Despite bitter technological flop in last poll, IEBC optimistic 2017 will be better

Journalists at IEBC national tallying centre at Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi. [Photo: File/Standard]

By Standard Reporter

Kenya: Kenya’s 2013 elections were supposed to mark the country’s entry into techno-voting. In a nation known for such technology wizardly inventions as Mpesa, this was supposed to be a walk in the park. But the last General Election was anything but a success.

Instead, all the hype about biometric voter registration and voter identification kits and transmission of poll results via phone collapse like an ensemble cast of tired and underpaid actors on Broadway.

It was a technological failure on a massive scale and it is amazing there were no major protests on the streets or eruption of violence despite the shambles. Still, despite the doubts and prevarications about employing technology in future elections, Kenya may have come out determined to fine tune technology in future elections.

Kenya had joined the league of African countries keen to test the new frontiers in election process and eliminate ballot stuffing, violent rigging of elections and remove fuzzy maths in final voter figures. In the words of western media analysts, there has grown a need to demonstrate “some resemblance between public opinion and eventual outcome”.

Voter registration

The journey towards techno-voting began with a clean voter registration, which could only be achieved by registering all voters afresh. In a continent where elections had become too close to call, bitterly fought over and almost a duel to death prize fight, the process has gradually come under the microscope.

A growing swathe of African countries recently adopted technology with the support of western aid. They included Kenya,  Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal, Somaliland and Ghana. Electoral commissions have all recently introduced biometric technology — which recognises both fingerprints and facial features — as a first step towards brand new electoral registers.

Other African nations gravitating towards BVR include Mali and Togo. There have been incessant calls for Zimbabwe to join the bandwagon.

A fresh election register, so analysts have argued, eliminates ‘ghost’ voters. In addition, BVR prevents over-voting and ballot-stuffing, two infamous rigging techniques popular across Africa especially.

The world held its breath on March 4 because Kenya’s election was billed by media analysts as “Africa’s most modern poll” and “voters would identify themselves biometrically”. Even more ambitious, returning officers were expected to transmit results from their station electronically by using handsets. Their results would be directly amplified on a giant screen at the Bomas national tallying centre in Nairobi.

All this technology hype failed on a grand scale. It left the IEBC with egg on its face. The trip downhill for IEBC, the body mandated to manage the elections, began with the initial bungled procurement of biometric voter registration machines. The tender was at first shrouded in mystery, then collapsed in a heap of controversy with less than five months to election day.

It took the intervention of the Government to put the procurement of BVR and EVID machines back on track, but by then the damage had been done. For a start, the equipment arrived too late to allow IEBC time to study the technology before deploying it. IEBC’s slow and late purchasing of the equipment, lack of adequate time for testing or training their staff left critics convinced that “the system was always intended to fail”.

When the registration exercise began in December 2012, some of the biometric kits failed to recognise thumbs, which by extension forced ID card numbers to be keyed in manually into the system.  During voting day, many polling stations in Kenya and generally in Africa are located in schools that do not have power.

The problem was that when the batteries used to power laptops loaded with the electronic poll book — that allows voters to place their finger and be recognised on the voters roll book – expired, many of them could not be recharged with power sockets. What was needed, IEBC found out painfully, was solar-charged equipment.

The drama surrounding electronic transmission was almost comical. It turned out that many of the returning officers forgot their pass codes needed to access the system. And in cases of those who were able to gain access, they were simply unable to transmit their figures for unexplained reasons.

Even worse, the main election server crashed, totally overwhelmed by the data it was processing.

Ironically, IEBC did not have a back-up plan in the event the server crashed. It seemed that IEBC had not been taking notes when they flew to Ghana to observe their techno-driven election preparations that had gone through huge technological challenges.

Election technology comes with a stunning price tag requiring the participation of donor support for many countries in Africa to afford it. The figures of costs tabulated so far are shocking in relation to the amount spent and the number of voters. The cost to voter ratio can sometimes leave critics scratching their heads.

In DRC, the elections cost was a staggering $360 million with 31 million registered voters, with $58 million of that money spent on biometrics. Ghana, the country with 14 million voters spent $124 million with $76 million spent on BVR. In Kenya’s case, the elections cost $293 million (Sh25 billion) against 14 million voters, with donors putting in $100 million (Sh8.7 billion).

In more established global democracies, elections can cost on average of $1 to $3 per voter. In Kenya, where six ballots were staged on the same day, the process cost over $20 per voter. Sadly, Kenyan taxpayers aided by western donors are still paying dearly for a system that failed, even though the Supreme Court upheld the results and donors gave the elections a clean bill despite technological challenges.

Looking ahead, IEBC wants to be prepared to conduct the next general election without technological hitches. And they have turned to a commissioner known to put out fires. Thomas Letangule chaired the dispute resolution tribunal after the chaotic party primaries in early 2013. Now he has been tasked with revamping the technology aspect of the election body and help resolve the issues as chairman of the ICT panel of IEBC.

For a start, Letangule says they want to have a technological system in place early that can be tested and proven. And they have spent the last few months doing what he calls “post-election interrogation.”

He says: “We are interrogating ourselves, why did this happen? Because we want to have a roadmap ahead. We are auditing our systems...we are examining why ICT failed and what mechanism we need to put in place going forward.”

Next elections

Letangule says “a lot of things will change in the next elections. People must learn to look at the positives. Despite everything, look at the number of petitions that were successful in relation to the total number of seats contested…they are very few.”

“We many need to change or review, based on the training that I have just returned from (in Ukraine), whether we should transmit by mobile phones. In Venezuela, they vote and in less than an hour the vote has been counted. In India, the world’s largest democracy, they complete elections quickly. They have a machine where you press your finger it prints a receipt and transmits your vote immediately and tallies all the votes,” he says.

“With our system, you vote with one gadget, then transmit the results with another causing unnecessary complications. We need one system.”

Kenya’s biggest challenge is that techno-voting system over-sold to the public. Many believed it would be a ‘tamper-proof’ system that delivers a credible election. After the 2013 fiasco, voters may still be wary and doubtful whether a fair election system can still be put in place.