The Future of
Elections

Foreword

According to The Economist magazine’s Democracy Index, democracy continued declining in 2021 across the globe reaching its lowest score in the index’s history. The index takes into consideration five variables including electoral processes, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties.   

This news means electoral management bodies (EMBs), which are already overworked and under-resourced, must now redouble their efforts. Trust in democratic elections is the cornerstone on which all other aspects of democratic quality are built. It is a monumental challenge.  

Regardless of their level of success, there are no guarantees as to what future elections will look like. Few, after all, would have correctly predicted even just five years ago that today’s election environment would be what it is.  

Author Abhijit Naskar wrote, “The best way to shape the future is to envision it early on and start manufacturing it today.” With this in mind, the Future of Elections offers ideas not as predictions for the future, but as conversation starters, points for discussion, to help “start manufacturing it today.”  

This collection of forward-looking essays is written by subject-matter experts hailing from a variety of backgrounds in or allied to elections – from academics to election administration to computer science. This second edition touches three key subjects: disinformation, technology adoption and representation. The goal is to provoke thought, leading to breakthrough ideas to improve the future of elections. 

Each essay delivers the expert’s insights, imagination and opinions. As such, the authors’ content is their own. The publication of these articles, digitally or in print, is not an endorsement by the publisher. 

The Future of Elections editorial team

By Richard W. Soudriette

Founding President (1988 – 2007), International Foundation for Electoral Systems

 

In 1996, I led the team for the International Foundation of Electoral Systems (IFES) to observe the Philippine presidential election. The process of counting hand-marked ballots took nearly two months. The delay provided fertile ground for the spread of unsubstantiated rumors that led to civil unrest. This, was one of my first encounters with fake news, which threatens democracy worldwide.

A little bit of history

Today the term “fake news” has become part of the lexicon of elections. Yet fake news is not a recent phenomenon. In 27 B.C. Caesar Augustus used fake news accounts to discredit rivals in his bid to take the throne of the Roman Empire after Emperor Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Roman Senate. In 1898, the Spanish American War was sparked by a fake news story in the American press that accused Spain of sinking the USS Maine in Cuba’s Havana Harbor. In the first half of the 20th century, Joseph Goebbels led Adolph Hitler’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and he perfected the use of fake news as a political weapon, which enabled the rise of Nazism in Germany.

In one of the first organized effort against fake news, the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1922 adopted a code of ethics and a statement of principles that is still in effect. These principles include freedom of the press, responsibility of the press, press independence, accuracy in reporting, impartiality, and fair play in journalism. Unfortunately, over the past three decades these journalistic standards have been weakened by the emergence of cable news, the decline of print journalism, and the rise of social media. 

A disruptive business model

The drastic changes in journalism in recent decades are due to the explosion of social media platforms that many users rely upon as their sole source of news. Social media companies make most of their revenue from advertising using business models designed to maximize user engagement. They permit virtually all content including highly controversial topics that may increase page viewing and increase revenue. Social media firms design algorithms for their platforms with minimal capacity to verify the veracity of content posted by their users. 

Newspapers and television networks have long relied on ad-driven revenue but generally they still follow basic rules in verifying content and sources. In contrast social media is treated differently because of legislation passed by the US Congress in 1996 called Section 230. This provision protects social networks and websites from liability for illegal or offensive content posted by users. This legislation was intended to shield internet providers and social media firms from being sued. The law treats social media platforms as neutral middlemen. Unlike traditional media, social media is not required to verify content which has subsequently enabled fake news to become a huge threat to democracy.

Destabilizing even the strongest democracies

In 2014, UK cybersecurity officials discovered a fake news campaign from abroad to disrupt the Scottish Independence referendum. In the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit Referendum, former UK Prime Minister Theresa May condemned Russian interference in British politics. The Washington, D.C. based Center for Strategic and International Studies has cited examples of suspected international fake news operations intended to disrupt elections in many European countries.

“Fire hosing” is popular tactic of cyber-operatives who use social media to bombard countries with fake news to destabilize elections. Since 2014, international fire hosing episodes have occurred in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Netherland, Spain and Ukraine. For the US Presidential Elections In 2016 and 2020, the FBI and US intelligence agencies concluded there was Russian interference using various types of disinformation to impact these elections.  In 2016, the US Department of Homeland Security discovered that Russian security operatives attempted to breech voter registration databases in 21 states.

