Parsing Putin – what the Russian President’s article says about World War 2 and modern history

President Putin’s article in National Interest on the Great Patriotic War is very well worth reading to understand how is is seeking to portray the history of that period, particularly in light of the proposed changes to the constitution which would make it a criminal act to deny the official version of history. That is the message for domestic consumption at least.

But it’s message to an international audience is contained in its last paragraphs. It calls for a new conference of the modern great powers – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – a plea for Russia to be readmitted to polite diplomatic society. Given the context of an article about the destructive power of world war, this is a none too subtle hint at the alternative.

The structure of the article is a selective tour through the history of the 20th century. First and foremost, Putin states that it was the Soviet Union – all component parts of it – that was primarily responsible for defeating Hitler and Nazism.

As for the causes of the Second World War (and he does give the conflict that name on one occasion), he says that it was inevitable following the Treaty of Versailles and the feeling of injustice that this provoked in Germany. That’s a cause that is referred to also in western history teaching – or at least it was when I was at school. In addition, he says that Western firms helped Germany by investing in factories there that would be used to produce arms and that the borders drawn by the First World War victors (the Soviet Union being concerned in its own on-going revolution by this point) meant continued resentment in many parts of the continent.

But it is the ‘Munich Betrayal’ to which President Putin returns on a number of occasions as his pre-eminent reason for the Second World War. He says that France and the UK regarded Hitler

“as quite a reputable politician and was a welcome guest in the European capitals”.

He points out that Stalin did not meet with Hitler and that it was the division of Czechoslovakia, in which Poland was also complicit, that was the final straw.

And it was as a result of the Munich agreement and the decision by the Western Powers to allow Japan a free rein in China that the Soviet Union was forced to sign a non-aggression pact (Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement)

“to buy precious time to strengthen the country’s defences”.

Putin accepts that the secret protocols to Molotov-Ribbentrop (those that agreed the division of Eastern Europe between Germany and Russia) were worthy of condemnation but notes that the Soviet Parliament did just that in 1989 whilst the West continues to deny the impact that their joint agreements with Hitler had.

Once the war started, Putin claims that the decision by the French and British not to fight hard in the West allowed the German to concentrate their resources in the East. He suggests that this was a deliberate ploy to break the Soviet Union and that Soviet forces only invaded Poland as a last resort.

Putin identifies Churchill as being in favour of working closely with the Soviets (despite his hatred of Communism) to defeat Germany and acknowledges the efforts and sacrifices of UK, US, Chinese and French nations in the fight against Hitler but is clear that these were a mere supporting act to the leading role played by the Soviet army.

Finally, Putin turns to the United Nations and says that having countries with veto power is necessary to keeping the peace as it forces the big powers to negotiate and to find compromise, just as they did at Yalta, Tehran and other wartime conferences.

Facebook announces Voting Information Center in effort to register 4 million new voters

Facebook have launched a big push to register more peoople for this autumn’s US elections. Among the tools they have created is a ‘Voting Information Center’. From this summer, anyone logging into Facebook, Messenger or Instagram will see a banner advertising the function. Facebook claim they helped 2 million people to register in 2016 and in 2018 and they want to double that number this time.

2_VotingInfoCenter_FBThe Information Center will have information about registering to vote as well as absentee or postal votes, depending on the particular rules of the state they live in.

In addition, Facebook has finalised their opt-out system for political adverts. Users will be able to toggle a switch to block all political and issue based adverts – anything that has a ‘paid for by…’ label. That’s fine, but it is a blunt instrument. There is no ability to choose only to block certain adverts. And it will be interesting to find out (if they will tell us) how many users take up this feature. The good news is that this feature will slowly roll out across other countries that have an advert register.

There are also a couple of small tweaks. The ‘paid for’ disclaimer that indicated a post was an advert used to disappear when an ad was shared. Now that label will stay on the post. Finally, the platform is tracking the amount spent by political contest so that users can identify better what money is being spent where, not just by who. Hopefully that feature will roll across to countries where campaign finance is more tightly regulated as soon as possible.

