Pushing a button for democracy

2014-11-06 00:00

FROM a show of hands to the touch of a screen — voting has come a long way around the world.

Now Surendra Thakur, Durban University of Technology’s e-Skills director, Information Technology, envisions a paperless general election in South Africa, with portable polling machines using touch-screen technology to register the ballot.

Thakur’s paper, “Transforming the voting paradigm — the shift from inline through online to mobile voting”, written with DUT colleagues Oludayo Olugbara and Richard Millham, was chosen as the best paper at last week’s Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers International Conference on Adaptive Science and Technology in Óta, Nigeria.

In 2010, Thakur was commissioned by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to research e-voting and its possible application in South Africa. “I so enjoyed the work at the IEC that it has become the basis of my PhD studies.”

Voting has a long history. “It began in prehistory with a show of hands,” said Thakur.

“Then came ostraka — broken pieces of pottery in ancient Greece.”

These would be marked “yes” or “no” and were also used to vote people into exile. “That’s where the word ostracise comes from,” explained Thakur.

In Renaissance Italy voting was done using small black and white balls called ballota, hence the word ballot.

The wide use of paper from the 1400s didn’t see it used for voting purposes straight away — “the ink was too expensive” — and its adoption was a “gradual process”.

Now paper has had its day: e-voting makes both political and ecological sense.

“India now uses e-voting,” said Thakur. “Their last paper election in 1996 used 12 million kilograms of paper — a whole forest for one election”.

India, with its 833 million voters, is one of six of the most populous countries in the world using e-voting — United States, Brazil, Russia, Japan and the Philippines.

In Estonia and Norway, you can vote from home using your mobile telephone.

Convenience apart, e-voting has also seen a dramatic drop in electoral fraud according to Thakur.

“To my knowledge, there has been no instance of a trial and conviction of an electoral official, vendor, political party or stakeholder in electronic voting.

“In fragile and emerging democracies, e-voting can play a role,” said Thakur, including South Africa, which meets the criteria for e-voting. “We have a history of free and fair elections. They are robust, there have been few quarrels about ballots and there are clear winners.”

E-voting in South Africa would also address voter apathy and involve youth in democracy. “The older generation understand paper, the young understand technology,” said Thakur. “Democracy will only work if the youth are part of it. For them, pushing a button for democracy makes sense.”

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