By Jibril Adan and Harold Ayodo
On Monday Kenya entered electronic age voting by opening up 18 constituencies to computerised voter registration triggering questions if the system is rig-proof.
Politicians were ecstatic the system guarantees democratic and tamper-proof electoral system that would make impossible manipulation of voting outcome at polling centres and ‘top-up’ games at tallying centres as witnessed in 2007 presidential election, leading to a disputed results and violence.
However, going by experiences of more seasoned democracies such as the US and India, there are no guarantees this system can on its own ensure accuracy and speed. The integrity of the system depends on several issues, among them honesty and professionalism of its administrators and the invincibility of its software to guard against such cyber-crimes as hacking, distortion of data, and computer viral attacks.
Nairobi lawyer, Ashford Muriuki, for example, warns the new voting system could present Kenya with new electoral offences, against which the law has to be amended. He adds: "The problem we have is not about the current system of voting, but the integrity of the people handling the process."
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One of the questions that would interest Kenyans is how Interim Independent Electoral Commission settled on the Canadian company’s Code Inc system, in particular if it was single-sourced or got through competitive bidding.
IIEC insists the system is dependable. The electoral body, which is working on digital voter registration, asks the question, ‘so what happens if something goes wrong with technology?" and answers: "The process outputs a manual register reference just like the manual system using OMR (Optimal Mark Recognition) forms." This could be meant to stem fears arising from 2007 General Election in which it is believed at least two million dead ‘voters’ voted.
There are, however, those who fear that just like banks have often experienced, e-voting machines could create complications that could outweigh benefits, especially in context of countries with small populations like Kenya, coupled with poor computer network, support infrastructure, and scarcity of trained staff.
Experiences of countries that have adopted e-voting show they could guarantee speedy delivery of results but not necessarily their accuracy. According to IT experts, computer-based systems are normally vulnerable to manipulations and are not hack-proof.
American cryptographer and computer security expert, Bruce Schneier, says in his blog www.schneier.com electronic voting machines, although presented as the solution, "have largely made the problem worse".
Schneier analysed the glitches that occurred in the November 2004 elections in US and points out examples of the voting errors that occurred, including cases where a malfunctioning programmes deducted votes from the totals of a candidate.
He gives four examples to prop up his argument:
• In Fairfax County, in 2003, a programming error in the electronic voting machines caused them to mysteriously subtract 100 votes from one candidate.
• In San Bernardino County in 2001, a programming error caused the computer to look for votes in the wrong portion of the ballot in 33 local elections. A recount was done by hand.
• In Volusia County in 2000, an electronic voting machine gave Al Gore a final vote count of negative 16,022 votes.
• The 2003 election in Boone County had the electronic vote-counting equipment showing that more than 140,000 votes had been cast when the county has only 50,000 residents, less than half of them eligible to vote.
He then argues that accuracy is sacrificed for the sake of speed when electronic voting machines are used. "But in the rush to improve speed and scalability, accuracy has been sacrificed. And to reiterate: accuracy is not how well the ballots are counted by, say, a punch-card reader. It’s not how the tabulating machine deals with hanging chads, pregnant chads, or anything like that. Accuracy is how well the process translates voter intent into appropriately counted votes," he says.
He adds the same software that makes touch-screen voting systems so friendly also makes them inaccurate in the worst possible way.
Evans Obare, an Information Technology lecturer, argues computer software used in the system "can be interfered with easily".
He says agents can monitor feeding of information into the system at polling stations, but the problem may arise when sending the information to the central data system where the outcome of an election can be changed through manipulation.
He points out that having a back- up may also prove to be a challenge. "Kenya – just like any other developing country – has experienced instances of failed back-up systems and this cannot be ruled out in an election," adds Obare, who holds Masters Degree in Computer Application.
He says vigilance must be ensured when dealing with computerised data, arguing interfering with software can corrupt even back-up data.
"Computerisation is a double-edged sword – it can be efficient and easily corrupted just as hackers siphon money from bank accounts," Obare warns.
In his essays, Schneier points out computer security experts are unanimous that electronic voting machines should have voter-verifiable paper trails, which they lack now.
This is a paper ballot printed out by the voting machine, which the voter is allowed to look at and verify, the experts say.
Schneier points out "a manual system of tallying the ballots by hand, and then doing it again to double-check, is more accurate simply because there are fewer steps".
IIEC Communications Officer Andrew Limo, responded: "The system is secure. We do back-ups daily in addition to high security systems in place."
No system in the world, he explained, was perfect but what they have cannot be compared with what Kenya has had in the past. "It has strong security features and the latest in the market," said Limo.
He added: "IIEC policy is to build integrity into systems, processes and people. We employ competitively and train so that we have trustworthy people handling trustworthy systems. You cannot leave it to technology alone."
Muriuki warned the excitement about electronic voting machines could lead Kenya down the road to "hitherto unknown poll offences".
"The excitement is high but the risks we will expose the electoral system could later prove costly," he said. Muriuki said even banks are at a loss on how to stop criminals from hacking into their systems and accessing money in private accounts.
Muriuki also added that the current electoral laws in the Constitution were made for the manual voting. "We must come up with a new regime of laws if the country adopts electronic voting," he advises.