150th Issue Articles

How long will the largest democracy wait to go online for Voting? – Aniruddha Nene, GraOne Solutions

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Aniruddha Nene, Founder Director of GraOne Solutions Pvt Ltd

It is 2500 years since the Greeks came up with Democracy. We have come a long way since then, in terms of our understanding and implementation of democracy. However, then and now, the right to vote continues to be the cornerstone of any functioning democracy – be it a national government or a cooperative housing society. Another aspect that continues to remain unexploited for most parts, is the technology enabling democracy and suffrage.

We pay our bills online, order groceries online, book a doctor’s appointment, make banking transactions, fix our car ride, and more. But we are yet to vote for the elections from our smartphones, isn’t it? World governments are keen to implement online voting. So are tech savvy organizations, societies, and educational institutions that follow democratic process. Then what is stopping us from adopting it rapidly across the segments?

 

Paper and Ballot Voting in Organizations

Voting process has remained the same for ages. Concerns around secrecy and security have fueled the popularity of paper ballots all these years. A TIME report says that in the USA, during the 1800s, voters used to show their preferences by signing under the name of a candidate. As time passed, the size of the democracy grew, and more parties came into being. Thus, printed paper ballots gained popularity. Voters used to collect ballots from their favored party, and used to mark their preferences, and drop in the ballot boxes. Over the years, different versions of paper ballots gained popularity, not just with the government machinery but also in every democratic organization from associations to clubs to corporates. The votes were sought to elect office bearer for a post or to pass a resolution for or against an agenda point.

Paper ballot based voting can be a daunting task for organizations even with a modest size of 200 – 500+ members due to various reasons such as unavailability of members, costs associated with paper printing, and paper work, etc., but what tops the list is the fact that for smaller organizations or democratic bodies, is that there is simply no administrative bandwidth to  run the election and hence less willingness for taking responsibility. Also, there may be instances of miscounting, misreading, and misplacement of paper ballots. If any such thing happens, the finger is always pointed at the administration and the vote counting is held fresh because there is no other way of clearing confusions. So this becomes a thankless task to execute.

The complexities of the problem increase with the scale. Governments agree that paper ballots have certain inherent problems. Printing, storage, and transportation of ballots during the election, demands a huge investment. There are also concerns regarding the storage of ballots between elections. Then there is the authentication of the voters themselves.

EVMs Vs Online Voting

The first technological resolution of the problem came in the form of Electronic voting machines or EVMs. EVMs reduce the possibility of errors that crop up in the manual voting and counting processes. They also provide better privacy and secrecy as compared to paper ballots. However, they do not address two core issues – simplification of the electoral process and higher security and transparency. The national or state elections in India are a mammoth administrative exercises. The amount of planning, resources, and personnel that are engaged into executing it, is phenomenal. For the logistics apart, there is a huge overhead involved in making, maintaining and transporting a huge number of EVMs. At the same time, EVMs lack sufficient transparency and means for the verification of end-to-end process. In case of a suspicion or complaint of tampering, testing one EVM box by all stakeholders once in a decade, is not a guarantee that every other EVM used in actual election will have a means of verification thereafter.

So, from both these perspectives, despite having simplified the bottom-line, EVMs fail to provide a viable alternative to the paper ballot-based process. This is more evident in case of smaller organizations who cannot afford to procure / hire EVMs or for whom EVMs do not solve the issues of logistics. For such organizations, e-voting becomes a cost-effective solution that has the potential to tackle all the said issues. It offers better, easy-to-follow verification of the voter and the process as compared to EVMs and makes it highly transparent.

Rising Trends of eVoting

In the era of technological advancement, all organizations – big or small, use one or mix of several digital communication media such as video-conferencing, webcast, etc., to conduct their daily affairs. In the ‘digitally flattened’ world physical presence becomes ever increasing hurdle and that is why webinars, web conference calls are becoming inseparable part of organizational functioning.

Corporate world has made an early entry, wherein shareholders of listed limited companies are eligible to vote for a resolution on-line. In India, Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA) vide notification of section 108 of the Companies Act, 2013 mandated every listed company with one thousand shareholders should allow its members to exercise their vote electronically during general meetings. This will help ensure wider shareholder participation in corporate governance. Various study results suggest that this initiative by the MCA has contributed positively in good corporate governance.