So, as you might expect, I have a number of concerns about this scheme, even if the overall proposal is very welcome:

  • First, however big and bold they are making it seem, this is still not the grand vision that Facebook has been lacking for so long when it comes to political posts, adverts and electoral interference. Until we know what their long term gameplan is, they will continue to fiddle around the edges.
  • Second, once again we are looking at a big initiative rolled out for a US election. There is absolutely nothing to indicate when such provisions might be made available in the 150+ other countries in which Facebook has a major influence on voters. Yes – the US election is the biggest single contest this year and Facebook is based there. But having a completely America-centric view on things is deeply damaging to the platform’s reputation in many other countries.
  • Third is what is not being said. Facebook is claiming: “By getting clear, accurate and authoritative information to people, we reduce the effectiveness of malicious networks that might try to take advantage of uncertainty and interfere with the election.” My fear is that they will use the existence of the Information Center as an excuse for not acting as they should when leading figures break the platform rules. A month ago President Trump had a post tagged on twitter because it was deemed that he was aiming to spread mistrust in the election system. This was about the only area in which most platforms are prepared to act (although Twitter also censored a post which it claimed was glorifying violence). This week he has again claimed (without justification) that ‘Democrats will stuff ballot boxes with thousands of fake votes’. That, again, is a post aiming to spread mistrust in the election and should have been blocked. But it hasn’t been. If Facebook starts pointing to the information center as the reason they aren’t taking down such posts when they appear on their platform then they will have failed voters rather than served them.

Twitter fact-checks Trump: labels postal voting claims as false

Twitter has taken both a huge and a tiny step in deciding to tag President Trump’s tweets about postal voting in California with a link to a fact-checking page. It is huge because this is the first time that any social media platform has even come close to censoring the President when he makes false statements and because it appears to go against Twitter’s own ‘free speech for politicians’ policy.

Screen Shot 2020-05-27 at 09.29.00

But it is also tiny because it is merely a link to another page, a tag applied many hours after the original tweets. And as the Guardian and others have shown, the link doesn’t appear in some cases if you reproduce the tweet elsewhere.

That Twitter should choose to make this decision for posts about elections is not that surprising. The company has singled out attempts at “manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes” for special attention. That said, the platform failed to act when President Trump made false statements claiming that Michigan would be sending a ballot to every voter by mail (they are merely sending a postal vote application – something done by many Republican states). It might be cynical to look at the company taking action when the tweets are about their home state of California as being significant, but there you are.

The tweets in question are a repetition of the sort of thing the President said in the Michigan case – that the state would be sending ballot papers to anyone living in the state, even if they are illegal immigrants (that bit is implied) and that state officials would then tell people how to vote. Each aspect is clearly false. The linked fact checking page is pretty good – it aggregates a range of journalists and others explaining why the President’s statements are not correct. How many of the President’s followers will actually read it remains to be seen however.

Predictably, the President is claiming that this action has infringed his right to free speech, and that he ‘will not allow it to happen’ despite platforms having the right under federal law to decide how to moderate what appears. His campaign manager Brad Parscale claimed that this justified his decision to end Trump’s advertising on Twitter, despite the platform itself taking the decision to end all political advertising in 2019, something the Trump campaign at the time complained was biased.

My own view is that I do not believe that Twitter would have taken this decision if it were to be a one-off. They will be generating a huge backlash which will only be justified if they really intend to push on and have a similar form of fact-checking for future statements by Trump and other candidates. Whether they will limit their actions to tweets about elections or spread the net further will be closely watched. In the meantime, it is also a shot across the bows for Facebook which has refused to allow its third-party fact-checkers to critique the posts of politicians and other world leaders.

Russia’s remote voting proposals will lessen transparency and trust

In an already controlled environment, the latest moves to change electoral systems in Russia have the potential to further tighten the grip of the Kremlin. A Bill to enable candidate registration signatures to be collected via the state services app has been amended at the last minute to allow remote voting via a number of means. It passed the Duma (the lower house of parliament) after lawmakers were given just 36 minutes to see the proposed amendments. Covid-19 restrictions limited the amount of media and public scrutiny that was possible of the procedings.

What appears to have emerged from the process is a Bill that will allow for the development of internet voting, for postal voting and to expand the range of people who are qualified to vote at home on election day. In addition, for health reasons, voting will now be allowed in the precincts of the polling station as well as the voting room itself.

There is an axiom that any time you take the ballot paper out of the control of election officials, that vote becomes less secure and more susceptible to fraud. These new measures all remove the oversight that election administrators – and observers – will have over the process. It is perhaps no wonder that Russia’s leading independent election observation group – Golos – have said of the changes: 

“Their implementation without simultaneously ensuring guarantees of effective control will increase the level of distrust of citizens in elections.”

