here are a few examples, where overseas voting is a weird mix of old and new.

New Zealand

The New Zealand election is coming up in a couple of months, and being a New Zealand citizen myself, this one is obviously a little close to my heart. Here’s the deal:

First, an overseas voter should go to the website for the NZ Electoral Commission. Here, you are encouraged to check your enrolment details and (if necessary) update them. All of this can be done using a single digital ID known as ‘RealMe’ – the same one used for all kinds of government interactions and citizen services, from filing taxes to ordering a passport. So that’s easy. Enrolment is digital.

But then when it comes time to vote, it’s back to the old. Your voting papers are either sent to you, or you can download them. They then have to be printed and filled out as they would in a voting booth in-country.

After that, it’s back to digital again. Sure, you can send your papers back home via ‘snail mail’, or you can scan them and upload them via the online portal. A back-and-forth mix of analogue and digital. Not too complicated. Fairly straightforward. But with the odd twist of a print and scan step in the middle.

United States

The forthcoming (2024) United States election is obviously of great significance, although the same could be said of every election when you’re the most powerful nation in the world. And even this year, there are some significant state level and governor’s races in play. Here’s an overview of the process for Americans voting from abroad:

First and foremost, U.S. citizens residing abroad are advised to explore the official website of the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) at fvap.gov. This platform serves as a comprehensive resource for overseas voters, providing information on registration, absentee voting, and more. Online voter registration is possible in many states, streamlining the process.

The first step is to fill in your details and download a PDF file to print out and sign. Then we’re back to paper and envelopes again. This registration has to be sent the old fashioned way.

When it comes to the actual voting stage, the process diverges based on the state of residency. Generally, citizens can obtain an absentee ballot, either electronically or by mail. Some states even permit the submission of absentee ballots via secure online channels. Generally though, at the federal level, ballots once again have to be submitted via ordinary mail.

Pakistan

With an election due in Pakistan sometime in the next few months, the democratic process is already underway, even for citizens living abroad. Here’s a breakdown:

Until recently, Pakistan had an online system for overseas voters, part of a larger movement towards digitalising democracy in the country. Domestically, this meant the introduction of prototype electronic voting machines domestically. But it also extended the opportunity for Pakistanis abroad to participate in the electoral process, providing a user-friendly online registration platform, allowing eligible voters to enrol digitally.

However, this movement has since been halted and largely reversed, tied up in complex domestic political issues that have also seen former Prime Minister Imran Kahn jailed for corruption. For now and certainly for this year’s election, Pakistanis living abroad will once again need to do things the old fashioned way, voting with paper ballots.

Argentina

Argentina’s elections have recently gained a bit of attention due to the apparent popularity of far-right libertarian populist candidate Javier Milei. Although the general election itself isn’t until October, the primaries are already causing a stir. Here’s how things work:

In Argentina, voting is mandatory, and everyone not voting needs to provide a valid reason. Conveniently for the politically apathetic living abroad, being more than 500 km from your normal place of voting is one such valid reason. However, whether you wish to vote or not, you’ll likely have some work to do.

First, voters must register in the Register of Argentinians Abroad (Registro de Electores Residentes en el Exterior) in order to be eligible to vote. This registration process involves providing personal information and details of residence. If they don’t wish to vote, they’ll still need to get in touch with an electoral court or police authority to file the reason for non-participation.

Updating information can usually be done through the official website of the National Electoral Directorate (Dirección Nacional Electoral) or by visiting the nearest Argentinian consulate or embassy. So that’s one bit of digital convenience.

However once registered and when it comes time to actually vote, all ballots must be cast either via postal voting or at an embassy. There are no digital options, nor is any part of the procedure digital. It’s paper all the way.

Switzerland

With an overseas community of over 800,000 citizens, and regular referenda several times a year, Switzerland has a long history of experiments with digitalised voting for those abroad. But it hasn’t all been plane sailing. When Swiss Post’s i-voting system was pulled in 2018 due to security concerns, it looked like overseas voters would be relying on postal votes for the indefinite future. 

However, following successful trials of a brand-new Swiss Post system earlier this year, overseas voters registered in the cantons of St. Basel-Stadt, St. Gallen and Thurgau will once again have the option of signing up to vote online in the federal election in October. Those who choose to vote online will receive a series of codes by post, allowing them to log in to the online platform and cast their vote. 

Anyone curious can even try the i-voting system for themselves – though the demo is currently available only in Switzerland’s official languages, French, German, Italian and Romansh. 

For overseas voters from Switzerland’s other 23 cantons, the federal elections will be an old-fashioned paper-and-envelopes affair. But if things go well in October, there’s a good chance that more cantons will offer i-voting in the near future.

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