In a democratic system of government, people are given power to choose their representatives who will hold a public office. The process of choosing these candidates is called elections and people collectively vote for their favourite candidate. Though voting looks like an ordinary process, it affects us in a long way. It affects the taxes we pay, healthcare services we get and quality of education kids receive. Government policies affect every facet of our present and future life and that is the reason why casting vote is an important activity no matter how ordinary looking it is. Elections can be a complex process and listing all eligible people an electoral roll before elections take place, can be a challenging task.
In the subsequent sections, we will have a look at opportunities and challenges the electoral process presents and how these challenges can be addressed with the use of biometric voter registration.
Challenges in manual paper based voter registration
In a manual paper based voting system, eligible people cast their votes to elect their candidates by depositing ballots in sealed boxes. Once election period is over, these boxes are opened and votes are counted. All these efforts are done manually with very little or no use of technology. During the voting and counting, presence of authorized people from candidates and other officials tries to maintain legitimacy and transparency of the process. However, being a manual process, errors do occur. Human errors, e.g. errors in vote count may occur, resulting in anomalies in results. Manual voting also introduces other loopholes. Ideally one person should be able to cast only one vote. However, due to manual process and traditional identification methods used in paper based voting, it opens doors for voting fraud and manipulation. A voter can cast more than vote on the name of other electorates by faking her/his identity.
That is not it, since manual voting process has scope for manipulations; a candidate may purposely try to manipulate the results in her/his favour. Such incidents have been observed during the voting process in some countries. Flaws in voting cannot offer a flawless democratic system of government, which can affect a country’s future in a long way. That is why idea of one person one vote is crucial and must be enforced at any cost.
Where did traditional voter registration fail?
One has to go through voter registration or enrollment process to be entitled to vote. This process can take place automatically or may require a voter to do it proactively, depending on the country and jurisdiction. The voter has to fulfil minimum eligibility criteria as well. However, in some jurisdictions, fulfilling eligibility criteria like age, nationality, etc., may not automatically enrol you on the electoral roll, so it has to be processed manually when eligibility criteria is fulfilled. Voter enrollment or registration rules around the world vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, advance registration may not be required and voters can enrol right at the polling station.
Some jurisdictions, however, require advance registrations and others require no registration at all. It takes place automatically for new voters fulfilling the eligibility criteria. Automatic voter registration requires different government departments working together and sharing data with each other. Despite the differences in the voter registration process, they have something in common: identification of voters. Voter registration can be a complex and contested part in the entire electoral process. This process becomes more complex in countries with unreliable population census and identity documents. With unreliable identification documents, election commission cannot guarantee a clean election and cannot maintain the motto of one person one vote, which should ideally be the case.
Biometric voter registration: a window of opportunity for clean elections
Technology has always helped make human endeavours more efficient and fix loopholes. Technology assisted election process can be the answer to shortcomings that affects process of election negatively. Use of biometric technology can address the challenges repetitively faced during elections. Reliance on inefficient manual process and chances of human errors can also be mitigated with the use of biometric technology. Duplication of records and people being able to cast votes on the name of others becomes a thing of past with biometrics.
Biometrics is the technology of identifying people with their physiological or anatomical characteristics. Unlike traditional methods of identification, there is no tag or card is required with biometrics to prove your identity. You can be identified with the unique patterns of your friction ridges, facial structure, iris pattern, pattern of voice and even the way you walk. Biometrics makes use of what is already there, i.e. patterns naturally present on your body. It does not rely on external artefacts to carry with you like IDs or documents, to prove your identity. And unlike these external artefacts, biometric characteristics like fingerprint or facial structure cannot be lost or stolen.
Voter registration with biometrics can make sure that voter is uniquely registered in electoral records and on other can present her/his identity to perform voting fraud. This biometric identity of voters can be authenticated right before they vote and voting can be made as clean as it deserves to be.
Multiple registrations and duplication of records
Since biometric identifiers are unique and cannot be registered twice, duplication in records becomes out of the questions. On the other hand, intentional or unintentional multiple registration is automatically eliminated.
Biometric technology can curb multiple voting as voters cannot present biometric identifiers of other voters.
Biometric can eliminate barriers in voter registration and can bring in more people to election process, improving turnout rate and voting percentage.
Biometrics meets e-voting and mobile voting
Electronic voting aka e-voting leverages electronic means to cast or count votes. Electronic voting greatly reduces efforts required for voting and counting and saves a lot of time and resources. An electronic voting system may be a standalone device, capable of processing and counting casted votes on its own, or it may have been connected to a computer to gain processing ability. For example a DRM (Direct Recording Electronic) Voting Machine records votes by means of a ballot display provided with mechanical or electro-optical components that can be activated by the voter.