To take the changes one by one:

Internet Voting

Internet voting is often seen as the solution to many election problems. In the UK it was trialed as a response to declining turnout in the early 2000s. But just because someone tells a pollster that they are more likely to vote if they can do so from home via the internet, doesn’t mean they will actually do so. TV programmes which use internet voting have many hours of positive broadcast coverage and still only get a small proportion of their audience to vote.

As I have written before, internet voting is doubly problematic. First in that it takes the vote out of the polling station. Second, that it is reliant on ‘black box technology’ so the voter cannot see directly how their vote contributes to the result and there is no paper trail. If some malign actor, either within the election commission or hacking in from outside, wanted to fix the result then it is far more possible with internet voting and almost impossible to prove.

The only country which successfully uses internet voting for national elections is Estonia which has spent many millions (in a very small country) on security. This includes a reader for every household so that voters can insert their national identity card to be validated. Even then, I would argue, it is not completely secure as other members of the household could vote using a person’s card – particularly if they are vulnerable or disinclined to vote. And the chances of pressurized voting are obvious.

Postal Voting

Postal votes have been the subject of many election fraud cases around the world. It is not quite true to assert, as President Trump does, that all postal voting is riddled with fraud. But postal votes are subject to many of the risks of other forms of remote voting.

Where a person cannot make it to vote on election day, postal votes can be a good thing. In the UK we used to have a ‘for cause’ system which meant you needed a valid reason for asking for one. Now we operate an ‘on demand’ system. This avoids the need to tie up doctors and employers and for election administrators to deal with lots of paperwork.

Where the UK – and others – have largely failed is when they seek to adopt universal postal voting – ie every voter is sent a postal vote to their registered address. I have dealt with such issues here. In short, if a person is not aware that their vote is being sent by post then it is easy to abstract and cast illegally. Switzerland is a country where all-postal ballots do work well, but is a very different electoral culture.

In order to have an effective postal vote system, a country needs to have a means of verifying that the application and the resultant vote come from the registered voter. You don’t want to allow others to apply and then vote on your behalf. This means having lots of staff, lots of time and specialist signature matching software. My experience of the Russian system is that the elections staff are generally pretty well trained and motivated, but they are short staffed and would need a significant increase in their budgets and allocation of high quality hardware from local administrations which are often reluctant to let them have anything other than the oldest computers.

Traditionally, Russia has sought to address the problem of people being away from home on election day by allowing ‘place of stay’ voting. This system, managed by the state services app, allows a voter to move their polling station up to a couple of days before the election. If you are away from home on business or an economic migrant, you can simply change where you vote to a local station. And there are special polling stations created in hospitals and railway stations, and even on ice-breakers and at the Antarctic Research Station. So with all these options, are postal votes really needed?

Early Voting

Early voting has been used for some time in a number of countries. It is not the most susceptible to fraud as it still requires the voter to attend a polling station (their own or a central hub) where they are dealt with by election administrators in the same manner as on election day. However, it can stretch the resources of party and other observers who are there to ensure that nothing untoward happens. And it can make it easier for the same voter to cast multiple ballots by going from polling station to polling station.

Home Voting

Home voting has been the traditional means by which Russia allows those who cannot come to a polling station on election day to vote. It has always been restricted to the old and people with disabilities and requires an application by the elector which is then adjudicated by the polling station committee. If approved, then on election day a subset of the committee, plus observers, takes a small version of the ballot box to the home of the voter. Although in most cases this is a workable solution, it requires the intrusion into the voter’s home of up to eight people and it is often difficult to ensure the secrecy of the vote.

The proposal now is to allow carers as well as those being cared for to vote in this way. That may seem a logical step, but simply extends the problem, I would suggest.

Precinct Voting

The proposal is to allow voters to cast their ballots not just in the confines of the polling booths, but also within designated areas within the precincts of the polling station building – in courtyards, for example. This is being done, it is claimed, for health reasons.

Fairly obviously, loss of secrecy is a big problem with this proposal. If people are wandering around with their ballot then it can be seen by others. In my experience in Russia at least one third of voters do not bother to fold their ballot after completion. 

I don’t know whether there will be polling booths set up in the courtyards where voting will be allowed, but the chances are that these will be as unpopular as those in the officisl voting room if there is a fear of Covid-19.

Perhaps the other major problem is that election officials and observers will find it difficult to track what is happening. This makes frauds such as carousel voting, illicit pressure, family voting and proxy voting all more easy to achieve.

