Technology, New Media and the Malaysian General Elections

Clarissa Lee feels that with the advent of technology, a new, improved voting system is not far out of the reach of the Malaysian Election Commission.

Even though this is probably one of the more exciting elections in my lifetime, I admit to not having followed the proceedings as closely as I did back in 2008, the year I left Malaysia. I remember trying to adjust my graduate school interview and work schedule so that I would be available to vote at my pre-designated local poll station.

This year, Malaysians living abroad who are neither civil servants nor military personnel have the chance of ‘postal voting’ (quite a misnomer since there is nothing ‘postal’ about the voting) as long as they could prove that they have been in Malaysia in the last five years for at least 30 days, and the dynamics have become more exciting.  Unfortunately, I was not among the lucky ones as there was no word on my application, even up to the final day of voting on April 28, despite my having fulfilled all the conditions to vote as well as being a registered voter. (However, that is another story, which you can read about here if interested.)

Then, there was the story about the indelible ink that became delible because someone forgot to shake it. The mongering and punditry was at an all-time high as we neared the day the citizens of Malaysia will begin to cast their vote. I am less interested in speculating about the political intention and machinations of what Election Commission (EC) than to talk about how the EC is a technology dinosaur in many ways even though Malaysia, through the ETP, wants to go on an overdrive in everything technological. Nor am I interested in playing the role of the Nate Silver of Malaysia.  Instead, I prefer to play the role of a citizen scientist of the electoral mechanics.

With so much at stake and so much technology within reach, one wonders why there has not been much change in the way the EC does things. I would suggest that by starting on the road of a multilateral way of performing the elections, the EC can, over time, phase into a more efficient process. However, what are required are a certain level of competency and the doing away of corrupt practices that could potentially undermine whatever new system that might be put in place, including the suggestions I have below.

Why the Postal Voting Mechanism Was Clumsy

If you live in the US, you are probably not an alien to how much is being invested in ‘security’ at the airport, which ranges from high-tech full body scanning to low-tech (and invasive) patting down. If you ever have to enter a port in the US, you have every identifiable aspect of your person scanned in, from your retina to most of your fingers.  Every visa-holder who is visiting long-term (that is, not as a tourist) has a SEVIS record, which is where your profile is stored. However, once you are let loose, and unless you come under the radar of Homeland Security for whatever reason, you are actually pretty much free to do as you please (except when you have to apply for official documents such as a driver’s license or ID) as long as you do not break local laws. However, they do have all the information they need of you in their central database so that they could always perform checks.

Now let’s take a parallel (though not completely comparable) situation in Malaysia. We all know Malaysia has implemented a chip ID for all its citizens, with the old ID system completely phased out. Therefore, this means that whenever you leave the country, the government actually knows that you are gone, and that you have not returned. There is an entire database with all the data from that chip in your passport. All has to be done is to:

1)     allow the EC to have limited access to the database to obtain the information that they need on your whereabouts (though not of the Google Earth sort), or

2)     create another database that can then pull out records and pre-defined information from the Immigration Database.

The current manner is to have overseas voters send in a PDF form via email that someone at the other end would have to download and manually process. I am curious as to how many temporary staff they would have hired to painstakingly go through all the information in the form, including checking that the information provided by the applicants is accurate, such as the number of days they claimed to having been in Malaysia over the past five years.

If the EC is all about integrity in the election process, this process itself is open to a lot of mishandling and errors. Humans get bored over repetitive tasks, and therefore, they get careless. Machines only make mistakes if there is an error in their programming.  Instead, it would not be too hard, given all the strides made in e-commerce and other online data gathering systems, to obtain the necessary information digitally and maintain security. There is not even a need to fill up the number of days and dates the applicants have been back home, as the database could then locate the information with the use of the person’s personal identity. Matters are simplified and the possibility for mistakes considerably reduced.

This frees up the EC employees to handle processes that require human input management, such as appeals and complaints by applicants and registrants, rather than the lousy customer service approach that they have now.

An improved system may help free up EC employees to handle other matters. | Source: The Malaysian Insider

The Digital ‘Indelible’ Ink

According to news reports and various blogs, you have to go to a pre-specified mission, and from what I gather, they tend to be located in big cities with a critical mass of Malaysians. Apparently, instead of sending you to the nearest big city, even if hundreds of miles away from where you are, they insist that you fly home, which would be thousands of miles of carbon footprint accumulated (I guess environmental friendliness is never high in our country’s agenda). If you are not among the top income earners abroad with a flexible work schedule, going home would definitely not be in the books, which also means having to give up your right to vote.

