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Article available in Spanish here: https://ceiba.io/prevenir-fraude-electoral-en-america-latina-con-fiscal_digital/
Latin American countries have very similar voting systems, with the notable exception of Brazil and, of course, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. Differences exist, but the similarities are greater. The following is a description of the voting system in Guatemala as a means of understanding the regional and global opportunity.
#Fiscal_Digital, in other words, #Digital_Witness
The Spanish term “Fiscal” is a type of overseer or witness of a process that has a responsibility to keep the system in check. They are the guards that protect the integrity and trust of the users in the system. Essentially, a “Fiscal” cannot interfere in the process but only observe. If by doing so a “Fiscal” identifies a problem with what is technically allowed by the process he is witnessing, the “Fiscal” must document and then prosecute the issue until it is resolved by the proper authority. Therefore, when you read #Fiscal_Digital, imagine #Digital_Witness.
Voting system in Guatemala
Over 20 thousand Voting Tables are spread out nationally in about 1 thousand Voting Centers as part of 340 Municipal Bodies held within 23 Districts. In other words, tables feed into centers, centers feed into municipalities, municipalities feed into districts, districts produce a national total. Each table is managed by a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 5 volunteer citizens. They are accompanied by political party witnesses (Fiscal in Spanish) from any party that wants to oversee their activities and record any disagreements regarding votes. A few hundred citizens are assigned at each table based on geographical proximity to their registered voting address. On election day, each citizen authenticates themselves at their table and is given their paper ballot or multiple ballots depending on the number of elections being held.
At the end of election day, voting centers are closed and only officially credentialed people are allowed for the count. All ballots are counted in front of witnesses (Fiscal), allowing for challenges to be recorded in case of disagreements between volunteers and/or witnesses regarding the voting intention of each ballot. Challenges are elevated for review by a higher authority only if the sum of municipal challenges could alter election results. Totals are tallied for each party and a consolidated result is written on a summary table document with TWO carbon copies. All volunteers and witnesses sign the document once there is physical consensus between volunteers and witnesses. This consensus algorithm is almost impossible to hack given the physical presence of opposing political forces, a significant advantage to electronic voting systems. All volunteers and witnesses that desire a paper copy of the results must create a certified copy, by hand, that is signed by all volunteers with FOUR carbon copies created during each new, hand-written, certification.
The summary table document, known in Guatemala as the Acta#4, now becomes the only document that is recognized by law. Ballots are stored but have never been recounted individually, rather summary table documents can be recounted if deemed necessary by the national voting authority, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE). The Acta#4 is immediately a public document but access to it is controlled by TSE. The TSE’s IT department publishes the first carbon copy, known as the duplicate, via their Preliminary Results website. Originals are stored by the TSE, access to them is guaranteed by the constitution and the law of access to information upon written request. Whether that legal responsibility is honored is another matter altogether.
The following is an example of one such duplicate of the summary table document, the Acta#4:
Lots of paper isn’t safer
Digitalization infrastructure was expensive at the time these systems were adopted in the 1980s and thus carbon copy paper technology was utilized. The intent was to guarantee a paper trail with enough copies for wide spread distribution and verification. In 2019, there were 26 national parties and over 150 municipal movements in Guatemala. Since certifications are hand written with FOUR carbon copies per certificate, paper copies abound. Certifications are handwritten by an exhausted team of volunteers at the end of 16+ hour shifts, errors are common and carbon copy technology dramatically increases mistakes. This results in more than a dozen questionable copies in the hands of opposing political forces in the post-truth era of fake news.
In 2019, Guatemala held 6 elections: Presidential primaries, Presidential run-off, National Congress, District Congress, Municipal Corporations and Central American Parliament. Each one produced a summary table document like the one pictured above at each voting table. There were 21,099 voting tables this year resulting in roughly 126 THOUSAND original documents. The carbon copy paper trail tradition meant the country was swimming in over 1.5 MILLION physical documents with wide ranging degrees of error. The result was mayhem on social media where bad actors could alter digital versions of these copies with ease, increasing distrust with impunity. The TSE reacted and officially erased any legality that handwritten certifications held, obliterating the paper trail it does not control directly. Lots of paper, isn’t safer and it is no longer useful except for increasing confusion among those unaware of legal proceedings and official decisions.