On the other hand…

I certainly would not suggest that the Russian voting system is in the dark ages. The place of stay voting system is very good indeed and deserves to be studied by many supposedly advanced democracies. And the state services portal makes it possible to accomplish a lot of tasks related to the elections process in a simple and speedy manner. That’s a boon to voters as well as to the state. If there were to be a form of internet voting then this might well be the basis for such a system.

That said, however, it is clear that the changes being developed as a result of this Bill are not going to make the Russian system more secure and will actually do only a little to enhance access to voting. Fundamentally, they open the way for those who wish to rig the vote to do so. Citizen confidence in elections stems from knowing that votes are cast freely and that the result is an accurate counting of only legitimate votes. Sadly I think that this Bill takes Russia away from those principles.

Internet voting is probably not the answer to elections in a time of coronavirus – IFES study

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems office in Ukraine have published a paper looking at the issues surrounding a move to voting remotely via the internet. This is particularly welcome as various commentators have suggested that internet voting could be a response to the problem of holding elections in a time of Covid-19. (You can read earlier thoughts here and here.)

In essence, the IFES paper suggests that whilst new technologies can help to deliver a more efficient election, this is not without risk factors. On the positive side, remote internet voting can help to give votes to the disenfranchised, such as citizens living abroad, people with disabilities and IDPs. It also provides quicker counts without the risks inherent in manual counting undertaken by (often) tired poll workers.

But, internet voting also introduces risks and concerns around security, secrecy, transparency and trust. As with any ‘black box’ technology, there is a risk of hacking and a high degree of faith that citizens need to have that the votes they cast will be accurately reflected in the result. And with no paper trail, if something does go wrong then the process needs to be re-run.

There is also the issue of cost. A significant change such as this would require procurement of the system, training, public information and security. And while the relative cost would go down the more that the system is used, the USA has found that voting technology requires regular (costly) upgrades if it is not to become obsolete.

The only successful nationwide use of internet voting for public elections is in Estonia where the government has invested in smart card readers for each home. These link to home computers and can read the biometric ID card that is mandatory for each citizen. That’s a lot of expensive hardware, even in a country of fewer than one million voters.

In the UK we tried internet voting in some local elections in the early 2000’s. That proved to be technologically problematic, but also failed to raise turnout – the stated aim of the project. It seems that making voting more convenient is good for those already inclined to vote, but unlikely to bring new people to the ballot box.

In the time of coronavirus, it is right that all ideas are considered. But the IFES paper makes clear that the costs and risks of internet voting do not make it a quick fix for the current problems.

Read the full paper for yourself here.

 

Trying to hold an election in a pandemic isn’t wise…

A while agoI wrote about the problems faced by those nations which have elections scheduled during the period when life is likely to be affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. In general, I argued that postponement is better than trying to hold an all-postal election in any country where that is not the norm.

Yesterday, the state of Wisconsin in the USA went ahead with their primary. This article, taken from the Washington Post’s 5 Minute Fix newsletter, explains why this was a bad idea – far worse than an all-postal ballot. You can (and should) sign up for the 5 Minute Fix here.

There’s no good way to hold an election in a pandemic. But Wisconsin, which is holding its primary in the middle of an extremely deadly week in the United States, is demonstrating exactly what not to do.

How did this come about? There was delayed action by the governor, last-minute court cases about whether the election could go forward and political fighting about whether to allow more people to vote by mail. The result is that the election was confirmed to be on only the night before, hundreds stood in long lines to vote and hundreds of ballots submitted during the confusion could be thrown out because of all the changing rules.

“We decided to risk our lives to come vote. I feel like I’m voting for my neighbors, all the people who don’t have the luxury to wait this long.” — Milwaukee voter Ellie Bradish, 40, to The Washington Post

Here’s what led to this in Wisconsin and what we can learn from it so voters in other states aren’t forced to do the same in primaries later this year or even the general election in November.

Wisconsin didn’t delay the primary. At least 20 other states have moved their primaries back to June or July. That’s a big decision. It means voters will have to wait months longer to chime in on local, state and congressional elections and the Democratic presidential primary. But numerous state leaders decided that putting voting on hold was the best of bad options.

The Republican legislature would not approve all-absentee ballots. In most states, the legislature has to change state law about how an election works. While Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, did not try to push back the election, he did ask state lawmakers to approve mailing absentee ballots to every voter. The Republican legislature declined, even when Evers forced them into a special session days before the election.

