Misc 09/12/2020

The first 851 Catalans to vote electronically in an election

The only two pilot tests were carried out in the Catalan elections of 1995 and 2003

Aleix Moldes
3 min
Imatge d’una de les cabines de votació electrònica de les eleccions de 1995.

BarcelonaAt 9 a.m. on 19 November 1995, the Catalan polling stations opened, as required by the regulations, and the earliest voters were able to start depositing their ballots at the polls. They were deciding whether or not Jordi Pujol would maintain an absolute majority - uninterrupted since 1984 - or whether the opposition would force him to come to agreements in order to govern. But there was another question that captured the interest of Aldo de Ambrosio, the then head of the Generalitat's electoral processes: for the first time in Catalonia and in the State, the revolutionary electronic vote would be used for these elections. This is a system that, despite the vertiginous evolution of new technologies, twenty-five years later it continues to be merely an anecdote - at least as far as the autonomous regions are concerned (and the general, European, and municipal ones).

The people who voted that day in two polling stations, one in Anglès (Selva) and the other in Barcelona's Eixample, using an electronic card, were 851. The system was very simple: after showing the ID card, the president of the table gave the card to the voter -it did not include any elements that could identify him or her-, and the voter went to an isolated cabin where he or she introduced it in the voting machine. The voter would then select the language and choose the candidacy with a light pen - he or she could also choose to blank vote - before confirming the procedure, removing the card and going back to the table to deposit the vote - the electronic card - in a special box. The results were obviously not valid, and it was simply a simulation to study this technology. CiU, with 304 electronic votes in Anglès and 151 in the Eixample, won the pilot test, in which 65% of the census participated, compared to 77% who did so by the traditional system.

Without the expected evolution

In 2003, Catalonia once again hosted new e-voting tests, some, like those of 1995, in person at the voting stations, but others remotely via the Internet with voters from Mexico, Argentina, the United States, Chile, and Belgium.

It was precisely the difficult process of voting when living abroad that led thirteen years later to the first e-voting law proposed by the administration. The Ministry of Home Affairs, headed by Meritxell Borràs, presented a text to Parliament that was never approved because the legislature declined it. "In the 2015 elections we saw the enormous difficulties that Catalans have in voting abroad", recalls Francesc Esteve, then General Secretary for the Catalan Government, in a conversation with the ARA. 14,000 people voted, despite the fact that 21,000 had requested the documentation to do so. The problems in sending the letters - in many cases the votes did not arrive, or arrived late - were intended to be corrected by the telematic vote. Even the economic calculations had been made of what it would cost: between 265,000 euros in three months if it was contracted out of the administration, and 2.3 million euros in four years if an internally managed platform was created (which would also cover popular consultations).

The added problem of such a law is that it needs a strengthened two-thirds majority, and it is not even clear that a reform of the state electoral law would not be needed in parallel to it. Moreover, some people criticize the reliability of electronic voting. "The systems are very secure, comparable to any other technological system", says Josep Maria Reniu, who holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Barcelona (UB) and is an expert in the field. He believes that "the lack of political will" is the reason why, in 2020 in Catalonia and Spain, it will still not be possible to do what is being done in some electoral processes in France, Norway, Switzerland, the United States, Venezuela, Estonia... Without going too far, several Catalan universities are already choosing their rectors electronically. Additionally, the chambers of commerce, the unions, and even the political parties choose their candidates telematically.

Until now, however, "the opportunity cost was too high", admits Reniu, who always speaks of introducing electronic voting "progressively". One of the main added values of electronic voting is the ease of counting. Usually this is not so much of a problem in Catalan elections, since electoral lists are closed and there is only one vote per envelope. However, "this changes in a pandemic context", he says, since remote voting would allow many of the problems that the government will face on 14-F to be resolved.