Elections in the Digital Age

digital elections

Elections, like the rest of society, are increasingly digitalised.

While numerous advantages of this process, such as the inclusion of excluded voices, diaspora voting, as well as the organisation of elections in times of crisis are often cited as advantages, election digitalisation opens many questions and dilemmas such as the integrity of the electoral process.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the take-up of e-voting remains somewhat slow. According to research conducted by IDEA International, electronic voting is practised in only 34 out of 178 studied countries. Estonia, as the first country to allow e-voting in the 2005 general elections, is said to be one of the most advanced in the domain, with more than 43% of its electoral body casting their vote electronically in the 2019 EU elections. Attempts to introduce electronic voting have also been made in Germany, Norway, and Switzerland, but efforts are still far from being realised. 

However, e-voting is only a part of the equation. The use of digital technologies encompasses the entire electoral process, spanning from political advertising and voter registration, to vote counting and as such brings its share of challenges. So, let us dive into the various aspects of elections in the digital age via this compendium of key concepts.  

Artificial intelligence

In the context of elections, artificial intelligence (AI) tools are being tested to predict voting trends such as voter turnout or which candidate best corresponds to voter demands. One such example is the ‘YourVoteMatters’ platform developed by a consortium of European organisations. The tool that relies on AI algorithms to match voters with the best corresponding candidates was tested in the 2019 European Parliament elections. Users played the game and responded to 25 questions derived from decisions adopted by the EU Parliament, which the algorithm then used to compare with like-minded candidates and ultimately identify their vote choice.

That said, the application and use of AI does not stop there. The use of AI-powered deepfakes to generate videos and spread disinformation has expanded to the political sphere and the context of elections. One such example is the attempted coup in Gabon following claims of a fake video of president Ali Bongo communicating that he was not healthy to hold office. 

Data protection and privacy protection

From safeguarding personal information collected during the electronic voter registration to data gathered through social media for voter profiling, privacy and data protection are present in almost every step of the electoral process. In relation to the latter, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where Facebook data of an estimated 87 million people was used for profiling and advertising during elections, is the most blatant example of data protection and privacy concerns. Facebook was fined USD 5 billion for the privacy breach and had to modify its corporate structure to become accountable for decisions concerning privacy. Other cases of data protection and privacy violations have been observed worldwide. The 2017 presidential elections in Kenya, when voter registration information was used to send out text messages and invite Kenyans to vote for political candidates, or Brazil’s 2018 presidential elections when companies were hired for ‘data-driven campaigns’ on Whatsapp, are some of the many illustrations.

Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity issues also feature big in the discussions on digital elections. Recently, ahead of its 2020 general elections, Myanmar experienced a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack that disrupted the Internet in the country and limited the free flow of information. But, cybersecurity issues raise many other concerns. Much attention is being paid to the integrity of devices, namely, the vote manipulation by malware, voter authentication, vote secrecy, to name but a few. Whereas technological advances nowadays allow end-to-end encryption to ensure that votes cannot be tampered with before or after they arrive on the server, or verifiable decryption that facilitates voter anonymity when votes are counted, trust in electoral technology is under a lot of pressure. A particular challenge in this domain is how to ensure that technology remains ‘sufficiently opaque to bad actors’ and transparent enough to the public so that it does not ‘lose trust in any system that is a ‘black box” to non-experts’.

To address cybersecurity challenges and ultimately tackle the question of eroding trust, the United States has passed a bill, the so-called SAFE Act, that ‘contains strict cybersecurity requirements for election technology vendors and voting systems’.

Security issues also include the risk of foreign and domestic interference in elections to influence the outcome.

Internet shutdowns

The impact of digital technologies on the information environment encompasses questions pertaining to Internet access or lack of thereof. Increasingly, more attention is being paid to cases where government authorities resort to partial or complete Internet blackouts or blocking of social networking sites. These measures, which are oftentimes taken ahead or on the day of elections, impede the free flow of information and public discourse and as such constitute a violation of the right to freedom of expression. According to AccessNow, in 2018, elections were  the reason behind Internet censorship in 12 instances. On the one hand, the practice prevented voters from searching for information on candidates, political campaigns, and election outcomes, and on the other, the candidates from reaching out to the electorate.

Online political campaigning

In today’s day and age, a lot of the political campaigning activities have been moved to the online space. Among other things, these include advertising on social media, distribution of video content, but also hiring influencers on networks like Instagram to promote their campaigns. In spite of the claims that online campaigning can make communication between campaigners and voters cheaper, the evolution of spending shows otherwise. In 2008, Barack Obama spent about USD 8 million for digital advertising with slightly less than USD 500 thousand spent on Facebook directly. Twelve years later, an estimated USD 7 billion was spent on political advertising in the US.

 

However, such a practice is also a matter of concern. Online campaigning remains largely unregulated allowing tech giants the possibility to define their rules of the game and determine the type of ads that their users are seeing. Moreover, the lack of oversight and transparency of spending on online political campaigning has raised issues concerning the integrity of elections. 

Social media

With more than 4.41 billion users or roughly 53% of the world’s population, social media are, at times, a powerful communication tool and a weapon. While they play an essential role in ensuring access to timely information and serving as a platform for citizens to engage policy and decision-makers, in recent years social networks have also created a fertile ground for the dissemination of hate speech and fake news. 

In response to such a trend, during the 2020 US presidential elections, social media platforms decided to take measures to warn against and curb posts that contain disinformation or encourage violence. Along these lines, Twitter attached warning labels to posts or deleted tweets in entirety, while messaging apps including WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger limited the number of message forwarding. YouTube, for its part, decided to remove videos that contain misleading claims of election fraud. Similar steps were taken by Facebook to fight the spread of fake news and hate speech on its platform ahead of elections in Myanmar.

Public-private partnership

Legislators have the ability to decide whether or not they want to use digital technologies in the electoral process. Nevertheless, with the widespread use of social media and the overall growing presence and influence of technology, it proves to be a rather challenging task. From creating elections technologies, facilitating political advertising, or serving as channels of communication, tech companies are involved in the democratic process. Nevertheless, there is little oversight of private companies responsible for election technology. Some research shows that ‘as of 2015, the outcomes of upward of 25 of the national elections in the world were being determined by Google’s search engine’. 

As actors that have the ability to influence elections in one way or another, private companies possess the capacity to tackle risks associated with the use of digital technologies by identifying, for instance, possible spread of disinformation and cybersecurity threats and could assist governments in dealing with vulnerabilities. For instance, Microsoft’s work with governments in the context of elections is best represented through the Defending Democracy Program. As part of this initiative, Microsoft’s ElectionGuard addresses potential vote tampering by checking whether ‘election results are accurate, and that votes have not been altered, suppressed or tampered with in any way’.