Initial impressions of Buenos Aires e-voting pilot project: physical security

After a whirlwind day-and-a-half in Buenos Aires, we have the the afternoon off (partly so the international observation team can get a bit of rest before a very long day tomorrow observing the actual election; partly so the Buenos Aires election staff who have been fantastic hosts for us can get things ready for their big election tomorrow).

I thought I’d start with one discussion about elections in general here in Buenos Aires (and Argentina) that relates back to some themes that Thad and I have been stressing lately — threat assessment and election security.

As you might imagine, given Argentina’s political history there are very different traditions about the physical security of the electoral process. I’ll get into some of those differences in this particular essay.

The very first visit of our mission yesterday (for the entire team) was to the “Comando Nacional Electoral”, or the National Electoral Center. This office is in a massive building (“Edificio Libertador”) which I believe is the headquarters of the Argentine military. Here is a picture of the front entrance (taken when our mission was entering; when we were exiting, Dan Seligson and Sean Greene of tried to take pictures as well, but an armed military guard waved them off, loudly blowing his whistle at them). Here is a picture of an even more imposing side entrance. We entered this massive building, and were met by a large contingent of Argentine military brass, and escorted in small groups to an upstairs conference room, that was at the end of a very elaborate hall that was lined with military memorablia, that took us to the National Electoral Center.

Once in the National Election Center, we were given a thorough briefing (entirely in Spanish, testing my limited Spanish, although we did have a translator). The briefing was conducted by a series of military officers, who walked us through a GIS application that they have developed for overseeing national elections; they can use it to spot problems and track ballots boxes across the country. While the officers talked, they had three powerpoints going. Behind us was a room full of computers and people manning the computers, apparently where the GIS applications are run from. The one thing none of us in the group could figure out about this briefing is apparent in this photo of one of the officers conducting in the briefing; we could not figure out who the personnel in the khakis were, who were apparently watching the proceedings via a videoconference.

The GIS applications that they demonstrated for us didn’t seem like rocket science; as far as I could tell they were using the popular GIS package ArcView, and were plotting relatively routine information for us like highway maps, locations of polling places, and weather forcasts for election day. This just demonstrated that there is a very interesting set of uses of GIS for election administration that I’ve not heard widely discussed — not using it with voter registration data or for analyzing problems after an election has been held, but using it to proactively to keep track of polling places, where problems are arising geographically, and keeping track of ballot boxes, all in real-time. Indeed, some of these applications are similar to the work being initiated by scholars like Henry Brady and James Gimpel (blogged by Thad on September 14, 2005). But it is clear that there are applications of GIS that election administrators might want consider, especially those serving larger geographic jurisdictions, for tasks like keeping tabs on potential distruptions (bad weather or traffic delays, for example) and for keeping tabs on election material.

But the visit to the National Election Center impressed us that the military takes the election process very seriously; they clearly are concerned about monitoring the progress of elections and they were very proud of their GIS application. They discussed in great detail how it will allow them to insure the security and integrity of the upcoming election.

Once we were done with the briefing, the military officers hosted a reception for us in another room. This room was lined with posters about the upcoming election, and with a great deal of information about the geography of the election and showing different ways that the military will be involved in oversight and monitoring of the upcoming here. This photo shows’s Sean Greene in front of a poster that we believe shows which military officers are in charge of monitoring which parts of the nation’s electoral districts.

Today we toured two polling places that were being set up for the election tomorrow (we did a lot of other things yesterday that I’ll write about later). The first was a public school (in Buenos Aires, all of the 53 polling places in the upcoming election are located in public schools). One of the first things that we noticed when we entered the school and the polling place was a very heavy police presence. Here is a picture of one of the police officers helping to put up a poster for the voter registration table in this school (“ENET No. 35 Ing Eduardo Latizina”, located at Av. Lope De Vega 2150). There were at least six police officers doing various things in this school while some workers were setting up the voting booths for the e-voting pilot.

The second site we visted was located just north of the main downtown area of Buenos Aires, at Av. Santa Fe 4201 (“LIC NAC No. 1 Jose Figueroa Alcorta”). This first picture shows, from the street, the entrance to the school. Members of our mission are still exiting our white tour bus, behind the police car (there were a number of officers in the car). You can see two officers standing on the sidewalk, and there were at least three additional officers visible within the polling place. The second photo, inside the polling place, shows some of the e-voting booths already set up, members of our mission discussing the polling place, and three police officers watching the proceedings.

Clearly this is a different model of security than I have seen in the United States. Both the national military and the local police play a visible role in the process, at least given what we have seen and heard so far. Or course, during the election tomorrow I’ll be curious to see the level of police and military presence in and near the polling places, and will report back what we see. It certainly has been interesting to see their presence so far, which is one visible and clear distinction between the election process I’ve observed in the United States and Argentina.