Electronic voting comes to Italy (as do conspiracy theories)


By Eric Sylvers International Herald Tribune



MILAN When Lucio Stanca, the minister of innovation and technology, began preparing Italy for electronic vote counting a few years ago, there were some naysayers. But test runs for European Parliament elections in 2004 and Italian regional elections in 2005 silenced the critics - temporarily.

With the arrival of the April 9 and 10 general elections, the dress rehearsals are over. Electronic vote tabulating will move beyond the test phase in Italy for the first time: It will be used in four of the nation's 20 regions and will affect a fifth of the population.

Detractors worry that mischief will mar the count, especially if there is a close race in any of the four regions, which have many undecided voters.

Silvio Berlusconi, who has been prime minister for five years, is running against Romani Prodi, a former president of the European Commission who heads a vast coalition of center-left parties.

Prodi has maintained a lead in opinion surveys but Berlusconi can never be counted out.

Some of Berlusconi's critics have seized on the electronic voting issue as a chance to confront the prime minister.

"You can't play with the instruments of democracy," said Pino Sgobio, a leader of the Italian Communist Party. In an interview with news agencies last week, he asked: "What kind of telephone line will be used to transfer the data to the Interior Ministry and who will chose the people in charge of sending that data and based on what criteria?"

Voters in the four regions will cast their ballots just like everybody else and the votes will be counted as before. It is what happens next that changes.

The authorities at each polling station will enter the results into a computer and save the data on an encrypted USB memory stick that is formatted to work only on certain computers.

The memory sticks will be collected in one room, where the data will be read and sent on to the Interior Ministry in Rome. Polling officials are to follow every step of the process. The intent is to speed up the count.

"In Italy there has always been high voter turnout and the problem has been counting all the ballots in a timely fashion," said Dario De Marchi, Stanca's spokesman. "Electronic counting settles this and favors democracy rather than one candidate or party over another."

The decree outlining the new method of recording votes, approved by the Berlusconi government in January, says that if the data collected electronically is contested it will no longer be valid and a manual count of the printed ballots will take precedence.

But the critics said such a development could lead to a crisis of the type that shut down Florida after the U.S. presidential election in 2000.

Critics also pointed out that the son of a cabinet minister is a partner in a company that was hired as a consultant by the firm running the electronic procedure.

Issues of conflict of interest have often hovered over Berlusconi, who controls 90 percent of the Italian television market.

The perception has been revived in connection with how the contracts to run the electronic vote tallies were awarded.

The main contract was awarded without a public tender to Telecom Italia, the nation's dominant telecommunications company and the former government monopoly.

It hired the consulting firm Accenture to do some of the work. Gianmario Pisanu, a partner at Accenture, is the son of the interior minister.

Telecom Italia declined to comment on how Accenture was picked. A spokeswomen for the consulting company declined to comment on the contract. She did say, however, that Pisanu would have no role in work connected to the vote tallies.

Maurizio Chiocchetti, an official for Democrats of the Left, the largest party in the center-left coalition, said: "It's pretty strange that there wasn't a public tender and that can't help but lead you to have a thousands thoughts about what might be going on behind the scenes. Even if you don't think there has been anything illegal going on, it makes you wonder."

There was no time for a public tender, De Marchi said, because the exact election date was not set until January.

"You can't hold a public tender when all you have are approximate dates for an election because the companies can't bid until they have exact dates," he said.

He also disputed suggestions from the center-left that the Accenture connection was improper.

"We didn't chose Accenture," De Marchi said, "that was done by Telecom Italia. And anyway it seems to me ridiculous to exclude a company from doing any government work just because the son of a minister works there. I don't think that is done in the United States or anywhere else for that matter."

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