Additionally in 2020, US intelligence agencies identified international cyber-interference from China, Iran, as well as Russia. Prior to the 2020 election the National Security Agency and the FBI disclosed that international operatives had successfully hacked the voter registration databases of Alaska and Florida. Furthermore, John Radcliff, former director of national intelligence, informed the US Congress that Iranian operatives had used voter registration data to send phony emails to Florida voters and these messages were made to look as if they had been sent by far-right US hate groups.

Even with fake news and the Covid-19 pandemic raging, most objective observers regard the US 2020 election as a huge success. There was a 66% voter turnout, which was the highest in 50 years.  Regarding the 2020 election, Christopher Krebs, former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency called it, “The most secure election in US history.” Yet, because of fake news and disinformation many Americans continue to believe that the election was stolen.

Sadly, the 2022 elections in Brazil, Kenya, and the Philippines all have been impacted by domestic efforts to promote fake news. Social media networks in these countries have been flooded with fake news before, during and after these elections. Fake news efforts and penetration of cybersecurity systems are threats to the credibility of elections and to democracy.

What EMB’s can do: bringing all the stakeholders on board

Fake news endangers the right to vote, that is embraced by the UN Declaration of Human Rights. With foreign and domestic bad actors using fake news, and with a media landscape that is constantly shifting, the way forward offers an imposing challenge to election administrators.

Election management bodies (EMBs) are charged with the responsibility to combat fake news, which undermines the credibility of free and fair elections. It is no longer enough for election officials to administer elections smartly and competently. They must also transparently manage the election information flow. EMBs cannot do it alone and must involve stakeholders in the fight against fake news. Here are some recommended steps to mitigate fake news and disinformation:

  • Update regularly election crisis communication and cybersecurity plans to insure for timely and accurate information, while keeping election stakeholders fully informed of these efforts.
  • Promote partnerships between social media networks and non-partisan democracy NGOs to serve as fact-checkers during election cycles, a strategy that can mitigate disinformation and rumor mongering.
  • Encourage communication and collaboration with other voting jurisdictions before, during and after an election, because good coordination is a valuable tool in the fight against false information.
  • Inform the public on the importance of self-education by means of respected news sources and the need to disregard suspicious sources.

Having lived and observed elections in Mexico for many years, I have seen the destructive power of fake news. To provide accurate information to the voters, election authorities in Mexico diligently work to discredit disinformation. The National Electoral Institute of Mexico, Instituto Federal Electoral (INE) has a system to monitor media outlets and neutralize fake news via various tools including monitoring news feeds, using regular news conferences, and maintaining regular communications with election stakeholders. Because of this INE has a reputation as one of the most respected institutions in Mexico. INE’s success is due to effective communications and dedication to transparency. 

EMBs can defuse political tensions and gain credibility by including political stakeholders as an integral part of their strategy to build trust. Political parties and elected leaders, for their part, must compete responsibly and not undermine the election process. Candidates and parties must be willing to accept election outcomes, regardless of whether they win or lose. I have observed elections in the United Kingdom where both winning and losing candidates accepted the results and applaud election officials for their work. Fake news can be made ineffectrive when the political parties are committed to educating their supporters about the electoral process and where there is a commitment to abide by the results of elections, regardless of the outcome of an election.

A healthy democracy requires an informed electorate. Policy makers and leaders have a responsibility to support the election process. Journalism demands accurate, responsible, and unbiased reporting. Social media companies must work proactively to block fake news content before it can be disseminated. Citizens also have a responsibility to inform themselves using balanced news sources. Civic education in elementary and secondary schools is more important than ever to prepare future voters who understand how elections and democracy work.  

There is no such thing as electoral nirvana and no perfect election system.  It is vital for democracies strive to continually improve elections and to keep the electorate fully informed. As President John F. Kennedy reminded us, “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy, impairs the security of all.”

