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Why electronic voting is seen as a ‘difficult journey’

The main reason motivating other countries to embark on an IT transformation of their electoral systems is to improve turnout. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

The main reason motivating other countries to embark on an IT transformation of their electoral systems is to improve turnout. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Evidently dealing with a sacred cow, Chief Electoral Commissioner Joseph Church believes that every step in the digital transformation of elections in Malta “is a journey that includes difficult, yet not impossible, tasks”.

A firm believer in the opportunities offered by the new technology to “improve the electoral process”, Mr Church, however, rules out a big bang approach.

“I am conscious that any development has to take place within a mature debate with political parties. The dialogue among all stakeholders, addressing concerns and ideas in an open and transparent process, will help avoid contentions on the digital transformation of elections in Malta.”

One might question the need to change Malta’s accepted voting system, which has served the county well for many years.

The main reason motivating other countries to embark on an IT transformation of their electoral systems is improving turnout. However, it is very difficult to improve the turnout at a Maltese general election, as the lowest since Independence was 93 per cent.

WebRoots Democracy, a British youth-led pressure group, is lobbying the UK government to implement an online voting option by the 2020 general election.

The group says that while in 1964, 18-to-24-year-olds voted in the same proportion as those aged 55 and over, at the 2010 election, 44 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted, as compared with 74 per cent aged 55 and over

It is estimated that online voting could boost youth voter turnout to 70 per cent.

Locally, the main political parties are not so keen on electronic voting, insisting that any voting system should ensure that no electronic trace of an individual voter’s choice is left in the process. This challenge is exacerbated by online voting.

The Labour Party has said that online voting is “to date, far from protecting the constitutional requirement of voters’ absolute secrecy”.

On the other hand, in its document Restoring Trust in Politics, the Nationalist Party proposed a pilot project for online voting to establish whether the system can be safely and transparently used in elections.

Prior to the 2013 elections, over 1,000 Maltese living abroad signed a petition calling for an electronic, embassy-based voting system allowing them to vote from their country of residence.

I am conscious that any development has to take place within a mature debate with political parties

Contrary to the major parties’ views, informal soundings by the Electoral Commission from disabled persons indicated that many of them view electronic voting positively, as it would enable them to better exercise their voting rights.

Digital technology may also contribute towards a radically faster counting process.

The Labour and Nationalist parties agree in principle with e-counting and share the Electoral Commission’s efforts to have e-counting in place for the 2019 European Parliament and local council elections.

In fact, three proposals in this regard are being evaluated following a call issued last summer.

The system’s parameters include the retention of the current ballot system, where voters list their preferences in numbers written on a paper ballot sheet.

These sheets would be scanned and dubious ballot papers filtered out. The scans would then be counted by computer software rather than by the current array of counters, ensuring results in a dramatically shorter time than now. At present, 12 hours are required for the official result of the first count and up to four days for the full result of all counts.

The Times of Malta is informed the two major parties told the commission that “the quality of the system should be the major priority rather than the speed with which final result is published. The system must be accurate, fair and transparent and ensure that outputs are verifiable”.

Some question the necessity of having an e-counting system to speed up the process. The Scottish local councils’ and the Australian Senate’s polls are the only single transferable vote elections, identical to the Maltese process, where e-counting is used.

Ireland, which follows the single transferable vote system and has an electorate approximately 10 times bigger than Malta’s, still uses manual counting.

However, the result of the first count is announced much earlier than in Malta.

The reason is that the reconciliation process – the opening of ballot boxes and the counting of ballot sheets – is done with the ballots face up, whereas in Malta the ballot sheets are counted face down.

Others argue that the local process would be even faster if the reconciliation process were to take place at polling booths rather than at the counting hall.

According to electoral systems expert Hermann Schiavone, “E-counting may also improve our regime to reflect better the electorate’s wishes in at least two instances.”

The first is changing the current system, where surplus votes are picked randomly and transferred at full value, a process known as the inclusive Gregory method. With an electronic system, all ballot papers would be included in the subsequent transfer and not just the last parcel. This would eliminate randomness.

E-counting would also enable the use and calculation of a fairer ballot paper design, known as Robson’s Rotation.

Ballot papers are printed in equal-sized batches, with each batch having a different candidate’s name appearing at prescribed positions in the party columns on those ballots, mitigating the alphabetical bias which is very present in Maltese elections.

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