E-Voting in Africa… A possibility or myth?

Nigeria goes to the polls tommorow 16th February 2019. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country with 190 million people and of course its world famous mineral rich lands. The famous quote when someone coughs the rest of us catch a flu is true to Nigeria. Everything Nigerian is keenly watched and none more so that its elections. That and the fact that virtually every African knows a nigerian first, second or third hand.. so you cant miss Nigerian happenings.

Worldwide only 25 or so countriesout of 120 democracies have implemented electronic voting, a telling story on how complex and difficult this program can be to implement successfully.

Namibia in 2014 was the first African country to carry out successful e-elections, although African Union observer group noted that many were turned away due to technical difficulties, and there was need to simplify polling station procedures.

Somaliland was the first country in the world to use iris recognition in its e-voting in 2017. The choice of iris recognition technology was that it surpassed ‘fingerprint and facial recognition systems in identifying duplicate registrations. The NEC purchased 350 portable registration kits consisting of a laptop computer, handheld iris scanner, webcam for facial photos, a flash and tripod. Registration stations were set up across the country — many in remote rural areas.’’ (source https://www.biometricupdate.com/201801/somaliland-election-saw-iris-id-technology-deployed)

Sierra Leone was possibly the first country in Africa to test a blockchain powered electronic system in 2018 but only in tallying election results. Good approach there to use a gradual system or to use the technology only for the pain points of many elections: Vote tallying.

In the recently concluded December 2018 elections in Democratic Republic of Congo with 40 million eligible voters, opposition threatened to boycott elections if electronic voting was done with the US ambassador “warned DR Congo against using electronic voting machines at a Security Council Meeting — and to stick with the “trusted, tested, transparent, and easy-to-use voting method” of paper ballots.”

(source internet)

These are the major reasons hindering evoting in Africa.

  1. Legal framework. To accomodate electronic voting a review of electrol laws need to be done which usually is a long torturous process which can take upto 3 years at a time for the final approvals. Given most African countries run on 5 or 7 presidential year cycles, its upto the current administration to institute the election law revision sometimes with time running out before the law is implemented. There is a need for an international body to build capacity building in African electoral bodies to change the laws accordingly.
  2. Election budgets. In Africa, traditional paper voting systems had astronomical budgets assigned to them. Add the electronic voting technology and the budget ballons even further. Add corruption due to weak governance systems and one even wonders the brutally short and punishing presidential cycles are even worth the amount of time and money spent on elections.
  3. Insufficient technology. Unless one uses iris recognition tech or finger print tech.. neither can be duplicated, its a waste of time to use any other technology. African countries could well learn where other countries have done this well, case in mind the Indian electronic voting system. On the ground trial runs and testing also need to be done to increase voter confidence before the actual elections.
  4. Sensitization and voter education. Looking at Nigeria with 79 million registered voters and Democratic republic of Congo with 40 million voters, the process for voter education in many African countries is usually difficult when it comes to electronic voting. A large number is usual rural population who need to be sensitized on use of the EV technology, and the timelines to do the sensitization need to be way before the actual voting dates possibly the year before. Gives the electoral body a big but not impossible task to do this.

Enter block chain for voting. Several countries around the world have moved forward on this for example Thailand, Switzerland has tested tried it in a municipality with South Korea working on the testing phase of this tech.

The threat of social media and fake news particulary in African elections are a reality to election violence, leading to the need to address this issue. Block chain tech can help governments engage citizens on election news and issues.

Can block chain and other emerging techs provide the answer to the long torturous process of electronic voting adoption in Africa?It is an obvious conclusion, Africa needs to find a way to do its elections in a more fair, less contentious, less costly way using technology, but the path to it is clearly another matter altogether.