Remote Voting in Spain: The Challenges and Benefits

This text is the result of the transcription of the panelist’s participation in Bússola Tech’s event

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I have followed the experiences gained in other parliaments and I will tell you that in the Congress of Deputies we also have similar experiences, but I prefer to focus on a single issue, which is electronic voting. We have had electronic voting since 2011, so I will offer the data from before the pandemic, during the pandemic and then I would like to refer to the current perspectives that we have at the moment of the pandemic.


Before the pandemic, at the beginning of 2011 computerised voting was proposed in the Congress of Deputies. This came as a result of an impulse from a series of pregnant deputies who were voting close to the time of birth and they made a proposal, in the explanatory statement, which said that its highlights the desire to adopt the necessary measures and reforms to make maternity leave, paternity leave and leave due to serious illness compatible with the exercise of parliamentary functions.


Well, this led to a series of reforms, one was a reform of the rules of procedure of the Congress of Deputies that was made on July 21th, 2011, and there was also a resolution approved by the congressional bureau on May 21th, 2012, almost a year later. 


Reference was made to article 79.3 of the Spanish constitution which states that the vote of senators and deputies is personal and non-delegable, in other words, they vote in the plenary chamber. Well, the technical procedure was implemented by the computer services of the Congress of Deputies and a series of conditions were taken into account, I will highlight the most important ones: computerised voting must allow Members to vote without being present in the plenary session in the following cases: Pregnancy, maternity or paternity leave and serious illness. Due authorisation is required from the chamber’s bureau, in other words, it was not possible to vote if the bureau did not approve the request and it was not applicable to all votes, only to votes that could not be fragmented or modified, and I will explain this a little more later.


Technically speaking, it was done with a digital signature that was used with a digital certificate that was used on a card, not on a disk, to ensure maximum security, and at that time I think that with the passage of time we were a little rigid in this computer application. Each member had a digital certificate and the identity of the Member, the direction of the vote and, above all, non-repudiation were guaranteed. 


The first computerised vote was launched on June 12th, 2012. The votes were published on the website in opendata. There was a distinction to be made between in-person voting and computerised voting. During the whole period from that date to the present day, there were cases that were difficult to handle because there were Members who voted from an island or in very small towns where the communications networks had some difficulty, and then it was necessary to provide personal training and instruction, but this could be carried out fairly easily because there were not many Members who used this procedure.


In March 2020, when the pandemic broke out, 1,854 votes had been cast digitally by 50 Members and 47 Members, but there had been a great deal of experience with this voting procedure. 


Well, when the pandemic arrives, we have to take into account some assumptions that I would like to mention before explaining what happened during the pandemic.


The application can be used from any device that has an internet connection, members can vote from a PC, from a laptop, from an iPad or an iPhone, or a smartphone. I say iPad and iPhone because they are the corporate devices that the MPs have, but it is very demanding to use. Members need the digital certificate, for which, in principle, as it is an electronic certificate on a card, we need a reader on a regular PC, however to incorporate a reader for an electronic certificate on mobile devices is a little more complicated.


One thing I wanted to tell you all before, is that with regard to secret ballots, the computerised vote is printed out and the president puts it in the ballot box, in secret ballots it is normally for the election of bodies, so the name of the elected candidate appears on the ballot paper, not the Member who voted.


Another thing is that not all initiatives are voted on; for example, amendments that are not voted on by computerised procedure. These are amendments to the articles, this is because they may be initiatives that can be voted on separately and that would be rather more complicated in a computerised vote; or compromise amendments whose result of the vote may arise from an agreement during the debate.


On these assumptions and bearing in mind that before the pandemic there was time to prepare the vote, which there was not during the pandemic; the Member who chose to vote in this way was spoken to and for a reasonably long period of time it was explained, the Members were trained, etc., in these cases the Members who voted in this way could be between two and three or five or six in each plenary session. Now we only have 350 Members.


When the pandemic arrives, all this data changes radically, quickly more than 100 Members request this type of vote and shortly afterwards there are more than 200. Why is this the case? 