End Notes

  1. BBC Bitesize: A Brief History of Fake News. 2021. Available from www.bbc.com 
  2. BBC.com: Facebook, Twitter and Google face questions from US senators. October 28, 2020. Available from www.bbc.com/news/technology-54721023 
  3. Fichera, Angelo. Clerical Error Prompts Unfounded Claims about Michigan Results. Fact Check.org. November 4, 2020. 
  4. Igielnik, Ruth, Keeter, Scott and Hartig, Hannah. Behind Biden’s 2020 Victory: An examination of the 2020 electorate, based on validated voters. Pew Research Center. Washington. D.C., July 20, 2020. 
  5. Giles, Christopher, Robinson, Olga, and Sardarizaydeh, Shayan. U.S. Election 20020: How a misleading post went from the fringes to Trump’s Twitter. BBC. November 6, 2020. Available from www.bbc.com 
  6. Jasper, Scott. Why Foreign Interference in the 2020 Elections Fizzled. The Atlantic. November 23, 2020. 
  7. Phillips, Mark. and Soudriette, Richard. Testing Democracy: How Independent Testing of E-Voting Systems Safeguards Electoral Integrity. Electronic Voting 2012: pp.159-170. 
  8. Quraishi, S.Y. An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election, (New Delhi: Rainlight by Rupa Publications 2014) pp. 325-335. 
  9. Repuci, Sarah and Slipowitz, Amy. Freedom in the World. Freedom House. Washington, D.C. 2020 
  10. Richards, J. 2021. Fake News, Disinformation, and the Democratic State: a Case Study of the UK Governments Narrative, Icono 14, 19 (1), 95-122. 
  11. Tennis, Maggie. Russia Ramps Up Global Election Interference: Lessons for the United States. CSIS. Washington, D.C. July 20, 2020. Available from www.csis.org.  

By Gracia Hillman

Former commissioner on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC)

“Each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for all women.” – Maya Angelou 

Women perform important yet often overlooked roles in how elections are carried out around the globe. Voters, candidates for elected office, and promoters of ballot initiatives and referenda depend on a universal standard of free and fair elections. Women proudly provide that assurance through their work on election boards and commissions. And evidence suggests that women are effective, trusted leaders. As in virtually all professions, however, women are still under-represented in the top echelon of election management bodies. Democracies would do well to continue righting this wrong.

“Each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for all women,” said American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. These words of wisdom reflect the importance of including women in election staff. Gender representation in public institutions must be an immediate goal in contemporary democracies. Representation in election management bodies is not only morally right, it is an obligation. An election commission that is representative of the people in terms of ethnicity, race, ability and gender will help ensure that the interests of all groups are considered, making elections as inclusive as they are meant to be.

Evolution of the role

Today’s Chief Election Official (CEO) is a professional who serves as a high-ranking government official. It is appropriate that this executive position be referred to as a CEO. The job is also known by any of several titles, including commissioner, judge or clerk. As democracy across the globe continues to evolve, so too will the CEO’s work.

In most countries, legislative bodies determine how and when elections will be held. Companion to that is the role of the CEO, who is responsible for preparing, organizing, and conducting elections. The CEO’s job is demanding, complex, and has evolved over time from an occasional part-time clerical role to regular full-time professional work.

How elections were carried out began to change in the middle 1800s. In the US and other western democracies, these changes were driven by:

  • The adoption of voter registration, which requires election officials to receive voter applications and maintain voter lists.
  • The move away from ballots provided by parties to a ballot provided by local election officials, which requires additional preparation and resources.
  • The adoption of mechanical voting machines, which require storage and maintenance.

 

This increasing complexity pushed the job to a level of importance that men coveted and assumed through privilege. At that same time, women were working for universal and equal suffrage, and their rights to hold positions of prominence in government, whether elected or appointed. Yet it took decades for women to begin to secure top management positions.

Embedded in the rise of women to prominence as CEOs is the historical nature of the work. Early on, when the job was mostly clerical and there were far fewer requirements, it was largely relegated to women. Consequently, there were a great many women working in the field who developed the knowledge, skills and ability to become a CEO. Other women transitioned into the elections business through the smart adaptation of relevant skills from other professions.