Few people now trust the election authorities and most question the legitimacy of the election, leading to increased governance problems for the incoming government.
Trust but verify the original document trail
Municipal bodies collect original summary table documents, along with all other voting table material, via Voting Centers. They tally all summary table documents within their municipality, accompanied by witnesses of political parties. These results are fed into the Districts they are a part of and the Districts carry out the same process until reaching the National total. At each step those responsible are asked to ignore the press and focus their work on the original documents in front of them. Political parties presented their certified copies to argue discrepancies, but these were no longer admitted due to the TSE’s decision to eliminate them.
Despite the maelstrom, a national total was rushed in a record 4 weeks and made publicly legal by the TSE amid protests and calls for resignation by the citizenry. #Fiscal_Digital requested in August 2019 access to original documents for auditing purposes as enshrined by the constitution and the law of access to information but, to this day, has been denied access via questionable legal maneuverings. Trust but verify has been impossible as the original document trail has proved inaccessible. “Elected” authorities took office on January 14th, 2020.
Preliminary Results, a regional cancer
When the summary table document (Acta#4) is produced, the primary carbon copy known as the duplicate is taken by a volunteer to one of many temporary workers assigned at each Voting Center. These temporary workers are employed by the national voting authorities IT department. The duplicate is handled from then on by a temporary worker with a laptop, scanner and modem to generate a JPG and an initial tally for the database. All JPGs and their tallies are eventually made public via the Preliminary Results website, after passing through several private databases built by private contractors of the TSE’s IT department.
In the case of Guatemala, these tallies are corrected and verified by hundreds more temporary workers located in a data center in Guatemala City. The changes occur in real-time on the public website to a befuddled citizenry. The discrepancies between multiple paper certifications plus fake ones on social media wreaked havoc on the TSE’s reputation. The constant crashing of the public website didn’t help to allay fears. The president of the TSE attempted to calm citizens and political parties stating that “Preliminary Results have no legal impact on national totals and that they should be ignored given that they are only for informative purposes.” This was a tall order for a panicked population that has good reason to ignore the ins and outs of the election system and who can only access the Preliminary Results website, seeing it as a single source of truth.
Millions upon millions of dollars of public funds are deployed to publish these Preliminary Results. Thousands of temporary workers are trained, paid salaries, per diems, transportation costs, plus a laptop, scanner and modem per worker, not to mention private contractors offering cloud computing services and internet connections. In the case of “impoverished” Guatemala, the cost is in the millions of dollars in order to deploy over 3,200 temporary workers and the Preliminary Results system.
Since the early 2000s, Latin American voting authorities have adopted Preliminary Results systems to publish “quick count” results to a hungry press and an increasingly impatient citizenry, accustomed by accelerating technology, to immediate gratification. In Guatemala it is known as the Sistema de Transmisión de Resultados Preliminares – SITREP (Preliminary Results Transmission System). For comparison, in Bolivia this same system is known as the Transmisión de Resultados Electorales Preliminares – TREP (Preliminary Election Results Transmission) and in Mexico as the Programa de Resultados Electorales Preliminares – PREP (Preliminary Election Results Program), among other similar acronyms in the region describing the same thing. It was this system in Bolivia that was shut down for a 24 hour period and, when rebooted, gave Evo Morales an impossible 10% lead. In Guatemala, this system crashed on election night, rebooted several times over the course of the next 4 days, then shut down and only turned on again with frozen results due to overwhelming cries from citizens and political parties. Since then, the two directors of the IT department were fired and have been charged with election crimes by the Justice Department (Ministerio Público). A long legal battle is ongoing with no end in sight.
An eerily similar story can be told for the elections in Ecuador 2019, El Salvador 2018 and Honduras in 2017, and the list goes on. The common thread: Preliminary Results systems, a regional cancer.
