By Marielle Debos, Associate Professor in Political Science University Paris Nanterre
The two sessions on ID & Democracy gathered key experts from various countries and backgrounds. The speakers and participants discussed the costs and benefits of election technologies. Technologies can be used at several steps in the electoral process. About half of the countries on the continent now use biometrics for voter registration.* Some countries (e.g. Nigeria, Kenya, or Ghana) also use biometrics to authenticate voters on polling day, while a few others have turned to voting machines (e.g. Namibia, or the Democratic Republic of Congo). The experiences shared during the sessions show that costs and benefits of the technologies vary according to a series of factors: the size of the population, the existence of a reliable national population register, the political system and the history of fraudulent elections, as well as the legal framework.
Technologies and trust in elections
Do technologies increase trust in elections? Under which circumstances can they be helpful? All speakers agreed that credibility is not only the result of what happens on election day but of all the processes that lead to an election: from voter registration to the collection of results and the wider social and political context in which the election takes place.
Niall McCann, UNDP Policy Advisor and Project Manager for Legal Identity, who moderated the sessions, opened the discussion with a provocative insight: technology alone does not increase trust, and is of little help when the context is not conducive to free and fair elections. There is for example no technology to prevent the abuse of state resources by incumbents, voter intimidation, or harassment of candidates and their supporters. As far as direct electoral fraud is concerned, technology does not automatically solve the problems: “there is currently no known proven technology that can prevent corrupt electoral officials, particularly when supported by local political leaders, from cheating on elections”.
On the other hand, as Chidi Nwafor, Director of Compliance at the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Nigeria stated, INEC has deployed technologies to a handful of its processes which are considered to be prone to human interferences. According to him, traditional voting is more prone to human manipulations and fraudulent practices. He explained how INEC was able to address the issues they faced with the 2015 voter accreditation system, including the low successful fingerprint authentication (42.7%). The hardware and software advancements for the 2019 presidential election led to 90% success rate for voter authentication. Some more work is however required to improve the Nigerian voter authentication process.
During the same session, the audience benefited from the input of Sean Zheng from Emperor Technology, the company that provided INEC with its “intelligent election solution” for General Elections in 2015 and 2019. The company also provided the Electronic Voting Machines for the Local Government Councils Election in Kaduna State, Nigeria.
Kenya has also adopted sophisticated election technologies. The presentation by Immaculate Kassait, Director of Voter Education and Partnership at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), traced the history of elections in Kenya and showed how the country has progressively adopted not only technologies (voter authentication on polling day, electronic transmissions of provisional results) but also a detailed legal framework with many specifications. She pointed out a paradox: this process has made the election more complex – but not necessarily more trustworthy for the citizens. From the Kenyan experience, technology does not come in to replace concerns on absence of trust, transparency and integrity.
The challenges for Namibia are different: the country has a much smaller population, and a more recent history of elections (it became independent in 1990). Namibia has modernized its electoral system for the 2014 elections. The Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN) adopted biometric voter registration as well as voter authentication on handheld devices at polling stations. However, neither registration nor voter verification uses online communication systems. In addition, Namibia now uses voting machines manufactured in India. According to Milton Louw, Technical Advisor to the Election Commission, the upfront implementation cost of biometrics was high (+/- N$300 per voter) but inspired trust. The results of the election were accepted by all.
Functional identity vs foundational identity
The sessions led to a lively discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of functional identity and foundation identity. As Henry Atem Oben, Executive Director at the United States International Center for Electoral Support (USICES), pointed out, few countries on the continent extract the voter roll from the population or civil registry. As a matter of fact, few countries have a reliable National Population Register (NPR). Without an NPR, it is difficult to maintain and update the voter rolls. Too many countries start voter registration all over again at each election cycle. Several participants spoke of the high cost of one-off voter registration.
Aimé-Martial Massamba, the Deputy Director of the project IBOGA at the Ministry of Interior in Gabon, explained that his country is moving from voter registration (in 2013) to a far-reaching project of population registry. The IBGOGA project (Identité Biométrique Officielle du Gabon) aims to avoid the multiplication of databases and to increase the exchange of information between the various government entities. The project should provide each citizen and resident with a personal identification number that they could use in their interactions with all public and private service providers.
South Africa belongs to the countries that already have a strong National Population Register. On the panel, the Chief Electoral Officer, Sy Mamabolo, insisted on the benefits of using an NPR that is maintained by the Department of Home Affairs. The NPR is used to update the voters’ roll and check applications. Since voting is not compulsory in South Africa, citizens still have to apply for registration if they want to be included on the voters’ roll. The present electoral framework does not provide for voter authentication at the voting station.
J. Tiah Nagbe, Executive Director of the National Identification Registry of Liberia and former Commissioner of Elections in Liberia (1997), was a strong advocate of foundational identity. He explained the huge benefits that can accrue from cooperation between African electoral and foundational ID authorities. Foundational ID systems generate far better voter rolls than voter-specific (functional) ID systems. Moreover, voter registration is linked to national identification, the national ID ecosystem gets a huge boost.
Last not but least, as several speakers and participants noticed, the long-term investment in foundational identity systems are less costly than a series of one-off voter-specific registrations. Henry Atem Oben summarized an idea shared by many on the panels: “voter ID generated through a biometric civil registry is cost effective for Election Management Bodies (EMB), enhance accuracy, and provides for currency if actively and effectively maintained.” He added a few recommendations for EMBs and insisted on one of them: to prepare and develop the Request for Proposal and Procurement (RFP) well in advance as it is the “first, last and best chance to get the technology and system right.”
* See the figures produced by International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) and quoted by Henry Atem from USICES in his presentation.