The State of Gender Equality in Numbers

Research conducted in March of 2022 by International IDEA on more than 200 EMBs worldwide revealed that, on average, only 22% of election management boards worldwide are chaired by women. The Americas, at 38%, have the most women chairs. Globally, there is little difference between governmental boards (24%) and independent boards (21%).

With women being 80% of local election officials (USEEOC)[1], the United States looks, at first glance, to be a success story. However, deeper analysis reveals lingering disparities. The conduct and adjudication of elections in the US has historically been assigned to sheriffs, judges and other similar roles traditionally dominated by men. 

So, while women in the US hold the majority of election administration jobs, they hold fewer senior leadership-level jobs and far fewer prestigious and influential positions of CEO in large jurisdictions. For example, women represent about 85% of administrators in jurisdictions with fewer than 25,000 registered voters. That number drops to 47% in jurisdictions with more than 250,000 voters.[1] In fact, four of the five largest election jurisdictions in the US are led by men.

In the United States, the fact that the majority of women who work in EMBs are in non-leadership roles largely mirrors the overall status of women in politics and business. In 2020, only 5% of the S&P 500 companies were led by women. The World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Report shows, across 156 countries studied, women represent only 22.9% of parliament seats and just 16.1% of ministers worldwide. Thus it becomes apparent that increasing the percentage of women as leaders, in politics and on election management bodies (EMBs), is still a work-in-progress in most of the world.

The Value of Female Leadership

Today’s CEO must perform as a top-notch executive. Political polarization, misinformation, cybersecurity threats and other challenges leave no room for ineffective management. Women are proving they are up to the executive task. They have demonstrated success and effectiveness. Time and again, findings show that women bring unique demographic skills to executive positions.

Research found that companies with a woman as the top executive perform better than those with a man as the top executive. In a study that examined gender and leadership styles, researchers found that, compared to men, women use a more transformational leadership style (inspiring, caring and encouraging). Meanwhile, men tend to adopt a manage by exception style (only intervene when problems become severe) along with the lassiez-faire leadership style (absent when needed). Further, surveys of both supervisors and subordinates showed that people believe women leaders are better at both communicating with others and showing consideration. While the research focused on executives in business, it carries true by reputation and result to the women who lead election bodies. With collaboration and determination, more opportunities will be available for women to do this important work.

The CEO Today

It took a great many decades for women to achieve status as CEOs. The admirable achievements of the women that are today leading election organizations are to be embraced and celebrated. This achievement bodes well for the future equality of women in the professional field of election administration. In addition to public service in their home jurisdictions, many women CEOs participate with United Nations programs and other international governmental bodies that work to preserve free and fair elections and promote non-partisan best practices.

More often than not, people do not know or even think about the CEO for the country, region, state or local government jurisdiction where they reside. Yet and still, perhaps without conscious thought, voters depend on the CEO to make certain that a free and fair election is protected and assured.

Women worked purposefully to achieve their status as CEOs, having to overcome the traditional obstacles of gender bias. Women have an innate quest for equality and equal participation with men, including the equal right to vote and hold decision-making positions in the government sectors. Brave are the women who were the “first” to take on the job of CEO in their jurisdiction.  They suffered violations of their privacy and person, including sexual harassment, gender bullying and even physical violence. These same forms of violence have emerged in today’s world as cyberstalking and cyberbullying. Violations of privacy are all too easy with what is possible through the internet.   

The United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women affirmatively promotes that “all forms of violence and discrimination” prevent women from equal participation in all aspects of life and must not be tolerated.  In March 2021, through its Agreed Conclusions, the Commission pledged its forward work for “recognizing the need to significantly accelerate the pace of progress toward ensuring women’s full, equal and meaningful participation and leadership at all levels of decision-making in…the public sector.” 

Generally, the CEO is the highest-ranking elections executive and has the same levels of responsibility as top executives of any other government, business or nongovernmental enterprise. CEOs are the public face and voice of the electoral process in their jurisdiction. It is important for girls and boys to see this equality. This early exposure to women leaders motivates them, most especially girls, to become fully engaged citizens.

