Free elections are the pillar of any democracy. And given that technology is the great enabler in any free and democratic country, it goes to follow that it is increasingly playing an important role in elections. At the simplest level, technology is used as a voting system which replaces the traditional ballot. At its more complex, technology delivers candidates’ messages and is used to analyse and predict election outcomes.

The first time during which social media such as Facebook and Twitter were employed in a strategic manner was during the 2008 US election. The then Democratic nominee Barack Obama, who went on to become the 44th US President, not only used social media to deliver his message to the masses but also used data mining and analytics to predict who might be interested in possibly voting for him.

Obama’s team targeted demographics directly instead of wasting energy and resources on people who were likely not going to vote for him. Resources were shifted online – in fact, for the first time in history, the 2008 US election saw a diminished amount of TV advertising when compared to previous elections.

Two years earlier Obama had met Dan Siroker who at the time used to work as director of analytics at Google. After a brief conversation with Obama, Siroker left Google and joined Obama’s campaign team. The first thing Siroker did was to introduce A/B testing – statistical hypothesis testing with two variants – on Obama’s website, which at the time was just asking for donations. Half of the traffic started being diverted to one page using particular colours, text and font and the other half to a second site with a different design. After two days the least performing website was dropped and a new colour scheme tested. Siroker finally concluded that visitors to the website felt more at ease, spent more time and most importantly donated more when a light blue background and white text were used. The decision was taken to use this colour scheme for all the campaign material. This explains why in recent elections, Maltese political parties started using this same colour scheme.

Obama’s campaigners later used the A/B testing technique to evaluate various call for action, such as the tagline ‘Change’ or ‘Forward’ and used the most well received messages throughout the entire election campaign. A national survey conducted online showed that most 18- to 29-year-olds tuned out to politics because they felt that politicians tended to ignore issues that mostly concerned their age group. In response to this, Obama’s team focused on this age bracket and spent millions to target youngsters on social media.

Technology is also playing a vital role in counting votes and issuing results as quickly as possible in the US. In Malta we still use a manual system although both political parties are equipped with statistical packages and can predict where an election will swing using a relatively small sample.

Forecasts in the UK are now being based on what people are searching for on Google using the Trends tool

The US has been testing electronic voting systems in local elections for the last decade, with disappointing results. The biggest hurdle is hacking, the threat of which would keep conspiracy theorists rambling on for years if they believed the counting process may have been rigged. In November 2010, government officials in Washington’s local elections were getting ready to test an electronic voting system – however the computerised system was quickly removed from polling booths after only a few minutes. What was meant to be an example of efficiency in voting and vote counting quickly turned into a nightmare scenario as soon as the electoral office realised that hackers had seized control of the network. Election law experts warned administrators that the electronic voting trial presented an unacceptable risk that would have an effect on the overall accuracy of the result. The system, which had cost millions, was scrapped and the US decided to stick to the simple pencil.

On May 7, the UK will hold a national election. Just like Malta, the UK is probably a long way off from accepting electronic voting. Still, the UK electoral office introduced some technological surprises for the upcoming election. Two years ago a Digital Democracy Commission was set up and commissioned to recommend how democracy in the UK can embrace opportunities offered by the digital world. This commission has introduced technology in three main areas: machines in polling stations which are supervised by people, remote electronic voting for UK citizens abroad, and electronic counting of paper ballots.

Election forecasts is one area where technology is playing a key role. The methods used in Malta to predict quite successfully the last general election involved asking a random sample of people how they will vote. Although this method proved to be quite accurate, forecasts in the UK are now being based on what people are searching for on Google using the Trends tool. This method was used to predict the Scottish independence referendum outcome last year.

The latest polls using data extracted from Google Trends are predicting that there will be no overall majority in the upcoming UK election, but that the Conservatives will be the largest party with 282 seats. Let’s wait and see if Google’s prediction will be correct.

Last year, Estonia – which has been developing its electronic voting system since 2002 – came closest to holding a digital election. Citizens were issued with a smart card identity system to be used to cast votes. However, following analysis and tests conducted after the election itself revealed that the system was vulnerable, leaving it open to potential abuse.

Although most of us are tech-savvy and we trust computers with our banking, personal and most intimate details, we still don’t trust technology enough to help us create a more efficient electoral and democratic process.

Ian Vella is a search engine optimisation specialist.

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