I recently attended a bar camp Pune and had the good fortune to attend a session by Anuapam Saraph, the CIO of Pune city and an activist trying to come up with innovative ways to reform the voting system. The below post is heavily inspired by his ideas, but tries to go beyond and build upon what he presented there. The reforms and the technology that enables democratic voting as well as the technology that presents challenges and opportunities to it are relevant to all people and nations who are interested in and experimenting with democracy.
Left brain thinking : voting anywhere
Envisage a future in which the voters card is a smart card just like a credit card and can be used at general purpose ATM machines, online authorized websites, IVRs hooked to voting phone lines, Electronic Voting Machines or used as a proof of identity if someone wants to physically visit an EVM/traditional ballot station. The voters card will have magnetic data that would authorize and authenticate the cardholder and along with a password/PIN that is only known to the user, allow him to vote in a given running election in a constituency of which he is a part,irrespective of the pshyscila location of the ATM. He may be traveling and may be in a different constituency, but he could still vote as the vote is recorded online and just like we can use and transact from any banks ATM our accounts of any other bank, there are no theoretical challenges in how this can be administered. Further, the card has a Unversal ID (UID) akin to credit card number,a CVV number and a 3D secure password/PIN and this data can be used to authenticate user when he votes using an IVR (through his land-line/ mobile phone) or an online web portal via the Internet. Thus, even when the voter is outside the country, he can vote for his constituency candidates. and in case one does want to indure the pain of visiting a physical voting booth and standing in line , then that same smart voter card serves as a offline identity and authentication proof and can be swiped in a machine like credit card readers to register the fact that vote has been cast and there is no need to apply the outdated ink on the finger to denote the fact.
Right brain doodling: voting anytime
However, also envisage a future where you don’t have to vote once on one particular day, but there is a window of voting duration, during which the person can cast his vote as many times as he wishes. Of course only his last vote is counted and it nullifies all his other earlier votes. the advantages of this are ease of voting. change in mind of voter than he can register the change, if someone hacks his account and proxy votes for him, he can revert the vote to his candidate. Voting in a time window, possibly multiple times may seem counter-intuitive, but it is a very important concept. Each time one votes , a notification is sent to ones registered phone no. (via SMS)/email account of the fact that the person has voted. Think of it like the notification banks can send to you if a particularly heavy transaction (deposit/withdrawals over a limit) happens in your account. It alerts you to the fact that some important transaction has happened and you can cross-verify and alert bank if it is suspected to be fraudulent. Similarly getting the notification that you have voted, when in fact your account was hacked and someone else voted, alerts you to the fact that some fraud is happening and you can either re-vote or alert concerned authorities about the fraudulent transaction. Also, the notifications, serves as a sort of receipt that you voted, which can be used for independent audit purposes (finding out how many actually voted and how many the EC reports as having voted). also one can extend the window indefinitely so that there is perpetual voting- you can vote in and vote out the candidate anytime. Of course on e would need a quorum to initiate a no-confidence referendum, and this has its own challenges, but at least this will keep the elected candidates accountable and on tenterhooks. With easy and cheap anytime,anyplace voting technologies,all these voting reforms are not only conceivable and desirable, but also inevitable.
Whole brain fusing: voting anyone
Why vote for one candidate, why not split your one vote into fractions for multiple candidates , ensuirng that the total is still one. I may like Manmohan more , but my second choice may be Vajpayee and I may want to vote for both in 60:40 proportion. Or I may want to vote for 5 candidates in proportion to their deservability. With most voting happening electronically (either using ATMs, online or IVRs) or using EVMs , there is no reason to suppose that fractional voting cannot be built in. One could have very visual ways to set the proportions that even a layman/ illiterate can easily use. Also, with counting and voting costs going down, perhaps the pool of people who one can choose form can increase drastically. Perhaps, one could vote for any independent candidate belonging to that constituency (or himself) from a separate drop-down aside form listed candidates from national/regional parties. this sounds a little hard to digest, but by ensuring that one could vote for anyone, what one will at least ensure is more participation, perhaps close to100% with many people voting at least favor themselves or their relatives. With anytime, any place convenience if we add anyone option, the participatory democracy will start speeding on rocket fuel with everyone feeling that not only their vote counts, but that they themselves count.
Out-of-the-brain-musing: voting anything
However, one considerable challenge with this voter smart card scheme is the ease of selling ones vote. In India, at least many of the people from lower classes readily sell their vote in exchange of liquor/money. For now they have to vist the booth and it is not clear if they will indeed vote for the candidate; with this new password and online voting scheme, it becomes easy and foolproof to sell your vote. Just give your password and online credentials and someone else can use the web/IVR to vote for you. That someone else will ensure that the vote is cast for the party who paid money. A perfect arrangement for both parties. For seller there is lot less inertia, one doesn’t even need to go to the voting booth, and for buyer the vote is guaranteed. One way to introduce ambiguity is to allow multiple voting, with multiple voes the buyer is never sure that the seller will not change his mind and vote for some other candidate on a later date, nullifying the earlier vote. another option is to make the password/PIN sharing difficult and economically unviable. For example, one could ensure that the same voters card (UID) is used at ration shops (Public distribution system (PDS)) for giving rationed food/kerosene /other materials to people below poverty line. Its usually the case that people below the poverty line (BPL) are most susceptible to selling their votes and with the risk of loosing their rations etc, they may be reluctant to share that sensitive password information. For the upper classes,one can link the usage of the Voter card info and password with income tax returns/refunds etc -all sensitive financial information- that one would not like to disclose to irresponsible and unethical politicians or political parties who indulge in buying of votes. Thus with the voting password information linked to physical tangible goods/things in the physical world, one can ensure that less exchange of material goods will happen in lieu of selling ones vote.
Parting thoughts: voting anyhow
All said and done, no matter of voting reforms can induce someone to vote and overcome the apathy one feels when witnessing the unethical behavior of politicians and the candidates one has to choose from. to overcome this a draconian voting anyhow or compulsory voting may be added. One could have a default vote saying that they have no faith in any candidate and if there are more than 50 5 of such votes than the poll stands nullified. (a provision to vote for no one and yet register a vote is there in constitution of India at least) . Of course this default vote should be cats , say a day before the window of voting expires, so that an alert notification is sent to the voter and if doesn’t want to register his vote of confidence in all candidates, he can go and change his vote to desired candidate. The alert serves as both a wake-up call and a reminder to vote before the deadline. Also if notifications/receipts are issued when you vote, then they can also be later used for claiming refunds/ increasing tax bracket in income tax returns. Just like donations to charity are eligible for tax exemption, one can have a provisin whereby voting receipts can make you eligible to some tax incentives like lowered brackets , more exemptions etc. . That itself, may convince many t0 vote anyhow. Until and unless we vote anyhow, the participatory democracy is more in name than in spirit.
Of course all this is just my 2 brains on what Anupam had initially proposed. Let me know yours!