Decision in Principle
The decision-in-principle stage of the decision-making process is vitally important, as it helps to establish the parameters for the consideration of electronic voting and counting technologies. This stage involves several essential steps:
Provision of authority and clear mandate to an institution to consider the use of new technologies;
An assessment of needs or challenges in the current voting and counting system;
An assessment of the advantages and disadvantages offered by different technologies in addressing those needs;
A comprehensive assessment of financial feasibility;
Consideration of the proportionality of benefits vis-à-vis costs of implementation;
An assessment of the necessary institutional capacity to implement the new technology;
A legal framework review; and
Consideration of support and opposition of stakeholders.
The first step in the decision-in-principle stage is that an institution needs to be provided with the authority to consider the use of voting and counting technologies. In some cases an institution (e.g., the election management body) will have standing authority to investigate and implement trial improvements in the procedure for conducting elections. In other cases this authority will have to be specifically provided.
Regardless, it is important that the mandate for the consideration of these technologies is clearly defined. The institution that will consider the introduction of voting or counting technology needs to be identified; the objectives of the study should be well defined (i.e., whether it involves consideration of voting technology, counting technology, Internet voting, biometric voter identification, etc.); a timeline for the decision-in-principle process should be outlined, and the outputs expected from the process should be defined (e.g., a report, recommendations on technologies, suggestions on vendors, a plan for the conduct of pilots, an indicative budget for the adoption of the technology, etc.).
A comprehensive consideration of electronic voting or counting technologies should reflect on a number of issues. Initially these issues include an assessment of the current system of voting and counting and any existing needs for improvement in the system; an assessment of the advantages and disadvantages offered by the technologies; and a review of IT security issues related to the use of the technologies. The advantages of introducing these technologies should also be proportional to the full costs through the life cycle of its implementation – not only in financial terms but also in terms of staffing resources and other nonfinancial costs triggered by changing the voting or counting system, as outlined in more detail below.
This initial process should lead to the development of a set of requirements for any new technology and a list of anticipated benefits and challenges against which any future use or pilot of the technology can be assessed. Product information will need to be gathered from vendors of electronic voting and counting technologies to allow for a determination of technical feasibility (i.e., whether products are actually available that meet the requirements). If no products are found that meet the requirements, it may be that the requirements identified were too ambitious or that insufficient suppliers were contacted. Even after reconsideration, it may be that no products exist or can be developed that meet the requirements. The conclusion then would have to be that the available technology does not meet the needs identified. This would indicate the end of the decision-making process, with a finding that electronic voting and counting technology was not appropriate for use at that time.
In many cases, however, technology solutions will meet the electoral requirements identified, allowing the next steps in the decision-in-principle process to be conducted. These involve several additional components of assessment: a cost-benefit analysis; an assessment of institutional capacity; an assessment of the vendors’ track records for timely delivery of technologies that perform reliably in conditions that exist in the country and under the timelines required by the electoral calendar; and an assessment of the legality of using electronic voting or counting technologies.
Even when electronic voting or counting technologies exist that meet requirements and can offer significant benefits in the conduct of elections, the financial feasibility and sustainability of their use must be assessed. In order to do this, a number of possible products must be selected for analysis, and a full assessment of all of the costs involved in the use of the technology compared to existing electoral procedures will need to be conducted. This assessment will need to take into consideration that, although the initial investment in electronic voting or counting technology might be high, the technology may be in use over several elections; thus, the initial investment costs must be spread over this period, and the additional costs associated with maintenance and software updates must be considered as well. There may also be significant costs incurred in the storage and disposal of equipment.
It may also be the case that the introduction of a new voting or counting technology will represent an additional channel of voting or counting, to be implemented alongside existing voting and counting systems. This is the case in some U.S. electoral jurisdictions, where voters at the polling station are offered the choice between paper ballots or electronic voting machines, and in some countries, such as Estonia, where both Internet voting and paper voting are available. In such cases the introduction of voting or counting technologies may be expected to increase the costs of conducting elections, possibly by a significant amount, but this could be justified through the better realization of other electoral principles, such as greater accessibility for voters.
The use of electronic voting and counting technologies also requires very different skill sets for election management body and polling station staff if the voting or counting technology is being implemented in the polling station. Staff with suitable information technology skills will need to be identified and trained. The election management body will also need to educate voters and other stakeholders on any changes in the voting process, which will be a significant organizational challenge. The election management body will need to manage the change from the existing system to the use of the new voting and counting technologies. Managing such change is a huge project in itself. A realistic assessment of the organizational challenges involved in implementing voting and counting technologies will need to be made, and might impact the final decision on whether to adopt the technology.
Finally, an assessment of the electoral legal framework will need to be conducted. There are two aspects to this legal analysis. First, the existing constitutional and legal framework will need to be assessed to determine if the use of electronic voting and counting technologies complies with relevant constitutional and legal provisions. If the use of the technology is seen as breaching constitutional or legal provisions, then implementation would not be possible unless and until those provisions were amended.
Second, an assessment will need to be conducted as to whether the constitution and legal framework cover the significant changes in the way that elections are conducted due to the use of the new technologies. For example, the law may make reference to paper ballots and physical ballot boxes, which would no longer exist if electronic voting machines were used. Also, new legal provisions might be needed to address issues specific to electronic voting and counting, such as data privacy and proper disposal of obsolete data storage devices. A comprehensive review of existing provisions and new provisions will need to be conducted, with recommended legislative amendments identified.
An important aspect of this decision-in-principle process is the inclusion of key stakeholder representatives. These stakeholders, especially political parties, civil society, and the media, will need to understand why voting or counting technology is being considered, the potential advantages and disadvantages, and the implications that the technologies have for the way that voting and counting are conducted. Once this understanding is achieved, the support or opposition of these stakeholders will be an important consideration.
The decision in principle will need to balance the various issues considered above – technical feasibility, benefits to be achieved, financial feasibility, proportionality of benefits vis-à-vis costs of implementation, institutional capacity to implement the new technology, legal implications, and support or opposition of stakeholders. Each electoral environment may find a different balance among these factors. For example richer countries or countries that can leverage donor funding may be more willing to invest significant resources for fewer anticipated benefits than less wealthy countries without donor funding.
A decision in principle that favors adoption of electronic technologies does not commit a country to adopting voting or counting technologies; it merely recommends progressing to the next stage of the feasibility assessment and overall decision-making process: the pilot project.