“We power democracy” is the slogan of the Catalan firm Scytl, which designs secure electronic voting systems used in such countries as Switzerland and Australia. This week Scytl will do the same in Catalonia, in the chambers of commerce elections, which the firm predicts will show the superiority of electronic voting over postal voting. Yet, Scytl also manages the collating and publication of election results, something it will do around Spain in the local and European elections due to take place on May 26.
The firm was founded in 2001, just after the presidential contest in the US between George W Bush and Al Gore, which was marred by the infamous “hanging chads” controversy. Following that episode exposing the limitations of voting systems, a group of academics at Barcelona University researching cryptography applied to election processes set up the firm.
Scytl set out to design an electronic voting system that would be entirely trustworthy, traceable and verifiable, and 20 years later it has become a world leader in the sector. With over 200 staff, the firm has experience managing elections all over the world. “We’ve organized thousands of elections with no security problems,” says engineer Victor Hidalgo.
On May 26, Scytl will manage the results from some 60,000 polling stations around Spain, something Hidalgo describes as a “brutal technological challenge.” However, the firm insists that it is “impossible to falsify the results,” due to the fact that the results published on election night will only be provisional.
“Imagine a hacker used magic to tamper with the system, the only thing they would alter would be the provisional results, which would cause a bit of confusion for a week, but the real results come from the actual ballot papers,” says Hidalgo.
Scytl does not give much importance to the fraud accusations leveled at them and other companies that specialize in electoral processes, such as Indra. “Until the day before the election, no one says anything but once the results are out there are people who accuse us of being fraudsters because they are not happy,” he says. Hidalgo points out that the company has clients that are on the left, on the right, and “of all political stripes” and that “you can’t be affiliated with any party to work at Scytl.”
Electronic vs. postal
Above all, Scytl argues for electronic voting to be used for all elections instead of the bureaucratic and “slow-moving” postal voting. “You can’t compare electronic and postal voting: electronic voting is safer, cheaper, more convenient, more efficient; it is all advantages,” says Hidalgo.
Hidalgo also points out that electronic voting can be verified: “Each voter can check that their vote was correctly received and counted, and the system can be completely audited,” he adds. Yet, it has taken until now for a voting system designed by Scytl, a Catalan firm, to be used in Catalonia, and Hidalgo jokes that “no prophet is accepted in his own land.”
However, for electronic voting to be used in legislative elections in Spain, there will have to be a change to the law, “which was written when electronic voting did not exist.” On more than one occasion, the government has announced that it is working to allow residents abroad to use electronic voting in the next Catalan elections.
Yet, Scytl is cautious, pointing out that the Catalan government’s powers to manage voting from abroad are limited by the legislation for Spain as a whole. Ultimately, the firm says that the implementation of electronic voting does not depend on the technology, which already exists, but on the political will to make it happen. “Sooner or later it is inevitable, everything is moving in the direction of electronic voting, but the exact date remains a mystery,” Hidalgo concludes.