Because the Bureau agrees, with a delegation from the President, that some of the restrictions that previously existed should not be taken into account; in other words, it is no longer just pregnancy, maternity, paternity and serious illness, but is extended to all the cases permitted by what is being created as a rule as a result of the Covid-19 epidemic.


This also makes it necessary to modify the computer application and speed up its operation, in fact to remove some descriptions because otherwise it would be impossible for so many Members to vote in such a short time. And we don’t have the preparation time that we had before, so we have to make it up as we go along. 


The IT services have been overwhelmed at times because, in addition, as all. Most of the parliaments and what they have been receiving in their different papers, they have had to make videoconferences, they have had to attend to teleworking, bodies such as the Chamber’s Bureau and the board of spokespersons have used videoconferencing continuously, the central electoral board, which is a body that also in the Congress of Deputies has also made videoconferences, etc.; So there has been a time when the technical services have been as little bit as we could. 


Guides have been provided and very personalised attention has been given, and in the end we have managed to ensure that the rotations have taken place, not without problems, but no one has been left without voting. 


Although with the increase in the number of Members voting online, everything has changed a great deal and we have had cases that have been easier and others that have been more difficult to manage.


If we add to this the fact that the debates were very much concerned with the adoption of decrees and laws and such important matters as the declaration of the state of emergency, then this system has really been a stress test for the computer system from the lines to the servers, the training of the voters, and in the last plenary sessions there were neither 10 nor 200 of them, and I will give you an example of how this happened. 


At the penultimate plenary session, 300 issues were voted on and all 350 Members voted. We were at the height of the pandemic and this was the way it was done.


This if you do a 25 a multiplication because of utility you will see that it gives 105 thousand votes, if you remember the previous figure which was 1854 votes from 2012 to 2020, well now in a single day there were 105 thousand votes. This means that we now have hundreds of thousands of operations in the computer system, maintaining the rigour of identification of non-repudiation and so on.


And if we need to add anything to this stress test, well, I will tell you that in the last vote there was a tie on a rather sensitive issue, so the vote had to be repeated; so we had to handle a rather sensitive issue again; fortunately, it went well and we were able to rest a little until the plenary sessions were not so frequent and, well, we thought that this was… that we were over the worst.


The application held up, the servers held up to the lines and the vote went smoothly, thanks also to very personalised attention to many Members at the time of voting.


Well, and just when we thought we were over the worst, now in the world, and in Spain in particular, we are experiencing a resurgence of the pandemic. We can say that we have a consolidated application, we can say that we have a lot of experience, that there are many lessons learned, and what is very important is that the Members of Parliament have acquired sufficient expertise, and now it is much easier for them not to be left without voting at all, it is much easier for them to vote without having last-minute connection problems. But the flare-ups are causing a great deal of uncertainty.


I will move on to the third part, which is what we are doing. Given the current situation, it will be the shortest.


It seems clear that teleworking, videoconferencing and so on will continue with and without the pandemic, but we will have to see what the pace is like. I believe that we cannot tackle so many challenges at the same time with the same two means we had before the pandemic.


There are also many voices that say that we must return to normality and work in the chamber; of course, with the necessary precautions, but we cannot go from a previous situation to total teleworking or total videoconferencing, and total voting. In some cases it has been proposed that, in addition to the plenary sessions in person, it would be possible to intervene from. 


Then, in the current scenario, there are the forecasts with vaccines, there is the impact on economic activity, there are the denialists; in other words, there is a breeding ground that is difficult to manage strategically and politically at the moment. 


Whatever decisions are taken will have to be endorsed by the consequent legal modifications. 


For the time being, Spain will continue to operate with the experience acquired and awaiting decisions that will be adopted according to the evolution of the pandemic, but in my opinion in a waiting period that will mark events. 


And if you allow me a personal and very personal reflection, as a professional on the side of the team I manage, I would like to have something like they have in Brazil, from which I have learned a lot. My friend Patricia Almeida, to whom I send a hug, and who makes me very happy. I hope it has been of interest to you, thank you very much.


[header image source: unsplash] 

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