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Election posters in Buenos Aires, 2013

E-voting promotes electoral fraud: A case study from Argentina

Chronically crisis-ridden Argentina prepares for a presidential election to be held on October 25 and, if required, November 22. In a country where political transitions have often ended in a state of crisis and turmoil, Argentines are hoping for a smoothing effect by Pope Francis, arguably Argentina’s most famous representative these days, who might succeed in bringing the main candidates closer together. While it remains unclear if the former archbishop of Buenos Aires is willing to play a key role in his country’s electoral process, another controversial topic has at least united great part of the Argentinian presidential opposition: electronic voting.

In a rare show of unity, the Argentinian opposition running against Daniel Scioli, the candidate backed by President Kirchner’s camp, has recently called for the introduction of electronic ballots in future elections. Following allegations of electoral fraud and subsequent riots in the north-western province of Tucumán in August, the politicians would like to see e-voting be introduced on the national level, stating it would greatly decrease the risk of vote rigging.

Of course, government officials were quick to rebuff the idea of changing the electoral system some 50 days before the first round of the presidential election. Also, Grupo MSA, the company which provided the electronic voting system in the two provinces where e-voting is used, said it is unrealistic to implement electronic ballots by October.

The key question is whether e-voting poses a solution to potential vote rigging in countries like Argentina. Naturally, that depends on how likely “traditional” electoral fraud is to occur. In the face of pictures showing burned ballot boxes in Tucumán, let’s say for the Argentinian case there is sufficient evidence. Still, I argue, e-voting systems are themselves prone to be compromised and thus inherently insecure. This summer’s elections in two Argentinian provinces have confirmed the manipulable nature of electronic voting systems.

As of 2013 electronic ballots can be used in provincial elections if their introduction was passed by the state legislator by a two-thirds majority. In the city of Buenos Aires vote of approval never happened. Argentine activist Lorena Müller sums up the Buenos Aires experience as follows:

“Besides the sloppy and illegal implementation of these elections, many people (among them activists, engineers and lawyers) openly opposed this electronic voting system. They stated it was difficult to use by non-digital natives, impossible to audit by the citizenship (source code was not distributed), too expensive and that the system didn’t protect vote secrecy sufficiently.”

And the case gets even more interesting: In a matter of days, the voting system’s source code was leaked, revealing that the actual voting machines were regular personal computers running Linux. However, the manufacturer MSA that had previously won the government’s tender for setting up the e-voting system in the city claimed that the machines were no actual computers with any memory or storage capacity – and thus almost impossible to hack. This could not have been further from the truth: Not only the voting machines, but also MSA’s servers were compromised. A bug even allowed for multiple ballots to be cast by a single voter. Transmission of votes was also flawed.

When whistle-blower and programmer Joaquín Sorianello told the press about the system’s vulnerabilities, Argentinian police raided his house, looking for storage devices. He now faces charges.

No doubt e-voting also has its merits. No paper ballots can go missing and the counting of votes is way faster. But mostly, these are procedural advantages that merely make the voting process more convenient – and not more secure.

Besides the imminent dangers of technically flawed and undemocratically introduced voting systems, another problem might emerge: a modern version of the military-industrial complex. E-voting manufacturers and the government could work hand in hand engaging in a devious scheme of systematic vote rigging. Since a sitting government has to call a tender for setting up an e-voting infrastructure and eventually picks a winner, government officials end up heavily involved with rent-seeking private companies. Election results could be manipulated on a much bigger scale, through software backdoors or manipulated tally transmission. Hackers could even be hired by the government in order to render an unsatisfying election unconstitutional. At the same time, old school election fraud, e.g. burning hundreds of thousands of paper ballots, becomes less attractive in the internet age that knows few blind spots.

Corrupt governments will always try to manipulate election results in one way or another. In this case, one has the choice between traditional electoral fraud or digitally enhanced “e-fraud”. Surely, Pope Francis would opt for the analogue version.

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