Imagine knowing that despite your efforts, certain outcomes have been predetermined and beyond your control. It becomes infuriatingly worse, if such outcomes were engineered by fellow humans. Beyond disappointment, the sense of impotence and betrayal can even be crushing. This imaginary scenario is what sometimes happens during elections.
On paper, Africa appears to be a vibrant space for democracy where civil society activism and robust efforts to advance democratic rule thrive. As much as the continent strives to ensure accountability and to provide frameworks for sustainable democratic systems, conflict and misgovernance mark severe setbacks for Africa. These setbacks are especially manifested in all its gory details during elections.
There is a paradoxical saying that all modern democracies hold elections, but not all elections are democratic. This proves to be true when you consider that in some so-called democratic countries, leaders attempt to bypass term limits, even going as far as conferring rulership on their offspring as would a monarch.
Even now, an increasing number of incumbents are likewise banning opposition parties and criminalising critical media reports during electoral events to level a ‘playing field’ that ought not to exist in the first place. Considering these, what role can technology play? How can we successfully implement technology in our electoral practices? I attempt to answer these questions in this piece.
History tells us of people who had to fight against racism, gender bias and apathy, not just to get the franchise to vote but also for their votes to count. With the 21st century comes the technological revolution that is changing the status quo, completely overhauling antiquated ideologies and mindsets. Even now, technology marches aggressively on, leaving its imprint on each sector; voting and election shouldn’t be left behind in this wave.
In many democratic African countries, the concept of a free and fair election is a myth as some quarters within the government manipulate the voting process. There are often cases of electoral malfeasance such as rigging, ballot box snatching and stuffing, political intimidation, vote-buying, multiple voting, underage voting and falsification of results, among other underhanded tactics.
It’s not surprising that many are disillusioned with the whole institution. This situation is no better in Nigeria where some have lost faith in the system; after all, why bother if the results of an election have been predetermined before the actual event?
Technology can bridge the gap between what the electoral process is and what it should be. Today, most electoral management bodies around the world use new technologies with the aim of improving elections. ICTs can help to accelerate and cut down several procedures in the electoral cycle, such as voter registration, casting ballots, processing of results, and many other processes. Let’s consider a few of these technologies.
In Nigeria, for instance, there is widespread interest in the use of technology. One of the major use cases has been biometric technology to identify and register voters. It also enables the accreditation of registered voters using a Smart Card Reader. So far, INEC claims that its biometric voter registry is also the largest database of Nigerian citizens.
Biometric registration may just be the first step; however, it is gaining popularity because it has the potential to increase transparency and accuracy, reduce corruption and fraud. In sum, it can help to improve the voting experience.
One of the commitments of electoral commissions is to ensure accuracy, inclusiveness and accessibility to all voters, irrespective of their political leanings. But in most cases, many citizens are cut out of the process due to some factors – disillusionment, education, disability, age location, or interest.
In terms of accuracy and timeliness, voting machines can reduce human error that often takes place during the manual counting of ballot papers. Electronic Voting Machines are of various types, ranging from optical/digital scanning devices that tabulate paper ballots after being marked by a voter; direct-recording electronic that allows a direct vote on the machine just by the touch of a screen; to ballot marking device, which permits voters to mark their choices on-screen and, after which they print the ballot selections.
In terms of inclusivity, e-voting through the Internet will make elections more inclusive among those who might otherwise be left out. Even more, it can bridge the gap for citizens in the diaspora. For example, Nigerians who live abroad often wish to participate in elections but distance is often a deal-breaker for most. As such, the ability to vote from work, at home, in the market, or wherever there is Internet connection, is a strong argument for Internet voting.
With its key feature of transparency, it is possible to use blockchain to build a working modern voting system, reducing the personnel needed to conduct an election and providing officials with nearly instant results. Through it, the threat of election fraud will be eliminated, thereby boosting voter turnout.
In theory, a voting system could be operated in a way that every eligible citizen of a country would be issued a single cryptocurrency or token. Then, each political aspirant would be given a specific wallet address where the voters would send their token to the address of their preferred candidate.
Although this takes the voting process to a sophisticated level, it is certainly achievable in the Nigerian context; after all, Nigeria is one of the highest adopters of cryptocurrency in the world. Whether our leaders even consider this as an option is another matter entirely.
To adopt or not to adopt technology as a means to achieve positive election outcomes is a choice that is facing both developing and developed democracies. In the African/Nigerian context, I believe that our policymakers and practitioners need to be armed with comparative knowledge of how this works, consider best practice examples, and collaborate with players within the technology space who can offer customised solutions that fit the local context.
Having said that, I should also mention that our leaders need to set up principles for the safe, secure, and ethical use of voting technology. This will, to a large extent, demonstrate their readiness to enhance election integrity and security.
ICT Clinic by CFA is published weekly in the Sunday Punch