/ 24 April 2024

E-voting versus paper ballots

The commission also has a MXit app
How does a continent that has suffered decades of state capture and democratic decline ensure free, fair and participatory electoral processes for effective democratic governance? Technology may be the answer. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

South Africa’s paper-based elections to date, have largely been free-and-fair. The absence of Electoral Court cases regarding ballot production or counting irregularities is evidence enough to bear this out. While this is a real feather in the cap of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the recent inclusion of independent candidates to the ballot presents a few new challenges that may need a transition to electronic voting.

Is ballot length such a big deal?

The expected increase in paper ballot length due to the inclusion of independent candidates, as well as the relative position of each candidate on the physical ballot, will definitely influence political campaigning and voter behaviour.

Apart from the ballot design needing to mitigate counterfeits, the longer physical voting ballots will increase ballot production costs and may intimidate voters. A recent study of voting in the Philippines (where some ballots were 7-feet long) exposed an unintended consequence of these absurd ballot lengths. Voters experienced cognitive overload which increased voter tension particularly amongst the elderly, illiterate or special needs voters.

Does candidate position matter?

Recent research suggests that this ballot choice fatigue, or “roll-off”, impacts participation because voters are less likely to choose a candidate positioned further down the ballot. According to findings, choice fatigue roll-off reduces voter turnout by 6-8%.

Research also showed that ordering the candidate or party name alphabetically resulted in unintentional candidate bias. Some electoral boards mitigate this bias through straw polls, party membership size and party performance in the previous similar election. Interestingly, placement at the top or bottom of the ballot is considered primary positioning. This has proven to improve relative positional performance. Candidates with primary positions are known to campaign based on their placement to win votes through clever sloganeering like ‘vote last – for lasting impact’ or “vote first for the top candidate”.

 The IFP’s late show

Remember how some allege that the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) played chicken with our first democratic elections in 1994? The IFP only entered after the ballots were printed forcing an addition to the ballot. Some observers believe that this was a primary effect strategy to ensure that the IFP gained positional advantage on the ballot.

Is it time to move to digital voting?

To mitigate the primary effect strategy in paper based voting, Mary Beth Beazley suggested ballot rotation which randomizes or rotates candidate positioning on every printed ballot. She coined the delightful phrase “An ounce of rotation is worth a pound of litigation.” This rotation, however, is a major printing production challenge. Randomising the ballot will increase the cost of ballot production considerably, which we simply cannot afford. Such is the paradox of progress.

This sets the stage for a radical new approach: E-voting. E-voting is the electronic means of capturing a vote and or the electronic means of counting or tabulating votes. A nation is most fragile between the time voting starts and the results are announced. E-voting offers speed and eliminates this period. This was validated by Brazil when, with 156 million voters, it announced its runoff results a couple of hours after the election.

E-voting recovers after the US debacle

In the aftermath of the 2020 American Presidential elections, e-voting suffered serious international reputational damage. The Fox News network made repeated allegations over the role of the Smartmatic and Dominion voting machines played in Trump losing the elections. Fox and Dominion Voting Systems were sued but were eventually paid a $787 million settlement over the false claims. The Smartmatic matter is still before the court. This case is important because the court found that the machines were not rigged, which counterintuitively, enhanced the reputation and reliability of e-voting.

Is it time to cross the digital bridge?

E-voting is capable of randomizing candidates, with easy searchable navigation of large candidate lists and tailored navigation to help voters with disabilities. Young voters are also more likely to engage meaningfully with a digital voting process than a paper one.

Given the existing awkward coalition governments and the potential for increased national and provincial coalitions, e-voting can facilitate a more effective and participative democracy through more frequent e-referendums or plebiscites.

The key challenges, however, are the high capex cost, grid unreliability, and the need to change the voting ecosystem. Whether we like it or not, we live in an instant, digital world. We want instant results. Any delay in results generates and even elevates suspicion of electoral interference. It is time that e-voting moves from the periphery into the mainstream.

Colin Thakur is a Professor in ICT at the Durban University of Technology. He also heads the Short Course Unit and is the InSETA Research Chair: Digitalisation. Prof. Thakur also contributes to the Wits School of Governance’s Tayarisha Centre for Digital Excellence research efforts. 

The Digital Afrikan. This article is part of The Digital Afrikan’s Elections Series – 2024. The Digital Afrikan is a journalism organisation with a mission to drive digital transformation in Africa. Visit our website or contact us on [email protected]