Republicans — from state lawmakers all the way up to President Trump — have said they fear what will happen to Republican candidates when more people vote because voting is easier. This is a political fight that’s going to play out across the country. On Tuesday, Texas Democrats sued the Republican governor to demand that the state make the switch to mailing voters ballots for upcoming elections.

Wisconsin also hasn’t seriously considered all-mail voting. The safest way to vote in a pandemic would be for all of us to vote from home with mail-in ballots. That’s different from absentee voting, which in many states requires voters to first fill out an application for a ballot. But just mailing every voter a ballot isn’t easier. Only five states have the ability to do this, and they spent years putting all the pieces together, like buying high-quality machines that can quickly count millions of ballots and doing voter-eduction campaigns about how to fill them out correctly.

Still, a number of states that don’t want to force their voters to the polls will decide in the next few weeks whether they’re going to try to set up mail voting anyway rather than send voters into long lines like the ones we are seeing Tuesday in Wisconsin.

WhatsApp introduces virtual social distancing in attempt to limit fake Covid-19 news

The social media platform WhatsApp has taken steps to try to limit the spread of disinformation about the coronavirus Covid-19. The move will also impact other forms of ‘viral’ messages, including those connected to elections.

The change means that a user can only send a ‘frequently forwarded message’ to one of their contact groups or coversations at a time. The previous limit differed depending on the country in which you were based, with a ceiling of five in India but much higher in most other territories. In this context, a frequently forwarded message is one that has been shared more than five times already.

There have already been suggestions that this policy should be taken up by other platforms including Facebook – which could limit the use of the Share button.

This change, if not revoked once the Covid-19 crisis is over, will also have a massive impact on elections. In countries where WhatsApp is the one of the main social media platforms – such as Brazil or India – the spread of fake political news has been particularly difficult to contain as WhatsApp groups are closed and there is no form of register of popular posts, nor is there an opportunity for fact checking. Limiting the sharing of news via the platform will significantly diminish the ability to share both truthful and false information.

However, the move has been criticised by mainstream media outlets. Jamie Angus, Director of the BBC World Service group, tweeted that the idea was counterproductive and called for trusted news sources to be allowed direct access to promote content about the virus directly onto the platform.

Screen Shot 2020-04-07 at 09.47.59

And whilst media like the BBC do have their own platforms of course, reaching out to other audiences via social media is seen by many as being significant during a time of national lockdown. 

Angus’ comments, however, reflect a UK situation where broadcasters like the BBC are widely trusted by the public. The platforms, operating on a global basis, might be wary about handing over any sort of editorial control to state run media in authoritarian countries or to making the decision as to what constitutes a trusted media source in deeply polarized markets such as the USA or Ukraine.

Elections during Covid-19

Whilst the world is trying to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, the normal functionality of most states is taking a back seat. That includes elections and democratic processes. The challenge for all leaders is to ensure that emergency measures put in place for times of crisis are rescinded as soon as they can be and normal democracy and personal freedoms are once again allowed to flourish.

So far, at least 20 countries have had elections postponed and more decisions are needed all the time. A few have tentatively named new dates in the autumn, but most are as yet un-scheduled. Some ballots have struggled on, but it has become clear that this will not be possible for much longer. Elections which had hoped to get under the wire, such as France’s local elections, have been pushed back. In the first round, the government asked voters to stay three feet apart and bring their own pens. Despite these and other measures, turnout dropped from 63% in 2014 local polls to 45%, prompting President Macron to postpone the second round. 

And yet there remain a few polls which may still take place. According to International IDEA, “elections in South Korea (15 April 2020), Russia* (public vote scheduled for 22 April 2020) Bolivia (3 May 2020), New Zealand (19 September) and Romania (late 2020) are being held as originally scheduled despite concerns related to COVID-19.”

(*Note that the Russian vote has now been delayed).

The decision for lawmakers is how they can balance democracy with the health of their populations. Can mitigation measures be put in place to allow an election to go ahead, or will it put the health of voters and poll workers at risk? And is there a risk that one section of the population – typically older people – will be less inclined to vote, thus affecting the legitimacy of the outcome?

