Is it time to overhaul the voting system?

Instead of having blind faith in the IEC and how it has been doing its work for the past 25 years, this election is showing us that we need to place it and the process of how we cast our ballots under increased scrutiny, writes Mandy Wiener

As we collectively nurse our electoral hangover, the day after the night before, South Africa needs to do some introspection about how we run our elections.

While the ballot papers are being counted across the country, we are facing some tough realities about extremely worrying voter turnout and questions around the security of the voting system. Claims are being made about double voting as the indelible ink markings on thumbs were easily rubbed off leading to anxiety that the security measures were simply not tight enough.

Now is not the time to panic. But it is the time to talk about the alternatives, regardless of how radical they might be. As a nation, we tend to have an ingrained faith in the Electoral Commission (IEC), a legacy of its success in pulling off the unimaginable in 1994. It's something of a holy cow, lauded locally and internationally for its reputable handling of polls. Perhaps we don't place it under sufficient scrutiny or push it to innovate instead of sticking to the safe tried and tested measures of the past.

The primary point of consternation around this week's polls has been the issue of double voting. The supposedly indelible ink used to mark voters' thumbs has been found wanting but what is most astonishing is that this was really the only measure used to ensure that someone could not be allowed to cast a ballot a second time. I, and many others, would have assumed that there was some great big central system that ticked off your name once you had voted, rather than just an IEC volunteer with a pencil and a ruler crossing out your name on the typed out list.

The concept of paper ballots in a digital world is quaintly archaic. In a world where almost every aspect of our lives has become influenced by technology, it is anachronistic to still be using a ball point pen to make a cross on a slip of paper. I am not advocating for a full overhaul of the electoral system – that would be near impossible in a country with widespread poverty, poor data coverage and high rates of illiteracy. But some degree of digitisation is necessary. If you consider that only around 18% of first time voters in South Africa even bothered to register to vote, a shift to embrace technology may be the way to get the youth to cast their ballots.

Reducing costs and increasing reach

Using technology instead of paper ballots reduces costs and could boost voter turnout. It would resolve problems associated with getting paper ballots to far-flung polling stations. But there are significant questions over trust in the system and the security of it. Possible electoral fraud could be even more rife.

Experts have found that using electronic machines to vote could enhance vulnerabilities with hacking being a primary worry. US intelligence agencies found that Russia attempted to penetrate the voting systems in 21 of the US states in the 2016 election and were successful in Illinois.

Voting security expert Bruce Schneier writes that the ideal way for people to vote is with a paper ballot that allows voters to check that they're casting the ballot the way they intended. This means a digital process that leaves an analogue record.

"The easiest (and cheapest) way to achieve this is through optical-scan voting. Voters mark paper ballots by hand; they are fed into a machine and counted automatically. That paper ballot is saved, and serves as a final true record in a recount in case of problems. Touch-screen machines that print a paper ballot to drop in a ballot box can also work for voters with disabilities, as long as the ballot can be easily read and verified by the voter. Finally, the tabulation and reporting systems. Here again we need more security in the process, but we must always use those paper ballots as checks on the computers," says Schneier.  

'We are just not there yet'

South Africa seems to be a long way off from using any kind of online voting. About 14 countries around the globe have some form of online voting, with only one country, Estonia, using permanent national internet voting. Central to Estonia's system of online voting is that every citizen carries a state-of-the-art electronic ID card which contains biometric information and digital signing capabilities. We are just not there yet.

Another radical measure to combat voter apathy, which is being thrown around on social media, is the idea of compulsory voting. This is the case in Australia, Brazil, Argentina and a small group of other countries. Making not voting criminal has certainly been effective in Australia where there was a 91% turnout in the last polls there.

Predictions are that voter turnout for this week's election nationally will be around the mid-60% which is a massive 10% drop from 2014 and some are suggesting we need to make voting compulsory. This idea would never fly in a country where the freedom of speech, and not to speak, is enshrined in the Constitution. It would never pass constitutional muster and it would be argued forcing a citizen to vote would be an infringement on their personal freedoms.

While we need not introduce a revolutionary overhaul of the system, it is time that we at least do a robust examination of how it is working. Instead of having blind faith in the IEC and how it has been doing its work for the past 25 years, this election is showing us that we need to place it and the process of how we cast our ballots under increased scrutiny. If we have faith in the process and the system, hopefully it will give more citizens the confidence to vote next time around.

- Wiener is a specialist reporter for News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Find everything you need to know about the 2019 National and Provincial Government Elections at our News24 Elections site, including the latest news and detailed, interactive maps for how South Africa has voted over the past 3 elections. Make sure your News24 app is updated to access all our elections coverage in one place.

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