Enter #Fiscal_Digital, the digital witness
#Fiscal_Digital is an open-source, volunteer effort led jointly by Fundación Herencia Cultural Guatemalteca, a local non-profit focused on creating citizenship experiences, and ceiba.io, a community of blockchain enthusiasts. Digital copies made available to the public via the Preliminary Results database were hashed with SHA256 and their results were registered on Bitcoin (article), EOS (brief article), Horizen (article) and Dogecoin (brief article) for ample verification. All images were then uploaded to #Fiscal_Digital enabling anyone with a computer, a phone and internet access to participate in crowdsourced OCR to generate an independent tally that can audit the official results. For an Acta#4 to be “validated” by #Fiscal_Digital, 3 different users need to produce identical information for each document. Documents are randomly selected between thousands, practically eliminating the possibility for bad actors to influence results.
All of #Fiscal_Digital’s code was published on GitHub within 3 weeks of the elections in June 2019. Since then, #Fiscal_Digital has produced over 140,000 entries by over 1,500 volunteer users. Thousands of summary table documents have been validated…the system works. Requests for information to obtain all election documents have been ongoing since August 2019 and a full audit report will be produced once the documentation is provided by the TSE.
This experience has led to a proposal to the TSE’s Commission for the Update and Modernization of the Guatemalan Election System (CAME) that was submitted on December 13th and evaluated in January 2020. In February 2020, a conclusion and song were presented to the CAME. Our hope is that a proposal which saves millions, accelerates publication of trust-worthy results, can be audited within hours and uses the most secure technology in the world will be more appealing than the status quo. (Update: unfortunately the TSE authorities have thus far ignored the proposal and new authorities have taken over forcing #Fiscal_Digital to start anew the education and lobbying process for the proposal.)
Our proposal for the region
#Fiscal_Digital’s proposal to the Guatemalan Elections Authority (TSE) that will be taken to other Latin American voting authorities is:
- Include a purpose built IOS or Android device at each voting table to photograph ORIGINAL summary table documents (Acta#4) as soon as they are created by the voting table volunteers themselves. The local app on the device will upload the JPGs to as many blockchains as possible, including the hash of a JSON that includes geolocation, timestamp, table ID and unique device ID (IMEI), thereby replacing dozens of handwritten, carbon paper certifications with a single digital blockchain certification.
- Re-design voting table results documents (Acta#4) for optimal OCR performance via automatic systems as well as crowdsourced efforts. Ensuring that machine OCR is able to produce preliminary results eliminates the need for human-generated results for informative purposes with no legal impact on official results. Machines generate the public preliminary results, human volunteers check their work via #Fiscal_Digital and other similar civilian audits.
- Re-define IT department’s role as the implementer of blockchain certifications and OCR technology as efficiently and transparently as possible instead of contracting thousands of temporary workers and other third parties.
The proposal can be implemented within the current system without the need for any legislative intervention by congress. It require only the approval of election authorities. Voting tables maintain their valuable physical consensus at the tables between citizen volunteers and political party witnesses, in addition to their paper trail. When consensus is achieved, they publish results directly in an immutable and publicly accessible format. All further intermediaries will be made unnecessary and thus all possibility of alteration of election results will be eliminated. Millions of dollars will be saved, millions of paper copies will be saved while information integrity and velocity will be maximized. Any third-party auditor will be capable of validating results within hours at minimal expense.
Latin America resisted evolving its paper-based, human-powered election systems throughout the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. Blockchain enables a leapfrog opportunity from the current state of distrust into trust-worthy, secure, immediate and immutable election results.
Our current trajectory
By February 2020, the Guatemalan national voting authorities have had ample time to review and approve our proposal but they have chosen not to. We will continue to fight for a thorough review of our proposal and a cost benefit analysis with the status quo to demonstrate that the Guatemalan voting system could be the most trust-worthy on the planet.
In November 2019 #Fiscal_Digital presented this proposal to the President of the voting authorities of the state of Guanajuato and to the Director of the IT Department of election in the state of Yucatán in Mexico. The next election process in Mexico begins in September 2020 and elections are held in 2021. Throughout 2020, volunteers have been educating citizens in El Salvador to replicate (fork) #Fiscal_Digital for the February 2021 congressional elections to ensure a citizen audit of voting results.
Our team of Latin American volunteers built this technology with the world in mind, anyone interested in working with us to replicate our effort can email (Fiscal_Digital@ceiba.io).
Want to try our Demo App? Visit: https://fiscaldigital-dev.web.app/
#Fiscal_Digital, we count the votes together. #Fiscal_Digital, juntos contamos todos los votos.