Reading the expert scientific opinion, we know that the virus can be spread by sneezing and coughing and by social contact. It is yet to be shown how long the virus can live in the open air, but places where large numbers of people can be expected to gather are at risk and such comings together have been banned in many states. Facemasks and disinfecting might help, but probably not enough to ensure that busy polling places are not without at least a degree of risk. And it would not be practical to ask every person to wear a mask or to wipe down all surfaces between each voter.

Even if it were possible, the level of concern among voters would be significant and would surely affect turnout – a factor that is not in the interests of any candidate, nor of democracy.

In those cases where elections have happened regardless – often in a country’s early stages of dealing with Covid-19 – various mitigation measures have been tried. For instance, in Israel, special polling places were set up for roughly 5,500 people self-isolating and these featured plastic sheeting and poll workers in protective gear.

Postponing elections is an easier option, but it has a significant impact on the democratic legitimacy of those who stay in office longer. And in many countries it is simply not legal to extend terms. Over the past few years, the annual survey of the state of democracy in the world has shown a small degree of backsliding. One of the tenets of a democratic society is that elections are held regularly and freely. Postponing them obviously risks this and so must only be taken as a last resort. In cases such as North Macedonia’s parliamentary elections slated for April 12th, the delay is less important as these were early polls in any case. Postponing them until the originally scheduled date in the autumn might not have a significant impact on the democratic health of the country.

One might also argue that the democratic deficit created by postponing local and mayoral elections for a year is not huge as these are less powerful positions. But it may still be the case that a postponement is unconstitutional. In an emergency session of parliament on 15th March 2020, Austria passed the ‘COVID-19-Law’. The law does not mention elections, but allows for far reaching restrictions to public life, including bans of assembly for more than five persons. Local elections scheduled for 15th March in Vorarlberg and for 22nd March in Styria have both been cancelled. Indefinitely postponing elections is not in Austria’s Constitution and its election laws prescribe: “In the event of circumstances that prevent the beginning, continuation or completion of the election, the election administration can extend the election or postpone it to the next day.” If a new date is not pencilled in soon then it may be that such instances will result in court fights.

Another case of concern is the vote on a new constitution for Chile due to be held on April 26th which has now been postponed to the autumn. This vote was the outcome of many years of protests about the Pinochet-era constitution. Instead of voting to replace widespread restrictions to personal freedoms, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced a 90-day “state of catastrophe” to confront the growing outbreak. The move gives the government extraordinary powers to restrict freedom of movement and assure food supply and basic services. The military is permitted to intervene and uphold order when necessary. A significant test of every country’s leadership will be how restrictive the measures are that they feel they need to put in place and how soon they can start to ease them. 

And what of the November election for the US President – the most powerful elected office in the world? There couldn’t really be a serious debate about extending this term of office because it would fall immediately into an argument about President Trump himself. But if there could be an objective discussion, where would that end up if the virus was still having a major effect on American life? And how do we even get to the November elections which are reliant on a series of primaries to determine presidential and down-ballot candidates?

Various suggestions have been made about alternatives to the normal voting rules and procedures, but the oft-touted concept of all-mail voting does not come without significant risks. In particular, fraud, or the potential for it, is much higher based on the experience of the UK.

The idea of implementing an all-mail ballot is an attractive one, but comes up against significant barriers in the US context. Chief among these is that elections are a devolved responsibility with states and counties having their own laws and procedures. Just 34 states have a vote by mail option and the federal government cannot mandate its adoption. That is not to say that states might not choose to provide such a choice where they currently do not, or to expand it where it is currently limited, but such action comes at a price – both financial and logistical. One state that will be trialling an all-mail vote is Maryland where a special election is to be held on 28th April. 

As an international election observer for more than 20 years, I know also that taking ballot papers out of the confines of the polling station carries a significant increased risk of fraud. And in a large election with many contests, there will be a significant rise in spoiled ballots and voter confusion in cases where there is not an official on hand to explain the process to those who may be unsure.

Such problems are exacerbated where the vote by mail is not obtained through choice but is universal. In the UK we trialled this over several elections between 2000 and 2002. The aim was to raise turnout in years which traditionally had low participation rates. The problem was that ballot envelopes are easily identifiable and can be taken by someone other than the intended voter. This happened chiefly where the voter had moved on or was not interested in voting and is an even bigger concern in multi-occupancy dwellings where residents have access to the mail of others. Where a voter has applied for a postal vote, they are more likely to raise the alarm when it does not arrive on time. But where they might not be expecting their vote to arrive in the mail, they may not know it is missing – particularly if they are someone who is less inclined to vote in the first place.

