by Marit Björnlund*
On April 4-5, 2019, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) co-sponsored the Ninth Forum on Latin American Democracy, hosted by Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE) in Mexico City. Vice President of Programs Michael Svetlik represented IFES at the conference, which was centered around “Challenges of Politics and Democracy in the Digital Era.” Svetlik spoke during the keynote conversation about the impact of new information technologies on ways of understanding and conducting politics and spoke on a panel about the challenges and opportunities of electronic voting.
The event was also sponsored by the Organization of American States, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Interamerican Institute of Human Rights Center for Electoral Advising and Promotion, Venice Commission, Mexico’s Secretary of International Relations and the Ibero-American General Secretariat.
During #9ForoDemocracia @mdsvetlikIFES agues that social media platforms should also take responsibility on fake news spreading during elections. Very interesting point of view. pic.twitter.com/AUALRFRXdQ— Yuri Beltrán (@yuribeltran) April 4, 2019
In Svetlik’s keynote comments, he noted that the forum’s theme of technology in elections is “both critical and timely,” as well as “deeply transformative” for democracy, democratic institutions and politics. “It is neither ironic nor surprising that the proliferation of information technology coincides with the erosion of trust in public institutions. Just as transparency and access to information have increased, the credibility and capacity of the cornerstone of democracy, the institutions, have been severely challenged,” Svetlik said. He added: “As has been said, manipulation and distortion of information in political processes is nothing new. The internet or social media did not create conspiracy theories or rumors… But the new tools do make it easier for disinformation to spread and to distort information and, certainly, elections, upon which democracy depends. The bad actors spreading disinformation can now be anything from foreign authoritarian governments to local political party activists or partisan media organizations – or even a loan conspiracy theorist can have power through social media.”
"It’s been the experience of [IFES] that electoral technologies can indeed significantly improve the quality of an electoral process, if used to augment traditional approaches, not as an immediate and wholesale replacement of those.”
In the panel on electronic voting, Svetlik spoke about initial hopes for electoral technologies, as well as the challenges that have prevented these hopes from being fulfilled. Voting technologies must be implemented responsibly and in complement to, rather than as a replacement for, traditional or manual voting mechanisms. “Electoral management bodies are under enormous pressure to implement new technologies by politicians, civil society, vendors – the companies that supply the equipment – and by the misperception that progress, or being modern, equates to using the most cutting-edge technology. It’s been the experience of [IFES] that electoral technologies can indeed significantly improve the quality of an electoral process, if used to augment traditional approaches, not as an immediate and wholesale replacement of those.”
*Marit Björnlund is a program coordinator for the Americas at IFES.