The extent of inclusion of women in election staff is a significant indicator of the level of participation of women in electoral and political processes, and ultimately in decision-making. Experts agree that active political engagement, from both women and men, strengthen countries’ democratic development.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), in its paper, Gender-Sensitive Indicators for Early Warning of Violence and Conflict, points out that “differential gender needs are often overlooked in analysis, planning and implementation of electoral activities. This negatively impacts women’s participation as voters, candidates and election administrators.”

EMB policies and programs can influence the degree to which women are able to participate in elections. And their consideration must extend to all EMB activities and decisions, as well in their interactions with other election stakeholders.

Globally, election bodies are preparing for next steps in the advancement of carrying out elections.    Women CEOs are in the right job at the right time to work with legislative and international bodies to prepare the future.  Voters need and want excellent election administration.

End Notes

  1. In fact, four of the five largest election jurisdictions in the US are led by men. Thus, far fewer females hold prestigious and influential CEO positions overseeing large election bodies. 
  2. In a study that examined gender and leadership styles, researchers found that, compared to male leaders, female leaders use more transformational leadership (inspiring, caring and encouraging). Meanwhile, male leaders tend to adopt a manage-by-exception style (only intervene when problems become severe) along with the lassiez-faire leadership style (absent when needed). 
  3. Further, surveys of both supervisors and subordinates showed that people believe female leaders are better at both communicating with others and showing consideration. 
  4. While the research focused on executives in business, it carries true by reputation and result to the women who lead election bodies. With collaboration and determination, more opportunities will be available for women to do this important work.

 

Ensuring voter eligibility is one of the most crucial tasks election officials face. It’s a challenge as old as elections themselves. Unfortunately, today’s political climate has made voter identity fraud one of the most publicized election issues, generating negative headlines and mistrust among the electorate. The solution to this issue is biometric identity systems. 

Biometrics delivers absolute identity confirmation. It prevents human errors, such as typos, omissions or legibility problems, and it creates a digital backup for paper records. Biometrics are also typically faster and more convenient for both poll workers and citizens compared to traditional identity verification processes, such as paper voter rolls, logbooks, cards and affidavits. The biggest advantage of biometric voter verification, however, may be in ensuring the ability to participate for as many legitimate voters as possible across their entire lifetime, regardless of physical or life changes. The total of these advantages makes biometric identity the best choice for voter verification today and more so in the future. 

According to International IDEA’s Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Elections Database (as of Feb. 2019): 

  • 35% of 130 surveyed countries capture biometric data as part of their voter registration process.  

In those countries surveyed: 

  • 25% use biometric information to identify voters at polling stations. 
  • In many cases, this involves manual verification, such as a poll worker checking a voter’s appearance against a photograph on a voter list. 
  • Only 9% of the surveyed countries use an electronic biometric identification system in which a computer verifies the identity of the voter. 
 

Fingerprint biometrics and, more recently, facial recognition have both become robust, reliable standardized and accurate. In fact, the accuracy of both far supersedes human recognition abilities. The rapid growth of inexpensive ultra-wide bandwidths from technologies like fiber-optics and satellites, and cheap computer memory and computing capacity will further expand the possible applications for biometrics, allowing them to become commonplace even in rural and underdeveloped regions. In fact, currently the biggest obstacles to universal adoption of biometrics for voter identification are legacy systems and cultural and institutional resistance. 

Early Adoption and Changing Paradigms

Social, functional and evolutionary changes are driving the world toward broader adoption of biometrics. Biometric voter ID has taken root in transitional and post-conflict nations, particularly those in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these countries share the similar issues: problems with physical infrastructure, poverty and literacy. For some countries, this opens opportunities to simply jump past twentieth-century technologies. Telephones are a great example of this phenomena. Rather than building landline infrastructure, like switching stations and telephone poles, these nations have jumped directly to digital cellular networks. Access to mobile devices among adults averages above 80%, as is adoption of mobile-based services. Mobile phone growth in these regions plays a role in biometric adoption, as we will explain later. 

Countries that are opting for biometric voter registration commonly don’t have reliable systems for citizen identification. The reasons may be manifold: the countries might be too young to provide IDs to all citizens; citizenship status itself may be hard to prove, if the birth certificates are unreliable or non-existent; the country’s infrastructure may be prohibitive for citizens to actually obtain an ID, requiring slow and costly travel. In many countries, it’s simply too much hassle to get an ID, particularly when it doesn’t have a good use due to limited government services. 

