With discussions around electoral reform gaining momentum in the country, we explore some of the most pertinent considerations of electronic voting and how it could look like in a South African context.

What is electronic voting (e-voting)?
There are multiple definitions of e-voting and some definitions are more broad than others. It is important to be aware that different systems of electronic voting exist. While most e-voting mechanisms rely on the internet, there are systems that are done partially or completely offline. 

According to a 2011 policy paper by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), e-voting can be introduced as the only voting channel to voters or it can be offered as an additional option and the voter can choose the preferred channel. 

Many of today’s e-voting systems, especially where the electoral management body is present, produce physical evidence of the vote cast in the form of paper receipts for the voters, often referred to as voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT). 

Mr Vipin Katara from the Indian Electoral Commission giving presentation at a webinar on electronic voting.

What e-voting looks like in the biggest democracy in the world
As many as 4 million domestically designed and manufactured electronic voting machines were used at 1 million polling stations in India’s 2019 election. India first used electronic voting machines in 1982. 

In their elections, once a voter arrives at a polling station, they present their identity document for the poll officer to verify that they are on the electoral roll. Once this process is complete, the official uses the electronic voting machine’s control unit to unlock its balloting unit in preparation to accept the vote. The voter proceeds to press the button next to the candidate of their choice on the balloting unit’s interface. Thereafter the voter’s choice is printed on paper which is then placed into a locked storage box.

India’s Electoral Commission member Mr Vipin Katara mentioned at a recent University of Johannesburg webinar that the electronic voting machines (EVMs) act as standalone machines where no radio frequency transmission or reception capability can interfere with the devices. He also mentioned that using EVMs has drastically reduced the time of tallying votes.

Contrary to the adoption of electronic voting in India, the Netherlands suspended EVMs. The decision was made after extensive research indicated that none of the available machines in the country offered adequate privacy and security.

Things to consider

Despite submissions on the Electoral Laws Amendment Bill raising concerns about the security of electronic voting in South Africa, if e-voting systems are properly implemented, it has the potential to eliminate certain common avenues of fraud, speed up tallying of results, possibly entice more youth voters and make voting more convenient and efficient for many. 

More positives to e-voting as mentioned in a research paper by the IDEA include: 

  • Faster tallying of votes. 
  • A more accurate account of results.
  • Efficient handling of complex electoral systems formulae that require laborious counting procedures. 
  • Improved presentation of complicated ballot papers. 
  • Convenience for voters.
  • Potential increase in voter participation and turnout. 
  • More in line with an increasingly mobile society. 
  • Potential prevention of fraud in polling stations and during the transmission of results because of reduction in human intervention. 
  • Increased accessibility, by audio ballot for blind voters, internet voting for those who cannot physically go to voting booths and for citizens who are out of the country at a time of election.

Elections 2014, 7 May 2014 Olievenhoutbosch residents queue to cast their votes at Steve Tshwete Secondary School. (Photo: GCIS)

However, in the South African context, barriers like the digital divide and technological literacy would need to be addressed before even thinking about opting for an e-voting system.

In a survey conducted by the Human Science Research Council, it was found that on average, half the respondents felt electronic voting would be a good thing for the country, while 56% of respondents agreed that electronic voting will make voting easier. Around half the adult public expressed favorable views towards electronic voting.

Despite the welcoming responses to electronic voting in the survey, the findings also indicated that there was a substantial concern that electronic voting would create opportunities for more electronic fraud.

There is no perfect electronic voting system. Available systems also continue to evolve as technology advances. If we are to seriously consider e-voting as an option in South African elections, it would be important that the Electoral Commission and Parliament opt for the most suitable system for the right context by carefully weighing the advantages and the disadvantages of all the options.

My Vote Counts NPC is a non-profit company founded to improve the accountability, transparency and inclusiveness of elections and politics in the Republic of South Africa. We work to ensure that the political and electoral systems are open, fair and accountable to the public and that they remain relevant in the changing South African socio-political context.