Last updated on December 17, 2013
Transparency is a key principle for credible elections. A transparent election process is one in which each step is open to scrutiny by stakeholders (political parties, election observers and voters alike), who are able to independently verify the process is conducted according to procedures and no irregularities have occurred.7 Providing transparency in an election helps establish trust and public confidence in the process, as voters have a means to verify the results are an accurate reflection of the will of the people.
Electronic voting and counting technologies pose a challenge to ensuring transparency, since many visually-verifiable steps in a traditional election (such as how ballots were marked) are automated inside a machine and, therefore, cannot be seen by the voter and others. In such circumstances, particular efforts must be made to provide transparency in each step of the process.
A degree of transparency can be afforded through the design of the voting and counting technology. For instance, a VVPAT produces a paper record that can be checked by the voter to make sure the vote is accurately recorded. A paper record also provides the possibility of an auditable process. End-to-end verification systems allow a check to be conducted that all votes have been accurately recorded and tabulated.
Equally important to the transparency of Election Day is the transparency of the development of the technology itself. The procurement, development, testing and certification of voting and counting equipment should be carried out transparently, so stakeholders are confident the machines meet relevant requirements, function properly and have the necessary security features in place. Stakeholders may have limited capacity to make use of these transparency mechanisms and may have to adapt their expertise to fully use them. The EMB can help observers in this regard by educating them on the electronic voting or counting system being used and how they can effectively observe it.
Certain mechanisms for providing transparency, such as the use of open source code, may be controversial, as vendors may be reluctant to disclose source code citing protection of intellectual property and the security of technologies. Irrespective of these interests, however, all software and hardware should be made available for independent review.
Electoral contestants and election observers have a critical role to play in ensuring the transparency of an election process. It is not possible for everyone to understand e-voting and counting systems. Thus, voters rely on others who have the capacity to understand these processes. It is therefore essential that stakeholders, including election observers and party/candidate agents, have access to the process.
To carry out their role effectively, such monitors must be given sufficient access both in law and practice to make an informed assessment. This may require that additional points of observation be created in the electoral process. With traditional paper-based voting and manual counting, observers focus on the voting and counting process itself. Electronic voting and counting technologies entail a number of other activities, some critical to the integrity of the process, that can be observed, but which take place well in advance of Election Day. Such activities include the testing and certification of the systems and the installation of software on voting or counting machines. Those observing elections need to make additional efforts to monitor these processes, which take place outside of the normal window of election observation.
Observers and party/candidate agents must also have access to relevant documentation about the procurement, development, testing and certification of equipment. It is critical they are able to observe during each stage of the process, from the initial decision making about whether to use electronic voting, to the final announcement of results. The transparency of various stages of the process should be a key consideration in the observers’ overall assessment of the election.
The ability of observers and party/candidate agents to fulfill their roles is more challenging in an election that uses electronic voting and counting technologies. Observers must be properly trained to understand and report on the processes they observe. Watching voters use an electronic voting machine is unlikely to provide the information necessary to effectively assess the voting process. They should, therefore, become knowledgeable about the specific technologies that have been adopted and should be prepared to evaluate the testing and auditing of the voting and counting equipment, as well as the documentation of the process.8
Since election observers and party/candidate agents may not have the expertise needed to understand certain aspects of electronic voting and counting technologies, organizations and parties may need to hire personnel specifically with an information and communications technology (ICT) background. They may also decide they are unable to assess certain aspects of the process and, if so, should disclose in their reporting which parts of the process they have and have not been able to observe effectively and take this into account in their overall assessment of electoral integrity.
The complex nature of electronic voting and counting technologies may also require ICT experts to provide independent oversight of such technologies, especially regarding the review of software and hardware. Professional ICT groups and academic communities can play a useful role in assessing electronic voting, either in partnership with election observer groups or independently. While the EMB should not exclude organizations that are skeptical about the benefits of electronic voting or counting technologies, they should be aware of any such organizational agendas.
7 For more detailed information on this topic, please refer to the following subsections in Part 2: Pilot Project; Legal and Procedural Framework; Procurement, Production, and Delivery; Security Mechanisms; Voter Education; and Testing, Source Code Review and Certification.
8 For more detail on this point see Council of Europe (2011) Guidelines on transparency of e-enabled elections, available at www.coe.int.