National identity systems are experiencing similar scenarios to what has happened with landline phones. Outdated, incomplete, manual identity systems—if they existed at all—are being replaced with digital biometric ones. In many places these efforts are financially supported by third-party NGOs and multilateral organizations like the UNDP. These biometric systems commonly serve double duty as voter-registration databases. 

Why biometrics is the perfect solution

Biometric voter registration can solve several problems at once, particularly if the technology is used for a country’s civil registry and its voter rolls. It could eliminate the need to carry valuable ID documents, such as passports and birth certifications, to the polls on voting day. It can ensure the right to vote to those whose ID documents have been lost, damaged or are mismatched. This is not a fringe problem: a 2018 World Bank report puts the number of people without formal identity documents at about 1 billion, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.  

The problem affects developed countries as well. In the US, most states require a photo ID for voter registration, but there are obstacles to that for the impoverished, many immigrant populations, and many elderly people who have relinquished their driver’s licenses. 

Additionally, almost 80 million people were forced to flee their homes by war or persecution in 2020 according to the UN Refugee Agency. This number doesn’t even include those displaced by climate-related catastrophes, such as flooding, wildfires, famine and storms. For individuals in both situations, identity – and thus voting – is often a huge problem. Identity documents are often lost, damaged or destroyed, along with the source documents needed to obtain new ID. 

Gender-diverse persons, who represent 0.1 to 2% of the population, are also impacted by the limitations of traditional identity systems. Biometrics, however, completely obviates these challenges for people who identify as non-binary or trans.

The number of chronically unhoused (homeless) has remained essentially unchanged in much of the world for the last decade, roughly estimated at 1.5% of a country’s population. The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact, however, may force significant numbers of additional individuals into homelessness worldwide. But citizens without permanent housing are still eligible to vote – provided they have some acceptable form of identity. 

Biometrics provides immutable identity confirmation for all of these impacted populations across all situations and scenarios. The portability and immunity from external conditions, situations and changes make biometrics the best choice for voter identity management. 

Advancing biometrics’ reach

Biometrics is already making possible the one-voter, one-voter principle in countries where it is implemented and will enable the “vote where you want and when you want” principle. Added convenience is a key to reversing the downward trend in voter turnout worldwide.  

The widespread adoption of WiFi, broadband and mobile smart devices (phones and tablets) has made us less depend on bank branches, groceries stores and libraries, to name but a few. So, too, will they make us less reliant on in-person voting. These technologies, combined with biometrics, will be part of the next wave of voting systems that enable the voter to decide when and where to participate. 

This type of remote voting is hugely convenient for ex-pats and overseas citizens who might not otherwise participate in an election. Beyond simple convenience, biometrically enabled remote voting systems can extend the franchise to millions of potential voters in remote rural areas and in countries with underdeveloped transportation infrastructure. 

In developing countries, a trip to the polling station can cost a family an entire day’s pay and consume hours (if not days) in transit. The overwhelming majority of citizens in these same countries, however, have mobile devices (as was mentioned earlier), which would give them access to remote voting if provided by their government. Remote voting would also benefit voters with disabilities, many elderly citizens and those in conflict-torn areas who would otherwise be afraid to go vote. Enabling these people with remote voting capabilities, secured by biometrics via off-the-shelf smartphone, would be a boon to voter turnout.  

The new frontier

Mobile devices aren’t just making remote voting better, they’re making biometrics more secure. Cameras on mobile devices play a significant role in the next generation of biometric security. A field of technology called “presentation attack detection” (PAD) distinguishes spoof artifacts — things like masks or photos from live faces in facial recognition, or gloves from real fingerprints in fingerprint recognition – which improves the quality of biometric user authentication. The digital wallet by a company called Folio already uses this technology in its consumer-level product offering.  

With image processing now supported by AI and neural networks, facial recognition is now also able to estimate the age of the person in the photo. In the Guinea presidential and parliamentary elections in 2020 and 2021, Innovatrics was able to select out obviously minor citizens from the voter register. The AI-based facial recognition algorithm successfully identified 60,000 such entries out of more than 7 million. 

