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Would electronic voting make SA’s elections easier?

Would electronic voting make SA’s elections easier?
Election officials in the Ladakh region, India, inspect an electronic voting machine at a distribution centre ahead of the fifth phase of the general elections on 18 May 2024. (Photo: Reuters / Sharafat Ali)

Experts have been exploring whether electronic voting should be implemented in South Africa, but learning to trust an e-voting system would be just as challenging as building and implementing it.

As South Africa’s long voting queues and cumbersome systems slowed the progress of the country’s seventh general election, experts have been exploring the introduction of electronic voting.

The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) has looked into it in some detail over the past couple of years, as the IEC has sought to find ways to trim the longer-term costs of running elections on a shrinking budget. As part of a report trying to assess the pros and cons of electronic voting, HSRC researchers looked at the technical feasibility of electronic voting and asked South Africans whether we’d trust it if it were widely deployed.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections dashboard

As voting drew to a close on Wednesday, 29 May, many stations processed voters well past midnight. Voters at the University of Pretoria were among the hardiest of the country’s queuers, with the last determined voter casting their ballot at around 5am.

In some areas, the slowness of voter processing has been the result of the sheer physicality of the voting process and the need to securely move literal tons of voter registers and other material to more than 23,000 voting stations.

In addition to needing to secure and deliver printed material, having to parse it with human eyes can make a slow process even slower. At Wits University, when electronic voter management scanners went offline, poll staff faced having to manually verify thousands of voters using printed voter rolls.

The pace of manual, paper-based voting has resulted in calls for turning South Africa’s voting process entirely digital – the dream of an election with a minimal footprint, where votes can be logged and tallied virtually instantly, countrywide.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Queues and more queues as first poll result declared just past midnight

The idea of electronic voting is not new – to South Africa or other nations. The basic idea is that voting would look much the same as at present, except that instead of a paper ballot, you would select a party on a touchscreen or some other voting machine interface.

That vote then doesn’t need to be manually counted in the manner of physical votes, but can simply be added – virtually immediately – to municipal, regional and national totals. A national election could be over in a little more than a day.

To audit the process, observers can verify that the total national vote is accurately composed of the sum of all of the provincial votes, and that the total votes for each province are accurately made up of the sum of the various municipal votes.

On a technical level, electronic voting would rely on a number of different resources to run well. It would require volunteers capable of navigating an entirely new vote-logging process from the level of the remote voting station to the central counting and auditing systems at regional and national levels.

Moreover, for those of us headed to the polls to vote, a switch to electronic voting would require voters to become familiar with a ballot marking process that would be substantially different from the paper process that has defined voting in the popular imagination since 1994. Voter education around how to vote using an electronic voting machine would need to take place in a country where basic digital literacy is still unevenly distributed.

Hacking and load shedding

The HSRC identified risks of malicious hacking, as well as less complicated constraints: load shedding, internet access and hardware failure. Paper ballots, by contrast, require no power, work everywhere in the country and can be easily replaced if broken.

Democratic Republic of the Congo’s attempt at using electronic voting in its elections ended as a fiasco after ignoring these basic concerns. India has fared much better, but the acceptance of electronic voting internationally remains uneven: only 28 countries worldwide use electronic voting in any binding capacity, and Germany ended its use of the technology in 2005 because the lack of paper ballots stood in contravention of a constitutional requirement that “all essential steps of an election are subject to the possibility of public scrutiny”.

This is a problem that South Africa would need to grapple with too. At the end of the day, how can an electronic system prove that, say, 5,000 votes were cast in a specific voting station beyond the fact that the voting machine says so?

Read more in Daily Maverick: IEC’s R281m budget cut added to poll preparation problems

‘Phased approach’

Would South Africans adopt the e-vote? In a 2021 poll by the HSRC, 49% of those surveyed said they thought “electronic voting would be a good thing for South Africa”, while 21% thought it would be a bad idea (and the remainder were uncertain about the technology). More concerningly, 44% of South African adults felt that the technology could introduce more fraud into the electoral process.

Dr Derek Davids, the primary investigator in the HSRC’s research into the feasibility of electronic voting, is nevertheless optimistic, pointing out that the distrust South Africans currently have of such a system shows some evidence of softening over time.

Trust, he emphasises, is going to be absolutely key to any system of electronic voting, as it is for voting of any kind. He is also quick to point out that it’s something to be approached gradually, and that “if we have to adopt it, we should do it incrementally, in a phased approach”.

Whether we can, or should, have electronic systems of voting is going to be just as fundamental a matter of whether we can learn to trust such a system as whether we are able to build and use it. DM


Daily Maverick has closed comments on all elections articles for the next two weeks. While we do everything in our power to ensure deliberately false, misleading and hateful commentary does not get published on our site, it’s simply not possible for our small team to have sight of every comment. Given the political dynamics of the moment, we cannot risk malignant actors abusing our platform to manipulate and mislead others. We remain committed to providing you with a platform for dynamic conversation and exchange and trust that you understand our need for circumspection at this sensitive time for our country.

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