Italy kicks off all e-voting pilot in Salento

Touchscreen ballot boxes have replaced the usual set-up in two Italian towns.

Martignano, home to Italy's latest e-voting project.
Martignano, home to Italy's latest e-voting project. Image: Shutterstock

You'd expect to hear about Salento in a travel blog, inviting you to explore the villages and secluded white sand beaches of this Italian gem. But there's more to the region than scenery: it's the home of one of Italy's first major experiments with e-voting.

First, the trivia. Martignano is the one of the region's smallest towns, situated in an area known as the Grecia Salentina, a language enclave of ten municipalities where griko is spoken, a language originating from ancient greek (Salento was once part of the Magna Grecia). Small yet culturally lively, Martignano still has one of the best broadband infrastructures in Italy. Melpignano is another town in the Grecia Salentina, and also uses griko.

Onto the politics: smaller towns and municipalities in Italy have recently been asked to cast their votes as part of an "advisory referendum" on the question of whether to join up with other towns with up to 5,000 citizens. It's a part of an ongoing countrywide bid to try to reduce public spending by cutting the number of small municipalities and provinces and the amount of administration that goes with them.

The citizens of Martignano and Melpignano were asked to cast their ballot earlier this month, but they weren't asked to do so using the usual school desks and wooden screens that typically make up impromptu polling stations in Italy. Instead, the towns' voters were to do their bit for democracy through a touchscreen ballot box.

This first experiment of e-voting was possible due to the interest and funding of Italy's Ministry of Interior, but also thanks to the work LeG staff (UniSalento e-Government Laboratory) and its deputy director, Professor Marco Mancarella. Mancarella is a legal consultant in digital law and has studied e-voting experiments held in Mexico, in the Jalisco region, where the e-ballot box was developed.

"The electronic ballot box is support mechanism for electoral activity only when the voter is expressing their [voting] preference and during the counting phase," Mancarella said. For the earlier stages of finding and registering voters, paper is still necessary, and individuals still have to present a valid form of paper ID and physically sign a polling register.

"Each polling station as we know it, with materials and staff, costs between €2,000 and €3,000 per election," Mancarella said. Each e-ballot box costs $2,000 (€1,600) and lasts between 10 and 15 years.

The economic advantages are obvious. But how does it work? Once the voter is identified through the traditional methods, he or she will see a display of all voting options, including submitting a blank ballot. The box registers the vote and prints a paper receipt, which is stored inside the machine. One thousand paper receipts cost $2.

In the event of disputes, the seals may be broken and a traditional count by hand can be used to confirm the results. In the meantime, the data will be sent electronically in real time through the Sistema Pubblico Connettività (SPC) (the public connectivity system) thanks to the agreement with Clio, the first provider in Italy to obtain the SPC certification.

The e-voting set-up is also equipped with a Braille system and audio support, to allow blind or visually impaired voters to use the system.

While it's the first time Italy has used an all-electronic voting system, there have been earlier pilots that used some e-voting elements: a 2006 experiment was halted by then prime minister Giuliano Amato, for fear of tampering, as votes were cast and then transferred via USB keys - a system considered unsafe. Trentino attempted another trial in 2008, during its provincial elections, but paper ballots were used alongside electronic ones for verification.