Other innovations, which may one day make their way into voter and citizen registries, are already being used in practical application. Most physical biometric solutions systems authenticate the user only once, usually at the beginning of an interaction, such as logging into a device or checking in at a voting center. That leaves open opportunities to fool the system. For example, the original user may provide his/her credentials to another person after the user has been successfully authenticated (akin to tailgating). To minimize such possibilities, behavioral biometric solutions analyze users’ interactions with their devices, recording activities that vary from normal usage patterns. Behavioral biometrics uses continuous machine learning to authenticate users based on their behavior patterns, such as pressure, gyroscope, button hit zone, motion, accelerometer, mouse actions, etc. 

Gait analysis, for example, uses data from a mobile phone’s accelerometer to measure an individual’s unique walking style. This information can then be used to confirm if the rightful phone owner is indeed in possession of it – essential for remote voting. Researchers at the University of Manchester found that their gait analysis system was 99.3% effective. 

Vein-reading devices are leading the way in touchless biometrics. An authentication device scans veins in the palm with near-infrared rays, which are absorbed by the reduced hemoglobin inside the vein. The scanner reads the absorption pattern, mapping the unique vein pattern for each person. The information is converted into encrypted data that serves as the identity record. This type of contactless technology may be more important as the world learns to live with COVID. 

Chemical biometrics is a stillemerging field that involves measuring chemical clues such as odor and the chemical composition of human perceptions like DNA. This encoded biometric information is stored in a database and digitally sampled during authentication and verification. 

These innovations can make up for shortfalls in current biometrics. For example, fingerprint scans may be of no use for individuals whose fingerprints have worn away from manual labor or be altered by catastrophic injury. Such problems are far more common in developing countries and agrarian cultures. These technologies may or may not make their way into voter registries in the future. Either way, they are proof that biometrics still has a long runway in front of it.  

Conclusion

The inclusivity of a biometric registry is perhaps its most important benefit: it ensures the person is correctly identified even when the voter is unable to read or sign their name, is traveling, or is unable to get to a vote center. Biometric registries follow the voter for a lifetime, regardless of financial or personal conditions. 

The technology can weed out duplicates and other inaccuracies in the election register, both intentional and inadvertent. Redundant records can happen when the same person registers in different electoral precincts, for example, innocently or with the aim of getting multiple voter IDs. With biometrics, database duplicates are marked for human review, where they are verified or removed.  

Biometrics can ensure that each voter gets one and exactly one vote. In countries where election fraud can happen through easily forged or stolen IDs, biometric identification can reduce it to basically zero. Biometric features cannot be copied, forged or stolen, a person is either present or not and, once she or he casts a vote, cannot vote in the same elections again. 

About the authors

Richard Soudriette

Richard W. Soudriette, is the founding President of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, based in Washington, D.C. He is the former chairman of the Smartmatic International Election Advisory Council.

He has worked in the field of elections for more than 40 years and has observed elections in over 60 countries. He is the author of numerous publications on election administration, election technology, and independent testing of voting technology.

Gracia Hillman

Gracia Hillman served as commissioner on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) from 2003 to 2010, and as chairman. During her career, she also served as Vice President for External Affairs at Howard University, Senior Coordinator for International Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State, President and CEO of WorldSpace Foundation, and Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of the U.S., the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation.

Ms. Hillman has provided leadership as an officer and director of numerous nonprofit boards of directors and government commissions. She has represented the United States government before the United Nations, Organization of American States and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Jan Lunter

Jan Lunter is the founder and CEO of Innovatrics, a leading global biometric technology vendor. After developing the fastest fingerprint algorithm in the world during his studies at Télécom ParisTech University in France, he founded Innovatrics in 2004. Jan has since amassed a collection of accolades as an entrepreneur and innovator supplying biometric identification systems to more than 80 countries worldwide.

He continues his research work with the Innovatrics R&D lab based in Brno, Czechia, where the world’s top-performing fingerprint, face and iris matching and liveness algorithms using neural networks are being developed. 

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