Calling the election
Eduardo Valdés-Escoffery, Electoral Tribunal, Panama City, Panama
BY MALCOLM WHEATLEY // PHOTO BY RUBEN PARRA
A smartphone app helps deliver Panama's presidential election results with blistering speed and accuracy.
Election nights are typically tense affairs, with the candidates and public waiting until the wee hours of the morning to discover the victors.
But those tracking Panama's presidential election on 3 May 2009 didn't have to stew for long.
Just two and a half hours after the polls closed, the president and presiding magistrate of the country's Electoral Tribunal made the traditional phone call to the winner, Ricardo Martinelli. No previous election in Panama had been concluded so quickly.
No matter that some polling stations were located deep in the jungle, far from the nearest landline. An impressive blend of database, Internet and mobile telephone technologies combined to generate minute-by-minute updates of completed electoral counts, which were then displayed on giant screens at the press center.
“The polls closed at 4 p.m., and at 4:34 p.m. we started to get results in from small rural communities,” says magistrate Eduardo Valdés-Escoffery, vice president of the Electoral Tribunal. “At 6 p.m. the margin between the two main candidates was so wide that it was clear who was going to be the eventual winner. At 6:30 p.m., we could announce the unofficial results.”
The number of hours it took to deliver results in the 2009 Panama presidential election
The portion of registered voters who turned out for the election
Beginning in 1983, Panama was under the dictatorship of Manuel Noriega, until a U.S. invasion deposed the de facto leader early in 1990. Eager to shrug off the shadow of Mr. Noriega's regime, Panama installed a newly empowered Electoral Tribunal untainted by the fraud that had kept the dictator and his cohorts in power.
The tribunal has gone on to become one of the most trusted public bodies in Latin America, and the elections it runs are held up as global case studies in fair and free universal suffrage.
Almost from the start, that electoral process has relied heavily on technology.
Determined to avoid even the faintest hint of fraud, the tribunal created a vast electoral database. Supplemented by biometric data such as fingerprints and photo-recognition software, it helps ensure each citizen only votes once for specific vacancies and candidates relevant to their address.
To keep everything in order, the country strictly enforces its policies. For example, it's mandatory for deaths to be registered before friends and family can hold the burial ceremony. And children cannot be enrolled in school without possessing a birth certificate.
Citizens' births and deaths are captured at computer terminals located not only at the Electoral Tribunal's offices throughout the country, but also at the largest public and private hospitals. The biggest supermarket chains are connected, too, issuing birth and death certificates.
Given the emphasis on electronic information, remote regions are slowly being provided with wireless communication technologies.
In short, the Electoral Tribunal's database captures key milestones in the lives of Panama's citizens, empowering them to vote—and helping keep those votes part of an equitable electoral process.
To accomplish such a goal, the project team had to secure trustworthy communication channels through which election results could be transmitted. There also had to be open and transparent processes in which those results could be speedily tabulated and published.
The technology used in the 2004 presidential election worked well— but for the 2009 election, Electoral Tribunal officials wanted something bigger, better and glitzier.
It was quite a setup. The plan called for a 19-foot-by-25-foot (6-meter-by-8-meter) monitor bracketed by four smaller screens in the press center. Combined, they would highlight real-time information such as the total votes by province, and details of valid, blank and null votes, as well as the level of voter participation. An interactive map of the nation would show results by province. And the central screen would display photographs of the competing candidates, detailing the number of votes cast for each.
Back in January 2009, with the election just four months away and two years of preparations already underway, the Electoral Tribunal decided on yet another innovation: a smartphone app.
The process of obtaining election results from polling stations had hitherto relied on voice transmission over telephone lines, or, in the case of polling stations located in remote regions, over VHF (very high frequency) radio and satellite phones, explains Mr. Valdés-Escoffery.
Although reliable, the system was slow.
After password verification, results had to be spoken slowly and carefully, then read back by the recipient to make sure they had been received correctly. Once that part of the process wrapped up, the results still had to be manually transcribed and then entered into the server.
The project team realized it could circumvent much of that lengthy process using wireless application protocol (WAP). At the polling station, results could simply be entered into a mobile phone and sent over the web directly to the server. No laborious read-back, no manual transcribing and no data entry was necessary.
Nevertheless, the timing wasn't ideal. Not only did the software code have to be revised, but the app had to be written from scratch. Extensive testing was needed, polling station personnel would require training, and there were security considerations as well.
Along with the typical encryption and authentication mechanisms common to WAP applications, several additional measures were negotiated with the service providers. For one, the mobile phone numbers were included in the WAP header to ensure they were valid. Also, the phones' access point names were filtered so only approved IP addresses would be allowed past the governmental firewall.
“There was a lot of risk, and we were well-aware of our responsibilities,” Mr. Valdés-Escoffery says. “It was absolutely vital that on [election] night, everything ran smoothly. The technology, the people and the process had to work correctly.”
Nor, it goes almost without saying, could timescales be extended: 3 May had been selected as Election Day years before—and 3 May it was going to be.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ELECTORAL TRIBUNAL OF PANAMA
“The last-minute changes [in the smartphone app] perhaps made people nervous. When you innovate, cultural change is always the problem, not the technology itself.”
Still, if the new technology did work correctly, the speed of election returns would increase significantly. Mobile phones running the WAP app would operate at 80 percent of the country's polling stations, with the rest in such remote rural areas they had to rely upon VHF radio and satellite phones.
The stakes were high, but the risks seemed worth it.
The tribunal outsourced the app writing to a Panamanian software company, while its developers made changes to the result-tabulation application. Meanwhile, 800 mobile phones were acquired for polling stations.
Not willing to take any chances, the project team decided to divide and conquer.
The number of voters in Panama's 2009 presidential elections
“The 800 phones were divided equally across three cell phone networks to avoid network congestion and provide some contingency against failure,” Mr. Valdés-Escoffery says. “We wanted to avoid being reliant on just one provider.”
As Election Day drew nearer, early trials of the WAP app highlighted usability, training and security issues. No fewer than 12 simulations were run, with results sent in from the country's polling stations and displayed on the monitors.
As the simulations were underway, security experts and “ethical hackers” from the United States were probing the WAP-based system's defenses, prompting last-minute changes to both the software code and the instructions for its use. One modification, for example, required two or three combinations of passwords to allow for the possibility of a phone being lost, stolen or misappropriated.
Within the polling stations themselves, the tribunal established a strict set of procedures. The secretary of each station would generate a document known as the “unofficial transmission of results.” The president of the station would review it, and then sign and return it to the secretary. The document would then be delivered to an inspector who would enter it into the app under the scrutiny of yet another pair of eyes.
Despite the project team's efforts, securing buy-in proved to be daunting. Fewer polling station officials than planned used the app, preferring instead to fall back on traditional means of communication, Mr. Valdés-Escoffery says.
“The last-minute changes perhaps made people nervous,” he concedes. “When you innovate, cultural change is always the problem, not the technology itself.” Instead of 80 percent of polling stations reporting via WAP, only 50 percent did so.
But the Electoral Tribunal remains determined.
“Will we use WAP next time? Yes, absolutely,” says Mr. Valdés-Escoffery. “We're already planning the 2014 election—and aiming to extend the system's use to more elections than just the presidential election: the legislative branch and the elections for city mayors and councilors.” PM
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