At the dawn of South African democracy in 1994, millions of liberated citizens left their homes, unhindered by the shackles of segregation, to assume their position at the country’s helm on April 27th of that year. South Africa’s first free election-a culmination of decades of struggle-was a victory for democracy and saw invigorated voters display remarkable patience as they stood in seemingly endless queues, oblivious to the brutality of the African sun above, to make their mark and steer the country into a new future. On May 7th of this year, South Africans are once again given that opportunity to oust the establishment-in a country with a political landscape that has tremendously transformed over the past two decades. Regardless of this altered national dialogue however, the voting mechanism has not evolved and millions of ballots will be cast this year as they were 20 years ago-by making a mark on a piece of paper in a designated voting station.
In a world where the internet permeates ever facet of life, this method seems increasingly anachronistic. For years, the possibility of utilizing the technology of the net to conduct a national election was considered an inevitability by scores of internet users. This dream materialized in 2007, when the Baltic Republic of Estonia offered voters the opportunity to remotely cast their ballots from behind the screen of their nearest computer. Four years later, candidates were propelled to the Riigikogu, Estonia’s parliament, by an election in which 24.3% of voters indicated their choice online, with some even exploiting newly mandated chipped mobile phones. Less than a decade after it began by nudging municipal polling stations into the cyber world, the great Estonian Experiment was a resounding success. However, few nations have followed into the realm of internet democracy-for Estonia is far from typical.
With a mere 1.3 million citizens, the small Northern European state’s population is dwarfed by those of larger nations, such as the world’s populous democracy-India-which houses more than one billion people within its borders. Therefore, the logistical challenges surrounding the deployment of a remote e-voting system to accommodate Estonian voters are barely comparable to those which will be faced when deploying it within a country with a far larger populace. Sites attempting to cope with the traffic created by millions of voters may find themselves struggling to drink from what is effectively a fire hydrant. Moreover, unlike the prevailing attitude in most other countries, internet access is deemed to be a human right in Estonia and the net penetration rate in the Baltic state, widely considered one of the most wired countries in Europe, is among the highest in the world. Put simply: Estonia is the perfect candidate for the deployment of digital democracy.
Consequently, few states have only partially repeated Estonia’s success and those that have done so are exclusively developed, first world nations like Australia, Canada and Austria. For third world countries, where basic infrastructure in sectors like healthcare and education are inadequate, the notion of an internet-based voting system is considered to be but a pipe dream. Even countries like Brazil, Venezuela and India, which have implemented e-voting systems at polling stations, are far from the levels of internet penetration needed to accommodate a viable remote voting system. However, the obstacles which face a web-based democracy exceed infrastructural inadequacy.
For every 100 citizens in either the United States or the United Kingdom, more than 80 had access to the internet in 2012, according to statistics compiled by the World Bank-yet neither of these countries have embraced remote internet voting with the same fervor seen in Northern Europe. This can easily be attributed to the possibility of voter fraud and the fear of malicious hacking (when Estonia held their first virtual election in 2007, a bot-scanner was unsuccessfully deployed by a hacker to identify possible vulnerabilities in the system before it was deflected by CERT-the Computer Emergency Response Team). Furthermore, in a geopolitical climate wherein cyber-warfare has become commonplace, virtual elections would create a new front for potential exploitation by a rival nation. Politicians often reflect the concerns of their electorate when addressing the possibility of ceding a key component of their democracy to a realm which is still seen by many as dark, duplicitous and arcane.
Perhaps it is this fundamental public distrust of the internet, no doubt exacerbated by Edward Snowden’s revelation of its abuse by an intrusive spying apparatus, as well as missteps such as the botched roll-out of the Obamacare website, which is primarily to blame for the lack of definitive action towards establishing comprehensive internet voting in countries which are theoretically capable of making that leap. It is therefore imperative that the public reclaims that trust, by reducing government control over the net (which may allow incumbents to rig polls) as well as by devoting a portion of their time to learning the ostensibly foreign language of the net. Only then will citizens realize that while cyber-voting methods have vulnerabilities, the problems they face are not new (election fraud was not invented by malicious hackers) and like their real world equivalents, they can be equipped with mechanisms which can reliably detect, reduce or eliminate breaches in the system. After all, an educated public is indispensable to the proper functioning of a democracy and if a democracy is to adopt the platform of the net, then the public must understand it-if government is to remain accountable to the people.
As more aspects of our lives, from our social interactions to our banking transactions, are integrated into a web-based environment, it is not a far cry to imagine that our electoral process may follow. However, if South Africa (as well as other nations) are to recreate Estonia’s success, we must first remedy many of the issues which have shaped the debate in this year’s elections-primarily the provision of basic infrastructure-as the voting system will predictably remain anachronistic if widespread suffering endures as a remnant of centuries of oppressive colonial and racist rule in a comparable anachronism. Expanding the reach of the net is a cause which has been adopted by tech giants like Mark Zuckerberg (through Internet.org) and if coupled with a greater understanding of the nature, potential and limitations of the internet, may well create a culture conducive to an internet-mediated democracy.
We cannot definitively know whether the polarizing political debate surrounding this issue will keep it from becoming a reality-but I wouldn’t write off the idea that one day in the not-so-distant future, citizens will have the opportunity to, in a matter of minutes, exercise the basic right of democracy from behind a PC within the comfort of their homes-if they so desire. The question is now what it always has been: what do we truly desire?