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Opinion: If an Electoral Commission is established, it faces a mammoth task

As plans continue for a new Register of Electors Bill, the Fianna Fáil senator says a Commission would face major challenges.

Malcolm Byrne

IMAGINE A PROCESS in February 2025, where Irish voters go to the polls in the next General Election by picking up our phones and following a series of facial recognition and other tests.

We would cast our ballots online secure in the knowledge that the system is safe and transparent and that every vote would be counted.

This would be after a campaign where social media microtargeting of voters was highly regulated, voters are alert to online efforts to try to manipulate their views, and there would be a greater appreciation of how our democratic system operates.

This scenario would mean that the long-awaited Electoral Commission that the government announced will have succeeded in its work and that Ireland will have embraced technology in a secure way to enhance our democratic processes.

From e-voting to Blockchain

There are those who will point to our previous experience with e-voting machines and argue that we will never abandon the paper and pencil model. But back in 2002, much of the argument then was around how much we trusted the technology and its security.

Recently, for the first time in a US Presidential Election, votes were cast using Blockchain technology. Blockchain is a system of recording information and transactions that because it is based on a chain of ‘blocks’ that verify all the other blocks of information makes it practically impossible to hack.

The Voatz app was used in Utah and it requires a phone number, photo ID and an authenticating “selfie”. The app then uses blockchain technology and biometrics to verify the voter’s identity.

Despite cries of voter fraud after the election from GOP representatives, many audits of electronic voting were carried out, such as in Georgia, but no evidence of fraud was found.

This process is a lot more secure than our current election system. In Ireland, we have a paper-based register of electors that often has voters listed more than once in different locations. It’s also a system that sometimes inadvertently knocks voters off the register, and does not provide for automatic registration.

While some voters are asked for ID, this is not the case for every elector. In addition, we make it difficult for voters who cannot physically get to a polling station – for the reason of disability, illness, or simply being away on the day of the vote.

The social effect

The Electoral Commission though will not just be charged with bringing our register and voting system that dates from the 19th Century into the 21st, it must also look at the increased role that tech companies and social media are playing in influencing our politics.

On 28 October last, the European Union published “Technology and Democracy”, a report that looked at the influence of online technologies on political behaviour and decision-making.

This report echoes many others that have highlighted how social media has shaped and spread misinformation as well as contributed to a polarisation in politics and to the rise of extremism. It argues that policymakers need to take these issues seriously. We must.

Brexit may very well have happened but the unregulated use of data by Cambridge Analytica in that UK referendum should deeply concern anyone committed to democracy.

The era of self-regulation by the tech giants over all the content they distribute and the algorithms that they use to determine what messages we receive, as well as how they sell and use our data (including our political views) must be brought to an end.

Social media and big data can be used positively. They can educate and inform; effective use of data to shape policy and planning should be encouraged.

But we need to ensure that citizens are digitally literate as to how our data is being used and that alert to “fake news” and the efforts of various political actors to shape political views online.

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The establishment of an Electoral Commission here is welcome but the challenge it faces should not be underestimated. It is not simply about tidying up the register of electors; its role will be to safeguard and promote democracy in the age of technology.

Malcolm Byrne is a Fianna Fáil Senator.

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