How to observe e-enabled elections?

OSCE/ODIHR Handbook for the Observation of New Voting Technologies

ODIHR Handbook NVT

ODIHR Handbook NVT

How to observe an election process in which information and communication technologies (ICT) are used? This is the question at the heart of the recently published OSCE/ODIHR “Handbook for the Observation of New Voting Technologies“. It sheds light on the challenges that electoral observers face when observing e-enabled elections.

What is an NVT?

The challenge starts already with the definition. The area to be covered is potentially huge. In ODIHR’s words, almost all electoral processes make some use of new technologies, from voter registration to tabulation of results.

However, the “new voting technologies” or NVT to which the Handbook refers, cover only the use of ICT in the casting and counting of votes. This includes the use of ballot scanning technology, of direct recording electronic (DRE) voting systems, of Internet voting and of other hybrid forms such as voting over internet from a controlled environment. “Electronic voting” is also used as a synonym for NVT.

Supporting technologies such as electronic election administration systems, voter registration or identification systems, although of interest, fall out of the scope of NVT.

What to observe?

The Handbook covers issues that span over the whole process of introducing NVT instructing observers on how to examine areas as varied as:

  • motivation for using NVT and perceived advantages
  • the process for choosing, procuring and implementing the NVT system
  • political agreement on the introduction of NVT
  • voters and other election stakeholders confidence in using them
  • legal regulations regarding the use of NVT
  • transparency of NVT-related documentation.

For each area, detailed instructions are given on what and how to observe. For example, when considering the decision-making on introducing NVT, observers should:

  • consider the background and the reasons leading to the implementation of electronic voting
  • identify what challenges or problems the NVT are meant to address. In doing so not only note the expected benefits but additionally inquire about other motivations for using new technologies
  • consider the process for deciding to implement NVT
  • examine the extent of agreement among political parties and the public
  • consider the manner in which the NVT were put into practice – in particular the timetable and whether or not it allowed for a careful consideration of all aspects
  • consider the potential impact of the selected NVT on the electorate as a whole, as well as in regards to specific groups of voters, etc.

After considering all these issues, observers can make an overall assessment of the decision to use NVT. Here again, the Handbook provides guidance on the content and structure of the decision.

The Handbook offers the same level of detailed guidance and instructions on each of the NVT related areas. So, in addition to the decision-making process to introduce NVT, other aspects are screened, such as

  • the legal context,
  • the electoral system and NVT
  • political parties, civil society, media and NVT
  • procurement and acquisition of NVT
  • the role of the election administration in the use of NVT and its handling of the voting process to take into account NVT, its oversight of NVT and risk management policy, the role it accords to vendors, the training of officials and education of voters
  • security and secrecy of the vote, integrity of results
  • usability, ballot design, voter accessibility and reliability
  • public testing
  • evaluation and certification
  • verification methods, among which universal or individual verifiability, auditing of results, paper audit trails,
  • observer access, documentation and other transparency measures

Legal benchmark for observers

The 2004 Recommendation of the Council of Europe on e-voting and related Guidelines[1] as well as OSCE commitments defining principles for democratic elections form the basis for assessing NVT. OSCE commitments (secrecy of the vote, integrity of results, equality of the vote, universality of the vote, transparency, accountability and public confidence) and Council of Europe legal principles which e-voting must respect (universal suffrage, equal suffrage, free suffrage, secret suffrage, transparency, verifiability and accountability, reliability and security) largely overlap. Council of Europe Recommendation contains in addition two other appendices with e-voting specific operational standards and technical requirements.

These fundamental seven to nine commitments agreed by OSCE and Council of Europe member states provide the legal basis for ODIHR’S recommendations on NVT. Observers’ assessments, conclusions and recommendations about the use of NVT in a given election should relate to these principles. OSCE commitments being too high-level, it is admitted that the Council of Europe’s Recommendation on Legal, Operational and Technical Standards for Electronic Voting constitutes the only specialized international legal document in this regard.

Something missing?

However the leap from the general OSCE or Council of Europe requirements of, say, transparency and verifiability to the specific description of what verifiability in e-enabled elections is, to take an example, is somewhat huge, and only based on Council of Europe Guidelines.

Verification can be universal or individual. Universal verifiability implies that any person or group with sufficient expertise can confirm that the election results correspond to the votes cast and the process has been conducted accurately. Individual verifiability refers to the ability of any given voter to confirm that her or his specific ballot is recorded correctly and corresponds to her or his intention. If all aspects of an election, including the accuracy of the overall results, can be fully and  independently verified, the NVT can be said to be verifiable end-to-end

The Guidelines have no binding effect and are indeed even less “mandatory” than the Council of Europe recommendations. Correctly, the Handbook identifies the need for national legislation to regulate all aspects of the specific NVT that is being introduced, including verification and transparency. This has been indeed a mantra in recent ODIHR NVT observation reports such as the ones on elections in Estonia, Norway and Switzerland in 2011 or France in 2012.

The incompleteness of today’s national legislations, in particular when it comes to new concepts such as individual or universal verifiability is implicitly admitted. Reason why probably the Handbook considers it necessary to give specific instructions to observers on what these requirements may imply and what a correct implementation is.

ODIHR’s role in assessing the use of NVT has been essential. It has given substance to the very broad OSCE and Council or Europe principles and has helped identifying good practices. However, as the Handbook says, regulating the details of NVT, as well as of all other electoral aspects, is the main task of the national legislator. On his part, the legislator needs to respect OSCE and Council of Europe basic principles for democratic elections.

Now what?

As with other technology related developments, regulation is being adjusted as technique advances and our understanding of it improves. This is for example the case with the Swiss federal legislation on e-voting whose recent update aims at better reflecting changes that have taken place since its introduction in 2002 as well as at integrating lessons learned from last years’ experience with internet voting.

Yet, in order to provide basic guidance for countries and also make sure that OSCE and Council of Europe electoral commitments are integrated in a coherent way in NVT regulations by countries, the Council of Europe 2004 Recommendation needs, similar to countries’ legislations, an update in the light of recent developments and experience. The recommendation has been largely referenced so far, however there is growing consensus that it needs to be updated to reflect technological advances and lessons learned since its introduction. Only then will the Recommendation be able to fulfill the task ODIHR assigns to it as being the legal benchmark for observers’ recommendations on NVT.

[1] Guidelines on Certification of E-voting Systems”, Council of Europe, November 2011, <>; and “Guidelines on Transparency of E-enabled Elections”, Council of Europe, November 2011,
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