But a large number of smaller companies in terms of member strength are still out of coverage.  Forward thinking smaller organizations, unlisted companies, other registered associations are not waiting for regulatory norms to be established and some organizations are amending the constitution to incorporate eVoting as a proactive attempt.

eVoting Across the Globe

Electronic voting has emerged as a hot trend among organizations around the world in the last decade. The following are some organizations that adopted e-voting.

In Korea, an e-voting system was introduced in September 2010. Companies that opted for e-voting were required to register their director board meeting agenda in advance on the voting system. Korea Ship Finance Co., Ltd became the first Korean company to opt this voting.

Turkey became the first country that allowed companies registered on Istanbul Stock Exchange (ISE) to exercise their votes through an electronic voting during shareholder meetings. Also, the New Commercial Law (NCL) of Turkey confirmed that e-voting has same legal acceptance as physical participation during the voting.

In China, e-voting is made mandatory for passing special resolutions. The issuer is directed to use a reliable online voting platform this provided by Shenzhen or Shanghai Stock Exchange, or other stock exchanges. The online and on-site vote is later reconciled by the voting platform. An investor can vote directly or by proxy. This freedom of voting right is only made available to shareholders who are registered on the share register, or proxies, who are able to vote.

On the national scale, Estonia became the first country to exercise online voting. During the 2011 Estonia General Elections, almost quarter of citizens voted online to select a government. In March 2015, Estonia went to polls again, and had a better voter turnout to boast. Every Estonian citizen has a verified online ID card with all biometric information. The card can be easily used in any chip-and-pin machine, which makes it easier for government agencies to identify whether the user is an Estonia citizen or not. Estonian officials have confirmed that the online voting has attracted people living in places far from polling booths to cast their votes. All votes are encrypted and sent to the polling office.

E-Voting Concerns: Is it safe, secure, and reliable?

Here’s the deal: Indians, Americans, Britons, Japanese, and Chinese have used electronic gadgets for banking, net banking, online ordering etc. Are they all safe? Nothing is absolutely safe but we all believe that the Fin-Tech is now mature enough and in the rare event of breach of security, it is still recoverable and auditable to pinpoint a breach. The e Voting data and process can is always be made as secure as Fin-Tech or even safer by exploiting the latest technology and appropriate design to keep it out of the reach of an unauthorized user and miscreants.

Are they easy to administer? This answer is emphatic YES. Nothing can match the ease of configuring an eVoting system based on a mature eVoting platform to that provides robust security and privacy yet is very simple and intuitive to use. The platforms can be easily integrated into an organization’s website, and can seamlessly take over the ‘specialist’s task of eVoting’, just like payment gateway redirects for commercial transactions in case of ecommerce.

Transition of market maturity

Of course, the logic of voting process appears too simple to many IT services companies, who fail to really fathom the depth on security, reliability and user adoption front. Unfortunately such solutions go belly up when modest security breach takes place or some mission critical process of eVoting fails.  Such failures set in skepticism about eVoting itself. This has happened in almost every transformation. But one thing is certain, that the market will mature soon and will isolate boys from men.

Timely role of the Regulator

Legal framework that governs elections for various bodies such as Co-operative societies and literary, scientific, sports, welfare associations regulated  by Charity Commissioner, may need a serious relook. In the digitally connected world, there are better alternatives available to physical verification of the voter and implementation of the whole voting processes. It is the role and responsibility of the governing bodies to act as a proactive facilitator of appropriate technology that will lessen the burden on election process by changing the legal framework itself.

Conclusion

Indeed, this gives a strong hope that e-voting is going to be the next big trend in coming years. Traditionalists and organizational critics must agree that e-voting is a better way of governance. There are no major paper works involved, trees cut in a process, or mobilization of manpower . Administration need not run from the pillar to the post, and participate in informed decision making process, from anywhere they are. eVoting, when implemented through a trustworthy collaborator, has the potential to change the way members perceive an organization and its processes, and can give a shot in the arm to its functioning by enhancing the participation of peers and members. The real democracy is not just electing governments. It means a system wherein the principles of fair voting prevail in all layers of the society including the governments. It is only a matter of time that eVoting will bring about this transformation in India.

Authored by: Aniruddha Nene, Founder Director of GraOne Solutions Pvt Ltd

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