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Digital Technologies, Elections, and Democracy in times of COVID-19

Politics has now caught up with digitalization, but policy is still lagging behind. How can we improve electoral governance in the COVID-19 era? How can we hold electoral processes in the COVID-19 era while maintaining political and electoral rights? Join us in this Online AIWS Roundtable and Club de Madrid Live Session in collaboration with the Boston Global Forum.

‘Digital Technologies, Elections and Democracy in times of COVID-19’ is an online AIWS Roundtable and Club de Madrid Live Session in collaboration with the Boston Global Forum.

COVID-19 is pushing us into digital democracy. But are we prepared for the digital transformation of political processes and elections? 

Politics are undergoing a process of digital transformation spurred by COVID-19. Cabinet meetings and even parliamentary sessions via videoconference are not a rare sight since the pandemic’s outbreak. Politics has now caught up with digitalization, but policy is still lagging behind.

The pandemic has dealt a blow to our economic and political systems: Elections are no exception. While some administrations have chosen to postpone elections, others have held these under extraordinary circumstances, altering timelines and voting procedures while ensuring free, fair and transparent votings.

How can we streamline electoral processes during COVID-19 without affecting political and electoral rights? How can we improve electoral governance in such a context? Is there a danger in election manipulation and hacking, particularly in countries with poor digital infrastructure?

Maria Elena Aguero, Secretary General of World Leadership Alliance–Club de Madrid and Nguyen Anh Tuan, CEO of the Boston Global Forum welcomed and opened the AIWS Roundtable. Speakers Joyce Banda, President of Malawi (2012-2014), Hanna Suchocka, Prime Minister of Poland (1992-1993), Allan Doss, Special Adviser to the Kofi Annan Foundation, Professor Thomas Patterson, Harvard University, and Marc Rotenberg, Director of Center for AI and Policy at the Michael Dukakis Institute, spoke and discuss.

 

Here are some key messages from Marc Rotenberg’s talk:

Health Crisis and Electoral Governance – Steps to Take

  • Observe necessary health guidance in all matters concerning elections (Resources: WHO, CDC, national agencies)
  • Communicate clearly to state officials and the public the safety guidance that will be followed (Resources: national agency websites, technology to educate and inform)
  • Communicate clearly to public all necessary information about voting participation (Resources: national agency websites, technology to educate and inform)

Electronic Voting – Considerations

  • Goals: (1) maximize voter participation (ensure easy and safe access to voting locations), (2) ensure accuracy of vote tally (independent agency to verify), (3) protect the “secret ballot,” the ability of voters to cast a vote without revealing who they voted for
  • Voting experts are concerned about three problems: (1) disinformation, (2) reliability of online voting, and (3) preservation of secret ballot
  • Disinformation: Consider source attribution for paid political advertising. Maintain strong independent media to monitor and counter propaganda. Support non-partisan research and NGOs committed to democratic institutions.
  • Reliability of Online Voting. Widespread concern that “electronic only” voting is too easily subject to manipulation. Consider range of risks: political parties, criminal hackers, foreign adversaries. “Verified voting” in polling place (paper ballot that is optically scanned) preferred. Some experimentation with online voting (e.g. Estonia) but still skepticism.
  • Preservation of Secret Ballot. Not a problem when a piece of paper is put a box. A complex problem when votes are cast online or by fax.

Advantages of Vote by Mail over Telematic Voting

  • Vote by mail provides the paper verification favored by election security experts
  • Vote by mail failures tend to be localized, limited in scope, and easy to detect. Telematic voting failures can be far-reaching and difficult to detect.