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Electronic voting will be a reality in the next Mexican mid-term elections, to be held on June 6th. The General Council of the National Electoral Institute approved the installation of 100 electronic ballot boxes in the states of Jalisco and Coahuila. At first glance, it would seem like good news, considering the way technology already facilitates many aspects of our daily lives. However, moving from the paper ballot to the screen of a machine implies serious risks for the future of the democratic system. Here are three reasons against electronic voting.
Electronic voting weakens the legitimacy of elections
The Mexican electoral system, built during decades of political struggles, starts from the principle of a healthy distrust of government and centralization. The result is a system where, although the logistics are defined by a government agency (the National Electoral Institute), the actual work of Election Day is carried out by citizen volunteers, who are also neighbors of the community or neighborhood where the polling place is installed.
The fact that the polling places and the counting of the votes are conducted by volunteer poll workers from the community itself, who are also supervised by party representatives (who are also volunteers and neighbors) gives the process a profound sense of tolerance and legitimacy, the importance of which we should not underestimate.
This matters because, far beyond the letter of the law, what really sustains democratic systems is their psychological and, to put it in a manner of speaking, “theatrical” aspect. Taking an active part in this voting ceremony, held in a polling place where the neighbors themselves are the ones who physically extract and count each ballot, makes it easier for all participants to assume ownership of the process and its results.
No wonder, when López Obrador claimed fraud after the 2006 elections, one of the most powerful arguments to defend the electoral result and dismantle the fraud narrative was the fact that the votes had been counted by almost a million citizens in their own neighborhoods and communities, under the supervision of hundreds of thousands of other party representatives, including those of López Obrador himself. Particularly clear was the case of the alleged fraud at a polling place in Salamanca, denied by AMLO’s own representative at that polling place.
In exchange for a very questionable convenience, electronic voting dangerously dilutes two transcendental moments of the democratic ritual:
During the day, it snatches from the voter the sense of belonging that comes from marking with his own handwriting on a physical piece of paper that he himself takes to the ballot box, and his neighbors physically count that at the polling place itself.
At the end of the day, it takes away from the polling place officials and party representatives the sense of certainty and definitiveness that comes from taking out the ballots marked with the handwriting of their neighbors, to count them and present right there the results of the will expressed by the inhabitants of that neighborhood or community.
To end quickly, even if you opt for an electronic system with paper receipts (which simply increases waste) the result will be a voting system that people will feel less natural, less their own, and -therefore- less legitimate.
And that can make a difference, especially in highly competitive elections.
Electronic voting centralizes the electoral power structure
The terrible and absurd electoral reform of 2014 basically destroyed the local electoral institutes and replaced them with zombies that depend on the National Electoral Institute. Essentially, Mexico ceded to a single institution all the power implicit in the logistics of the electoral process. Electronic voting would deepen this dangerous centralization.
In essence, the massification of electronic voting will imply taking away from ordinary citizens the responsibility for the counting of the votes cast on Election Day. The centralization made possible and promoted by electronic voting can indeed “facilitate” the organization of the electoral process and save a few minutes in the processing of the results. But in exchange, it literally takes the elections out of the people’s hands and hands them over to a small group of electoral technocrats. Frankly, we already know what that will lead to, which brings us to the third argument.
Electronic voting increases (and centralizes) the possibility of fraud
By their very nature, electronic voting mechanisms are susceptible to alterations and hacks, leaving in question whether the official vote count really represents the will expressed by the citizens who went to the polls.
The vulnerabilities of the electronic voting machines are more than documented, and a single leak that would call into question the security of their systems, would potentially affect all those installed in the national territory, making it much easier (and cheaper) to commit electoral fraud, but only for a privileged few. Let’s see:
It is almost impossible to commit large-scale electoral fraud under the current system of paper ballots counted by hundreds of thousands of citizens who voluntarily participate as volunteer poll workers, under the supervision of hundreds of thousands of other citizens who voluntarily participate as party representatives. In order to alter the will of the voters it would be necessary to count on the complicity of thousands of people to build and maintain in secret a structure capable of modifying a sufficient number of electoral records without anyone going to television or social networks with the denunciation.
On the contrary, if electronic voting is massified, it will be enough to corrupt or intimidate a handful of technicians and officials to alter vote registration systems, with the added ease that these alterations can be hidden under an avalanche of codes, making them almost impossible to detect, even for well-trained eyes.
Worse, electronic voting opens the door to fraud only to those who have access to key officials and technicians. This concentrates illegitimate advantages in favor of the political group with the most influence in the process, affecting the balance of power that is indispensable for the proper functioning of democracy.
To put it bluntly: when everyone has approximately the same opportunity to cheat, they “compensate” and look to keep an eye on each other on an even playing field. When only one can cheat, that temptation is much more seductive.
More than the process, what matters is the meaning
By betting on electronic voting, technocrats are once again demonstrating their blindness with respect to the human and political dimension of legal acts. The purpose of a vote is not to make a simple sum of graphic expressions on a paper ballot, which can be digitized to save time and money.
No. Voting is above all a ritual in which the active participation of citizens makes it easier for them to take ownership of the process and the result, even when it does not go in favor of the candidate that a particular citizen supported.
Electronic voting is the fruit of technocratic arrogance, which transforms the electoral day and dilutes its meaning. By moving from the ballot to the screen, elections cease to be a ritual where citizens are the protagonists, to become a formality where voters are mere guests. And that is very dangerous.
Gerardo Garibay Camarena, is a doctor of law, writer and political analyst with experience in the public and private sectors. His new book is "How to Play Chess Without Craps: A Guide to Reading Politics and Understanding Politicians" // Gerardo Garibay Camarena es doctor en derecho, escritor y analista político con experiencia en el sector público y privado. Su nuevo libro es “Cómo jugar al ajedrez Sin dados: Una guía para leer la política y entender a los políticos”