The idea of holding digital elections is picking up steam following reports that dozens of election workers died of reported extreme fatigue during and after organizing the nation’s first-ever concurrent elections, billed by many as “the world’s most complex”.
While it is hard to determine if the April 17 general elections directly caused the deaths, a consensus has been reached that the current election system — in which five different paper-based elections are held on a single day — has to be changed. One of the proposed changes is for Indonesia to apply e-voting to make elections less complicated.
The proposal, however, remains controversial, with lawmakers saying that even after so many election-related deaths, e-voting still seems like a distant dream.
The controversy revolves around the question of whether Indonesia — an archipelago with a population of more than 250 million people — is ready for e-voting and whether the technology is the right solution to election problems. Lawmakers, election organizers, election observers and election engineers have given different answers.
Infrastructure, voters not ready
House of Representatives speaker Bambang Soesatyo has called on members of the House Commission II overseeing home affairs to consider e-voting in a revision to the 2017 Election Law.
The commission, however, said it was unlikely that e-voting would be used in 2024. Indonesian voters, particularly those living in remote and underdeveloped areas with no internet connection, are not ready for digital elections, said commission chairman and Golkar Party lawmaker Zainuddin Amali.
General Elections Commission (KPU) Arief Budiman previously said that the lack of infrastructure in some areas would hinder the application of e-voting.
“If data from one polling station could not be included in the national vote tally, the KPU could not determine the election results,” he said as quoted by online news portal detik.com.
He added that e-voting machines would also be costly. One polling station, he said, might need at least five e-voting machines, including two back-ups, while some 800,000 polling stations were involved in the last elections.
An e-voting machine costs around US$3,000.
The KPU has proposed that Indonesia use digital technology to count, not cast, the ballots.
“The counting process is where most problems occur. The officers become exhausted from counting, not serving the voters at polling stations,” said KPU commissioner Viryan Azis.
Voters ready, but elites are not?
The engineer tasked with developing an e-voting system at the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) disagreed with the House and the KPU, saying that technology-wise and culture-wise, Indonesian voters are ready to vote digitally, but the political elites are still reluctant to depart from the manual system.
“It actually depends on the readiness of our elites,” Andrari Grahitandaru, the head of the e-voting program at BPPT, told The Jakarta Post recently.
Digital elections using e-voting machines developed by the BPPT had been successfully implemented in 981 village head elections in 18 regencies across the country, she said, adding that some of the villages were considered “remote” or even “backward”.
Among the remotest regions are Musi Rawas in South Sumatra and Bantaeng in South Sulawesi. In areas with no electricity, the BPPT used car batteries as a power source for the e-voting machines, according to Michael Andreas Purwo, head of the agency’s information technology and communication center.
According to the BPPT, the state might need to spend up to Rp 50 million ($3,500) per polling station in a digital election. It is still cheaper, Michael argued, as the machines could later be rented and used multiple times.
“The BPPT can always update and develop the technology,” he said.
That said, Andrari argued that whether or not Indonesia was ready to implement e-voting in 2024 depended on the political will of the government and the House to reform the nation’s election system, not the voters.
A departure from a manual to a digital system would change the business side of elections and political leaders must be willing to change it, she said.
Is e-voting really a solution?
But the problem is not just about readiness. Many are not convinced that e-voting is a solution at all. The Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem), for example, is skeptical about e-voting, saying that the technology has credibility problems.
“Learning from the experience of other countries that have implemented e-voting is the right way to go,” said Perludem chairman Titi Anggraini.
The election watchdog highlighted that the Netherlands pulled the plug on e-voting in 2007 following a challenge by a group called We Don’t Trust Voting Computers. The challenge was triggered by the failure of election organizers to hold a revote in regions that had implemented e-voting.
Australia, it said, also no longer used e-voting for its federal elections and used it only for overseas and disabled voters. Germany, meanwhile, banned e-voting in 2009 as the system lacks transparency, could not be audited and is too complicated.
Perludem called on the government to focus on what it is trying to solve instead of what kind of election technology it wishes to have.
“The use of technology could lead to new problems if it is not based on efforts to provide solutions to the real problems,” Titi said.
Zainuddin echoed Titi’s sentiment, saying there was no evidence e-voting could prevent election fraud.
“Technology is prone to misuse, including by hackers. Some developed countries no longer apply the technology. It is still a long way to go for us.”
The BPPT, however, said Indonesia should look to India where it claimed e-voting had been a success.
“India is the country that should be seen as the best practice model, as it always updates its election technology,” Michael said.
The agency claimed to have updated its e-voting machines to address concerns about its credibility by providing tally receipts, log files and barcoded receipts.
“It depends on our mentality. If we contest the election, we have to be ready to accept defeat. If not, distrust will always prevail, whatever the system may be,” Andrari said.