Voting in the Digital Age

Coming up: The greatest reality show on earth

Samit Basu Updated: Apr 5, 2019 10:38:08 IST
Voting in the Digital Age

As we head towards the largest election in history, it’s time to consider the future of elections themselves. Democracy is in a state of tumult worldwide, and futurists have been predicting the demise or subversion of the nation-state for years: Some predict a world ruled by corporations, others by algorithms. In many ways, we already live in the former, and we can all think of several countries that are democracies in name only. What happens next?

A free and just electoral process, guided by the principle of universal adult franchise, remains a fundamental need for the representation of people’s rights and interests in governments. Safeguarding elections in troubled times, and ensuring that they continue to exist in an ever-changing future, should remain part of humanity’s most vital goals. As we add ever-accelerating technological change to this pot—in a world where millions are battling for economic and social relevance—it becomes clear this is no easy task. At every stage in the electoral process, we’re going to see new opportunities, but also many dangers.

Pre-elections: Personalized propaganda has already swung elections in several countries, both internally and via hostile foreign powers. The battle against fake news and mass emotion-hacking will become even more vital with every new evolution of mass media. But why would politicians who rode to victory on propaganda take any step to contain it, and when the erosion of institutions is only to their advantage? New ways to polarize populations will be found: The consequent mass violence will only grow more terrifying. On the bright side, new communications technology also allows marginalized minorities to find their voices more effectively.Campaigning methods will also change with holograms and drones for mass rallies, but new forms of social/personal media will be the final frontier, especially after smart-glasses become commonplace. One thing that will never change is electoral candidates’ desire to put their faces on every existing surface. India is unlikely to see artificial intelligence candidates for a while, but they’ll exist soon enough. Campaign finance will remain a massive concern, with ever-increasing innovative ways to bypass regulations.Of greatest concern, though, is new ways to hack and manipulate voter lists in the data age, to manipulate results for every seat and, most importantly, exclude entire demographics from voting.

Elections: Cyberattacks on election-related data and infrastructure are already a massive threat worldwide. Paper ballots aren’t tamper-proof, nor are election booths—and in the future, the rise of electronic voting, and eventually, online voting are inevitable: Estonia already votes online.While e-voting makes for larger participation, especially among younger voters, the dangers are obvious. The time lag in paper-ballot counting and the speed at which rumours of corruption spread online don’t make a good combination, as seen in the Philippines and elsewhere. Blockchain was recently cited as a good way to make e-elections more secure, but even more recently it was shown to be hackable. Both solutions and problems in this space will continue to evolve very fast.

Post-elections: Counting processes, reporting methods and post-results propaganda are all areas of vulnerability. This is not just about tech: We’re going to see political candidates behave in innovatively strange ways to respond to new opportunities.

Whatever the case studies from elsewhere, it’s important to remember there is no electoral system as vast, diverse and complicated as India’s: and therein lies, along with danger, hope. The future of elections depends on the future of politics, and if people were able to predict that, we’d be living in a very different world.

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