What is wrong with utilising an online voting system, a version of a SMS voting system but done through a computer or a digital mobile device, as long as you are able to get onto some site? In the same way that cyber forensics has been able to track cyber criminals, even when they are triangulating their tracks and encrypting everything, one can also track who is voting what through a secure website which assigns each person a unique tracker ID regardless of where they are logging in from, and having the site expire once it has been inactive for a minute. And the tracker ID can be retrieved as long as the person has the right information should the system time out before he/she could vote. It is not unlike the Internet banking system we have today. In fact, once such a technology is put in place, one need not design a new one each time, but merely update it to prevent obsolescence. The implementation of such a system can help the disabled and elderly even among the Malaysians living at home, giving them the agency to exercise their right to vote despite not being able to get to the voting centre. You can have them register with their mobile phones and also other confidential information (or password) that only they are privy to, and make sure that they enter the exact same information when it comes to the time to vote. Or one can even use a unique QR code that is non-transferrable, for those with smartphones.

If one worries that scamming can happen, I can assure you that it is a lot harder and requires more planning than scamming with the current voting system we have right now with accounts of phantom voters and spoilt votes. Or the EC can have everyone wanting to vote online obtain a random number generator, if one wants to double the security, which can then be reused for many other secured systems.

In areas where such technology may be rendered difficult due to infrastructural and geographic reasons, and we know such places do exist, the EC can then expand its resources to getting the right to vote, manually, to the people who need that until they too enjoy similar ease of access.

The Pros of the System

1)     Save on the amount of money that has to be spent in the long run. Sure, the overhead up front might be considerable, if you want to build a properly working system. But the savings in the long run is considerable, and the system can also be re-implemented in other areas of running the country.

2)     Minimise human error by having some of the process, including the vote counting, automated. It also prevents spoilt votes.

3)     Minimise having to set up polling stations everywhere to prevent either political party from attempting last minute voter persuasion.

4)     Information can be obtained and accessed immediately as they come, and the vote counting can be machine-automated.

The Cons of the System

1)     Internet access is still pretty bad for most parts of the country outside of the Klang Valley, and possibly, even in parts of the Klang Valley. So there is a danger of the system lagging or timing-out (I discover also that most sites in Malaysia run on very low bandwidth, so they are usually unable to handle heavy traffic).

2)     Denial of service attacks, unless there is a way of not converging all of traffic to a spot. This means having mirror sites set up all over and having access by the users triangulating between the different sites, and having trained IT security personnel on duty during the digital ballot-casting period.

3)     You have to be literate and have minimal tech savvy (such as knowing how to navigate a browser or an app). Also requires a helpline in case some people get stuck.

Conclusion

Granted, this system does not work for everyone since we do still have a problem with literacy and infrastructure in the country. Also, it may also require a certain amount of mindset change among the employees and the people of Malaysia to accept this as a move forward. I don’t think it is necessarily hard to elicit that change, since everyone is always looking for a more convenient and ‘lazy’ way out. The more important reason for my suggestion here is not so much to create a utopic vision of a perfect election system, but to push for a change in the way in which elections have been handled up to this point, given how there have been many complaints but few suggestions. I am open to having anyone reading this suggest an even better system to make the exercise of democratic rights more seamless.

 

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4 Responses to Technology, New Media and the Malaysian General Elections

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  3. Clarissa

    hi @sweemeng,
    I appreciate your comments. I am aware of a lot of criticism in e-voting as implemented in some other areas but the purpose of this post is not to dismiss the infeasibility of it just because it has not work in its current iteration. One has to account for the way the system was designed and implemented, and even troubleshoot the weaknesses based on technological/social constraints and the way it has been administered.

    The intervention of game theory, statistics, mathematics, and some aspect of political theory would have to work with computer science and security to design a system, and even then, the system should only be implemented at stages.

    But at the end of the day, anything is hackable, as long as there is a loophole that concentrates the power of decision making to a central committee. The best way to test a new system for its robustness is to encourage people to actually try to cheat with it

  4. There is a few reason why electronic voting is a bad idea
    1) Transparency, if the source code for the software is not open up, it will open to dispute.
    2) Even if the source code is open, there is no guarantee that the same software is running on the system, or it is not modified, there is simply no easy way to monitoring program behavior as it run
    3) Even if these are given, security is another matter, ddos is the least of your problem. There is simply too tempting to manipulate the data for gain.

    Previous experience by other country have exposed a few other problem. Some you already addressed. But others involve bad security, poor quality, and lack of paper trail. You can see more in EFF https://www.eff.org/issues/e-voting