The other issue we faced in the UK was of unscrupulous campaigners stealing votes, pressuring voters and even creating ‘fraud factories’ to open up completed ballots and change them if they were not cast to the liking of the criminal parties. 

With accusations of electoral fraud common in the US in recent years, even the possibility that this might be happening would be enough for candidates from across the political spectrum to throw accusations. This would damage trust in democracy and the credibility of those declared the winners.

Whilst in the UK we continue to allow postal voting on demand, we have tightened the system significantly. The all-mail election experiment was abandoned and the signature and date of birth of all postal voters are held by election officials with every returned ballot having a signed declaration which is checked before the ballot envelope is included in the count. It is a long and costly business with an impact on personal privacy and also leads to some valid votes potentially being excluded. But it is considered the fairest balance. Campaigners in the US have already made this a point of contention with some arguing for ballots without a perfect signature match to be counted.

That is not to say that all-mail ballots cannot work. The Swiss use such a system and there are few, if any, accusations of fraud in that country. But it should not be thought of as a risk-free option for the USA or elsewhere, even in these extraordinary times. 

Technological solutions such as voting using text messaging, via the internet or by telephone were also trialled in the UK and found to have significant security risks. In a country where foreign agents are accused of having sought to disrupt the last election, it would be foolish to consider introducing more opportunities for hacking. The only country that routinely uses internet voting for public elections is Estonia and they have invested billions over many years into hardware and software to improve the security of the vote. The chances of any other country doing so for an election due in the next couple of years is negligible.

Inevitably, there is no easy solution to this challenge. Postponement, all-mail and technological solutions each have their benefits but also significant drawbacks. The debate to identify the least problematic option or options should continue. But it will only be successful if accepted by all parties and candidates as the best alternative.

UPDATE: International IDEA has now produced a technical paper looking at the options for holding elections.

North Macedonia delays election. What about others?

Parliamentary elections in North Macedonia have been postponed as a result of the Covid-19 virus. The polls were set for April 12th. The election observation mission from OSCE/ODIHR had already been withdrawn from the country.

The election was called by former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in response to the decision by the EU not to formally open accession talks with his country. French President Macron was believed to be behind the decision to halt the process.

Parties in North Macedonia must now hammer out a deal to decide when and how the elections can be re-scheduled.

With around 70 elections scheduled to take place this year, there will be many debates as to what is right for each particular circumstance. As the US primaries show, even if the main election is not due until much later in the year, problems now can still have a major impact

A paper by International IDEA discusses the challenges faced by those trying to hold elections at this time. They cite the need to balance public (and poll worker) safety with the curtailment of democracy if elections are suspended. But even if elections are pushed through, there is a high risk that many people will not risk going to vote and these may be disproportionately from certain groups. Using new technologies (or even old tech such as postal voting) is certainly on the table, but is very expensive to implement, requires high levels of voter education and opens a much greater risk of fraud.

The UK has taken the decision to delay local and mayoral elections by a whole year. Other countries will seek to delay for a much shorter period – perhaps hoping that circumstances will allow them to proceed in the autumn. Two other options might be to bring ruling parties and opposition together in a government of national unity for the period of the outbreak or to hold elections now, but recognise that these might not be fully representative and hold a fresh election in a year’s time.

Reading List – 2nd March 2020

The Guardian reports on developments in the East African country where power has been dominated by the clan system and where minorities and women have been excluded.

 

The possible impact of the coronavirus on the US election has been raised in a number of quarters. In an op-ed on Wired, Jon Stone suggests that the option of an all-mail ballot in November is not that easy to achieve as US elections are managed by states and counties rather than federally.

However, the very fact that people are thinking about the possible impact and how it can be mitigated this far out from the November polls is encouraging.

 

A court in the USA has ruled that privately owned social media companies such as Facebook and twitter are not covered by the First Amendment – the right to freedom of speech. In a case brought by conservative groups, the court said that the companies have the right to censor material they do not like. I would guess that this one will go to the Supreme Court.

 

Most Americans don’t have confidence in the ability of tech platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to defeat attempts to interfere in elections, according the Pew Research. But the vast majority also think that it is the duty of these companies to do so.

 

 

This is fairly techy in the detail, but this article exposes the security flaws in the sorts of electronic voting machines which are common in the US. There are also a couple of videos where experts explain how they might go about hacking individual machines or the election server.