When democracy becomes contactless

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SOUTH AFRICA - Cape Town - 8 May 2019 - Ballot boxes at Kalkfontein Primary School voting station in Kuilsriver as South Africans head to the polls today to vote in the country's sixth national elections. Pictures: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency(ANA)

Democracy is about discourse, debate and depending on where one stands diatribe. Ultimately democracy’s defining moment is the moment when one eligible person casts one and only one vote, in secret, without fear or favour. 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) threatened to change democracy. Researcher and experts began discussing election-related 4IR technologies such as electronic voting both remote and poll site-based; blockchain for added-remote voter integrity; blockchain for trusted bill-of-material supply chain logistics; artificial intelligence of electoral results analysis and so on; cloud computing for storage and so on. But what is 4IR? 4IR is a popular term describing the dynamic environment through which disruptive technologies and trends are changing the way we live, work and relate to one another. Do the last few words in italics appear or feel familiar?

If the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) was a disruptive blow to traditional voting systems, is Covid-19 the knockout punch to democracy as we know it? The toxic combo of 4IR and Covid-19 is clearly redefining the way we live, work, relate to one another. We add study, travel and now how we vote. We even created a term for this: new normal. Indeed the IEC has applied for an have been granted a postponement of the March, April and May Elections.

4IR offers speed, immediacy, digital citizenship as practised in Estonia and even almost instant democracy like Brazil through their electronic voting systems. To be sure technology is not a panacea. After-all democracy is about transparency not speed, although electoral delays can and do unintentionally heighten suspicion. As each new technology is deployed to resolve a problem, it sometimes introduces new challenges – some unintended or even unexpected. 

4IR-enabled modern travel provided Covid-19 with a business class trip into Africa. This scourge demands physical distancing, which undoubtedly will change electoral administration. As counterintuitive as it seems we are heading for what I term a “contactless democracy”. Contactless democracy, however, must not be conflated with remote voting. Remote voting is where one votes by mail (VBM) or internet electronic voting through a device such as a laptop or mobile without going to a voting station. Contactless democracy may be likened to a contactless transaction where the ballot is cast with physical distancing enforced.

Will this contactless democracy impact the IEC? Yes, we have already had elections postponed. It will impact the voting stations as we know.  However, the IEC setup is petty circumspect in its deployment of stations separating voter verification from the Voter’s Roll,  voter deletion from the Voters Roll, then the ballot cast. The voter queue can easily support physical distancing. Poll site crowds are eliminated as campaigning is not allowed on Election Day. Biometrics, for instance, may have to change through the context of contactless capture and verification methodologies. Should fingerprinting continue or should retinal scans or other voice biometrics be used instead? Would we need multimodal methods?

Electoral campaigning though will also have to embrace the new normal. Social Media and the mobile have introduced an immediacy and a potential link to every voter. It was, however, this self-same openness which allowed Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm to gain access to private information and identify the personalities of 50 million American Facebook users in order to influence their voting behaviour. This is now the new digital vigilance that the IEC has to monitor and mitigate.

Will a politician be able to engage a voter long enough, through Social media, to win their vote? Or will the latest TikTok viral video distract and divert them? The human misery evoked by the lockdown has enabled some opportunistic politicians, from across the political spectrum, to usurp food hampers aimed at the hungry and redirect them for political or personal gain. Social media is glaring with evidence. This is now called digital vigilantisms, where we “judge” through social media posts which may well be useful but extremely dangerous.

Online campaigning rears the ugly head of the so-called digital divide. On the one hand, we have many voters without smartphones or computers (device divide), while excessive data charges prohibit meaningful engagement (data divide). We know that data is the new crude oil.  Will alternative excessive data access or limitations be our insidious digital gerrymander? Or will the data bundle be the new vote persuasion bribe? 

Electronic voting? I was commissioned by the IEC to assess the case for electronic voting in South Africa neutrally. Realistically though Covid may well have exhausted our funds for such an operation. It should, however, not diminish our understandings or capacity to experiment and prepare. 

It is my job as a technologist to point the options and dangers. As a citizen, however, I implore, that we appropriate this new normal at the very least by starting non-political e-participation trails or digital referendums. Digital democracy is formally a type of direct democracy where citizens are granted an extraordinary amount of participatory input in the legislative processor.

We already know that many cash strapped municipalities face damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t operational alternatives. Why not defer to the electorate through e-participation? It may improve participation rates, test such systems and provide crucial contextual knowledge, educate the IEC and the public about digital participation. The deliberative dividend, however, is incalculable.
Covid-19 may well have infected democracy but not e-democracy. Democracy is in our minds and remains the boxing champion. The EMBs have to purposefully reimagine the electoral cycle to ensure maximal free-and-fair participation while the contestants reach as many voters as possible. 

Stay safe. Do vote when you can. This vote will count for democracy and against Covid-19.

Dr Thakur is the InSeta Research Chair in Digitalisation and e-Skills CoLab Director at DUT. He also provides technical analyses of electoral systems. He writes in his personal capacity.