Examine the role of technology in elections

Examine the role of technology in elections

Call for evidence about risks and benefits of introducing blockchain in India's electoral systems

sankarshan

sankarshan

@sankarshan

ElectionTech project at Kaarana - May 2021 update

Submitted Jun 14, 2021

Discussions around new technologies and changes are often normalized based on the ubiquitous presence of the set of technology in other instances. Blockchain is a good example of such normalization - there is a perception that since it is being widely used to meet the requirements for a set of workflows, the introduction and adoption is possibly a given in another set of workflows.

The ElectionTech project at Kaarana was initiated to focus on how technology could work for people and society. We intend to undertake public deliberations and studies in order to stimulate a lively discussion around the topic of introduction of blockchains in the electoral process in India. We believe that this change - which is a significantly large one since the introduction of the EVM-VVPAT system - should not have uncritical acceptance. And through our project we would be able to arrive at a better understanding of

  1. A framework which enables an individual to evaluate and examine similar introduction of technology
  2. A method to determine with reasonable accuracy who these systems might work against and the nature of the harms which might come about

Our approach for this project has been to address 3 broad categories of topics

  1. The Historical Context - presenting the origin of the Indian elections and discuss the various challenges and issues which have been addressed through a consultative process
  2. The Technology Context - a walk-through on the various aspects of technology related to elections including roles, processes, security, privacy, rights and agency
  3. The International Context - assimilating enough understanding of how other nations and democracies are taking steps to address issues in elections processes particularly in context of adoption of technology

In India Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) were first used in 1982. However, the story of the first elections is a fascinating backdrop in which to begin any examination of electoral processes. Prof. Ornit Shani has been assiduously documenting the first elections and in her webinar she has presented how the decision around complete adult franchise was agreed upon and steps were taken to implement it even before the electorate became citizens of India.

The turning of all adults into voters, even before they were citizens, was a staggering democratic state-building operation of inclusion and scale, which surpassed any previous experience in democratic world history.

You can find a summary of her session here. In the following months we will be exploring other aspects of the history of the elections in India through the eyes of invited experts. The presence of institutional trust is one of the key strengths in the success of the elections in India. That the voters continue to believe in a system which is designed to provide inclusivity, equality, accountability and transparency.

Kannan Gopinathan’s webinar built on the recent reports which examine the implementation of EVM-VVPAT. A key aspect of Kannan’s discussion was the need to enable better understanding of the technology being used in the EVM-VVPAT based systems so as to address some of the basic tenets of trust assurance and risk mitigation. This is a visual representation of the talk points and some of the key issues which led to engaging conversations during the webinar. Kannan’s talk deftly highlights a point that we often miss - our understanding of systems we use to determine outcomes in elections is very limited. It is limited and incomplete primarily because there is a lack of publicly available information - and when it is available - it is not easy to come by. This leads to a situation where multiple questions around security contexts - physical, information and cyber - which need to be discussed, understood and documented in order to raise the trust in institutions.

Prof. Subhashis Banerjee provided a technical examination on the topic of electronic voting (see webinar). And more importantly, how a publicly verifiable voting system can be designed (see webinar) so as to meet the requirements of transparency and being explainable. Any introduction of technology in a process such as elections has immediate and wide ranging impact. The basic tenets of responsible usage of technology require that such systems contribute to the enhancement of trust as well as provide means to handle disputes. Prof Banerjee cited work that is publicly available in the form of the volumes from Citizens’ Commission on Elections as well as some recommendations of the German Constitutional Court on the topic of electronic voting. His subsequent webinar on a publicly verifiable and software independent system for voting provides a contextual framing around how to address some of the well-known challenges intrinsic to the voting process.

While these first few sessions have been serendipitous we consciously realize that there is a need to be more intentional in our approach to this topic. This line of thought received support in a Twitter Spaces conversations which we organized - as an experiment to examine if the conversation can be decoupled from the webinar/presentation format and become more exploratory. One overarching theme from the Spaces discussion has been to attempt wider outreach - outside of the English speaking audience. And another topic which came up was to provide content that is easily understood when taking the first steps towards being a supporter/promoter of the issue. Far too often such conversations have been ‘by the tech savvy, for the tech oriented’ and it is time that a true measure of public discourse is planned around this particular and other similar topics.

In the coming months we plan to extend our studies along a few well defined paths. Adding the ‘international context’ - how other nations and democracies faced with challenges similar to ours are responding to the need. We begin that series in June with a discussion around the fallout of the 2017 elections in Kenya and the resulting impact on civil society and critique of democracy. We will be adding specific focused topics such as accessibility, design principles, gender studies, rights and agency etc as required and necessary aspects where existing frameworks and models allow us to place this change and examine it both critically and completely.

The critical aspect here is that we are far from proposing an alternative system. In fact, such a form of techno-solutionism is probably impossible to accomplish given the vagueness in which the news around this entire topic has been made publicly available. Without publicly available documents which provide adequate detail about the scope, requirements and evaluation methodology adopted prior to the creation of the prototype, any effort to design and posit a candidate system is speculative. Instead, our effort is to create a system of examination - a method that is easily understood, quickly adopted and generates a result using first principles. This, we believe, would enable a wider dissemination of knowledge and build the capacity to undertake review of policy announcements. Such reviews can then be supplemented with expert knowledge and insights in order to produce alternative viable and sustainable methods which address the topics of democratic principles.

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