Secret ballots were used in the very earliest democracies, but it wasn’t until the Australian ballot came along in 1854 that casting a vote was actually private. The Australian ballot, which was adopted the world over, was printed at public expense and included the names of all of the candidates and proposals. It was only available at polling places, and it was marked in secret.

Other improvements to elections followed, and people used them: the punch card, the mechanical lever, the optical scan. Election technology continued to make incremental advancements largely outside of the public eye. That changed in 2000 when the U.S. presidential election brought voting concerns center stage, and Americans—along with the rest of the world—learned about the existence of chads, whether they be pregnant, dimpled, or hanging.

A self-described “mad democracy enthusiast,” Lord Mark Malloch-Brown (M.A. 1976) has given elections a lot of thought. Before his current position as chairman of Smartmatic, a company that offers electronic voting technology and services designed to make elections more auditable and transparent, Malloch-Brown spent decades working to support economic development around the world. He’s held leadership positions in the British Cabinet and Foreign Office, the World Economic Forum, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and was Deputy Secretary-General and Chief of Staff of the United Nations under Kofi Annan. This range of roles and experiences shaped his conviction that economic development and democracy are interdependent.

“Before I went to the World Bank, I’d been a political consultant,” Malloch-Brown recalls. “I worked with Latin American candidates who were replacing military and authoritarian regimes and with post-communist candidates in Eastern Europe and Russia. Each time I realized the extraordinary change a democratic mandate provided.

“On the one hand, it gave the new president a chance to tackle special interests,” he continues, “but it also gave the people who voted for that president a kind of voice and a right to demand a better share of the economy. I believed then as well as now that effective democracy is really a part of the development equation.”

A World of Difference

At the World Bank, Malloch-Brown found huge coffers to spend on economic development, but no appetite to support the fledgling democracies he believed needed to be nurtured along with it. As head of the UNDP, however, he had the will and the means to address both. In his six years there, the UNDP created a practice for democratic governance and developed a budget of almost a billion dollars per year to support elections, accountable governments, and government reforms.

But five or six years after he’d left the U.N. to work in the private sector, he realized his legacy promoting democracy as an integral part of economic development wasn’t working as he’d intended. “I found that many governments and countries had rather cynically adopted democracy simply as a way to get donor funds,” he says. “They had learned how to fiddle democracy, how to fix votes, how to ensure incumbents got re-elected. I saw that democracy needed a new technology to beat the cheats—particularly the established cheats.” He signed on to Smartmatic.

Malloch-Brown counts himself among a generation of Brits with aspirations to improve the circumstance of people around the globe. After college, some of his friends began with stages—or internships—in the European Union. Malloch-Brown began his international path at U-M, then moved on to work in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors.

Of his career path, Malloch-Brown says, “I certainly didn’t plan it, but I am an example of an emerging career path that combines these sectors. It gives you an opportunity to be in alignment with unusual allies. I think whichever of these worlds you occupy at the moment, to be effective at what you do, you need to have a real understanding of the other two as well.”

At Smartmatic, Malloch-Brown has kept his focus on improving democracy and the quality of elections. “Voting technology is not the solution, but it is a significant part of a solution. You empower people by giving them the vote. Only if the poor have a political voice do they secure a better deal from government and the rest of society.”

Can’t Hack It

Russian hackers sought to interfere with the U.S. presidential election by hacking the Democratic National Committee’s email system, but there is no evidence to date that hackers interfered with any of the United States’ voting machines themselves.

But just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it couldn’t.

Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002, which gave states $4 billion to purchase new voting machines. Fourteen years later, many of these machines are still used, some from companies that are no longer in business. Others run on operating systems made by software companies that have long since abandoned them. Concerns about of the security of these machines are widely known. In this landscape, most election security experts agree that the best way to protect Americans’ votes is with paper: paper ballots scanned by optical scanners or paper receipts that record the choices voters make on computers.

Malloch-Brown is passionate about improving voting technology around the world, and in the United States, too. “Otherwise,” he concludes, “it’s just living on borrowed time until there is some kind of election disaster that leaves a president, for the following four years, without the authority that comes from a mandate everybody accepts was fairly won.”


Illustrations by Julia Lubas