Now with all things going digital and accessible via the internet, idea of elections over the internet is getting attention. Many people do not vote just because of the inflexibilities associated with elections. You have to reach a certain destination and may have to wait in queues to cast your vote. Some people may not be available on the designated location on day of elections as they can be out of station. In today’s era, when everything is accessible via the internet, inability to vote online may seem disappointing. Flexibility to vote using internet and mobile devices can inspire more people to vote, making government represent more people.
Mobile voting is another concept that can become a reality in near future. Inception of mobile devices equipped with biometric identification presents a unique opportunity to use them to vote. Since biometrics of a voter can be verified against the biometric electoral register, it leaves no gap that anyone else on the name of the mobile voter can vote. Voting-on-the go can be the next big thing that can not only change how people vote, but the whole nation.
Biometric identification of voters along with electronic or mobile voting can fill the gap in present electoral system. Mobile voting will not only be faster and more efficient, it can also increases voter turnout as people who are away from their polling stations can cast their vote via the internet. Estonia became the first nation to organize first general elections over the internet in 2005. It also became the first nation to organize first ever parliamentary elections via the internet. In Estonia, each voter is provided a national ID card, which is also a smart card that uses legally binding digital signatures by using the Estonian state supported public key infrastructure. These cards can be used for secure remote authentication and access online voting facility.
Since biometrics itself is an electronic method of identification, it makes a perfect match for electronic and mobile voting solutions. A single system may not be perfect, but different electronic systems coming together can fill the gap left by each other. Biometrics can handle voter enrollment and identification part and electronic and mobile voting can take care of the rest of the electoral process.
Why biometrics for elections? and why not?
Biometrics is now a seasoned technology that has been implemented from low to high security use cases, including financial, military and government applications. Voter registration is a large scale activity and to deal with large scale identification needs, the identification method leveraged has to be fast, efficient and reliable. Biometrics has all these qualities and has already been tested in large scale identification implementations like AFIS, and biometric national ID programs, etc. But just like other computerized systems, biometric is also not perfect and has its own limitations.
Challenges for biometrics in elections
No system is perfect and that is equally true for the biometric technology. While biometrics has ability to address many challenges faced by manual voter registration and election process, it has its own set of limitations. Opting for a new system to replace the existing one is always a trade-off which requires analysis of all the aspects.
People may turn suspicions about collection of biometrics. Conspiracy theories may emerge and cultural prohibitions may also invoke.
Voter registration itself is a costly endeavour in terms of both time and resources. When introducing biometric technology for voter registration, transition can be a challenging phase for electoral commission and its employees. Except the initial cost of implementation, maintenance and other associated expenses can be overwhelming.
A biometric modality chosen for voter registration may not be able to register people whose biometric identifiers suffer with injury or disease. For example, exposure of hands to hard physical work, scratches, scars, debris and skin disease might wear off fingerprints, incapacitating biometric systems to read the pattern and register the voter.
Performance of biometric systems
Since voter registration is a large scale identification activity, a biometric system with high FRR (False Rejection Rate) or FAR (False Acceptance Rate) can turn problematic in large scale applications. FRR is the probability of cases for which a biometric system fallaciously denies access to an authorized person, while FAR is the probability of cases for which a biometric system fallaciously authorizes an unauthorized person.
Biometric data security
Concerns surrounding the security of biometric data are also emerging as more and more people are getting enrolled and their data is being collected by banks, governments and even private organizations. Usage of this data is another concern often expressed by privacy advocates.
Use of biometrics in election can make it more efficient, secure and curb voting fraud, however if particular Jurisdiction suffers with the history of voter intimidations and use of other means for affecting voter mind-set, biometrics will offer no help.
There is no double that biometrics has made human identification securer and more efficient, however, voter registration and identification in many countries are still on traditional mode. Traditional methods used for voter registration and identification are prone to forgery and manipulation. Even in jurisdictions that use electronic means of voting, voter registration is mostly done manually, which leaves gaps that makes election process slow and prone to errors. Biometric technology can fill these gaps and dramatically reduce the chance of errors in elections. Despite a new system being able to curb the inadequacies of a current system, there may be challenges that may surface while introducing the new system.
Voter acceptance for biometrics, population coverage, performance, data security are some of the challenges that biometrics in elections may face. These challenges can be addressed with proper planning and technological advancement, and biometric can become the most preferred method of voter registration and identification in elections. Clean elections will eventually result in clean government and a prosperous nation.