October 1, 2017. A clandestine referendum election is held against the Spanish government’s orders across schools and polling stations throughout Catalonia. It was a day of defiance with an overwhelming “yes” vote to sever ties with the rest of the mainland. It was also one marked with bloodshed, voter intimidation, and riots.
The main perpetrators, then-party leader Carles Puigdemont and ex-vice president Oriol Junqueras are in exile and prison respectively, along with several other members of the controversial Catalonian government who instigated its independence.
After a couple of weeks of rising tensions, in which the Spanish government pressured Puigdemont to officially declare independence–and which saw massive capital flight as thousands of key businesses moved their headquarters from Catalonia to other provinces in Spain, while the EU condemned the act, Puigdemont found his friends running out fast.
On October 21, the government of Spain eventually suspended Catalonia’s autonomy, declared article 155, and stated that fresh elections would be held on December 21 for a new Catalonian “Govern.”
It wasn’t the best moment for a Spanish government struggling with corruption cases and a never-ending financial crisis. And it also wasn’t truly reflective of the collective desire, as many of the population abstained their vote. The turnout was 43 percent. Although, of that number, a mindblowing 92 percent voted in favor of independence.
Those who wanted to remain were unlikely to leave their houses to angry mobs chanting for independence with a yellow ribbon pinned to their chests.
The Need to Reduce Voter Intimidation
The case of Catalonia isn’t unique, in so much as voter intimidation and poor turnout are characteristic of many elections globally, as is voter fraud, particularly in developing countries with political despots at the helm. Even in one of the most advanced countries in the world, the last election is still being debated and the 2018 midterm led to yet another Florida recount.
There has to be a better way, right?
Ismael Peña-López, Director General of Citizen Participation at the Government of Catalonia certainly thinks so. According to an interview with the La Vanguardia, one of Spain’s most prominent newspapers, he’s all for seeing the electronic voting law amended. Why? Because something isn’t working quite right.
The chaos of the October 2017 referendum and separatist tendency flared up strong emotions throughout the nation, dividing the public (and even families) in two.
It spurred a record number of votes from Spanish citizens outside of Catalonia in the December 21 election. However, turnout was 81.94 percent at the schools and polling stations–compared to just 12 percent of voters registered electronically.
Of all the 226,394 registered voters living outside Catalonia, there were just 27,231 votes, according to the Official Electoral Census.
This poor participation has led Catalonia’s government to approve a law to amend the electronic vote for residents living outside of Catalonia.
While it’s not a process that’s going to happen overnight, it’s projected to be ready as soon as 2020. And, in fact, is a project that was already begun under the leadership of the ousted Puigdemont.
Rolled Out in Three Stages
The new electronic voting will be rolled out in three stages, starting with those living abroad. It’s not that these votes matter less, Peña-López points out, but should anything go wrong with the new system, the damage will be more easily contained.
“It’s not that external votes are less important but we suffer less if it goes wrong, and if it works well, the gain will be enormous and could have a huge impact. This way, the risk is controlled, as it should be.”
Once the new system has been proven with citizens living abroad, it will extend to the anticipated vote, and finally to all citizens, with the main goal of improving voter participation. Although, Peña-López admitted that it would not be easy to make the electronic voting system quickly available to all due to legal, technical, social and economic issues.
An electronic vote costs about one-fifth of a regular vote although, the more the system is used, the more profitable it becomes. Peña-López says that it will increase participation and lower the cost at the same time.
The Problem of Security
While electronic voting is good for people living abroad, for those short on time, or who want to avoid the polling stations, there’s still the question of security. How do citizens know that their vote won’t be tampered with, lost, replicated, or deleted? How can voters be sure that their votes aren’t being monitored, and who takes charge of the data?
These are all questions that naturally arise and complicate the matter. While Peña-López argues that it’s also possible to tamper with urns, he understands the concerns–and the need for a system that would detect any votes that had been tampered with and reject them:
“It’s harder to change 1,000 votes in a physical urn than electronically… That’s why it’s important to audit all votes and that there is a system in place with strong encryption.”
He points to several options for security and to ensure that voters are who they say they are, including biometrics, 2-factor ID, and e-voting in the local embassy.
The Catalonian government hasn’t yet decided the most efficient way of doing this although many are talking about blockchain.
“One interesting option is using blockchain… But we haven’t yet started with the electronic vote. The Government of Catalonia hasn’t laid out a clear bet for blockchain and is still exploring what options there are before deciding.”
However, he added that he had no doubt that the technology is secure and mentioned various examples of companies and parties using it successfully for voting.
Yet Peña-López Isn’t All for Blockchain Voting
Surprisingly, after speaking about encouraging greater voter participation, he says that fewer people would have participated in the Catalonia referendum if it had been done electronically, contradicting his earlier statements.
“It wouldn’t have been the same, it was like a ritual and we needed to see each other, stand together, and be with each other.”
He added that electronic voting loses the magic of mixing with the public and defending the urns.
So, while there is no clear decision on the technology to use for secure, encrypted electronic voting (or indeed a clear will to roll it out to all citizens and move away from traditional ballot boxes), Catalonia is considering blockchain. And just like everything to come out of this rebellious province, if they do go ahead, it will be a country-wide first.
Featured image from Shutterstock.