Reducing Election Violence Cheaply – eVoting?

I can’t help but notice the violence surrounding the recent elections in Kenya, Pakistan, Zimbabwe (where I still have family) and many other places. To the extent that the problem is citizen mistrust of the voting process, this seems like an effective place to direct aid resources and energy. Why not fund, with the host country’s cooperation, open source election machines similar to those used in Australia? The Australian approach allows people to inspect the machine’s software if unsatisfied about the machine’s ability to count votes. Each machine is linked to a server via a secure local network so that information is not transmitted openly and a printout of the vote could be made and deposited in a ballot box to verify the electronic results if necessary.

Ethan Zuckerman suggested to me that one way to potentially keep the cost low would be to use SMS and have the machine send back periodic vote tallies throughout the voting period. This way there is no need to set up network infrastructure, since a cellphone system capable of handling this kind of traffic already exists across most countries. Secure SMS is an available technology and it might be straightforward to ensure a secure transmission for vote tallies. The average cost of a voting machine in the US is $3000, and the Australian ones cost about $750 each. Australia used 80 machines for their capital territory of Canberra which has about 325,000 people, approximately 4000 people per machine. So in Zimbabwe for example, with a population of about 1.3 million, they would need 325 machines. If each machine is even as much as $3000 that’s still less than a million dollars. Although I expect in many of the countries, including Zimbabwe, that would benefit from such a system, deployment would include more rural areas than Canberra and more machines would be necessary, but this back-of-the-envelope sketch makes it seem reasonably inexpensive and technically feasible.

Of course, this will only quell violence in so far as it is based in the perception of an unfair voting system. If the violence is thuggery bent on subverting fair electoral results, or garnering attention, then voting machines won’t stop it, although the transparency of this system might make it harder to promulgate an inflammatory mindset of corruption.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

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