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Budget: Electoral agency must be more than just a money train

By Denis Kabaara | October 4th 2021

IEBC Chairperson Wafula Chebukati (L) conversing with vice-chair Juliana Cherera, September 2021. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

Last week’s edition of the KTN News Kivumbi 2022 series explored a question that keeps turning up. Why does the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) need so much money to run an election?

The reference was IEBC’s request for roughly Sh41b to run the 2022 election. Not that elections are unimportant, but that is 80 per cent more than is being put into our national Covid-19 economic recovery; more than the sum total of Big 4 allocations for manufacturing and affordable housing, and slightly less than this year’s allocation for universal health care.

For those who argue that elections are a one-off event, it is important to remember that when cash is tight, there is no such thing as a one-off; every shilling counts. A radical point could also be made that, on an individual and household priority basis, jobs, shelter and health care are more immediate needs than getting to vote. Even though that takes us to the deeper “chicken and egg” question of democracy versus development. Or differently, why what we vote trumps for whom we vote in.

Back to IEBC. The timing of this announcement was juxtaposed with fresh proposals for election campaign finance limits that some people thought that these limits and the IEBC budget were one and the same. MPs were so quick to noisily dismiss the latter on legal technicalities, and completely forgot concerns about the former. Now Sh41b is the baseline for any forward discussion, such as IEBC’s forthcoming joint session with the National Assembly’s Budget and Appropriations and Justice and Legal Affairs committees.

Spray and pray

A number of interesting questions were raised during the Kivumbi show. Why is new technology procurement needed? Why is voter education so expensive? (it costs us roughly five to 10 times more to do this with our own money than it does with more strictly controlled donor money). Why do we need a national tallying centre (and its costly infrastructure) when electoral results are formal, as the courts have ruled, at the constituency level? Why are we spending so much on single-use ballot papers that apparently have more security features than our multiple-use currency notes? Will bringing the servers home be more or less expensive? Why would we factor in massive contingencies in legal fees before the fact?

[File, Standard]

IEBC officials present and past tend to offer two main answers in public. First, we don’t trust each other or one another enough. Second, we must live with an unmanageable animal called cost drivers. The stock solution is to over-compensate by throwing money at the problem and hoping it sticks. Not only is this disingenuous, but it is also the best rendition of a “spray and pray” approach to electoral management.

Football or beauty contest

IEBC is one of many stakeholders in a successful Kenyan election. It is also the main one, which is why it is analogously referred to as the elections referee. By this imagery, candidates are players representing political parties as their teams. As the referee, IEBC manages the game, but claims that it has no control over the players or their teams. This picture would then suggest that voters are the equivalent of football fans. Through this lens, IEBC is more concerned about the teams on the pitch than the fans in the stands.

And this is where the imagery, for all of its popular appeal among our politicians, falls flat.

First, unlike football, voters are, or should be, active, not passive, participants in the electoral game. If anything, the candidates are participants in a veritable beauty contest from whom the voters have the power to choose.  Second, IEBC is more than a referee; as an independent institution under the Constitution, it also sets and enforces the rules of the game. In soccer parlance, it is both the referee and the football federation. IEBC decides whether the ball on the pitch should be round, oval or oblong.

Sadly, IEBC seems to be caught up in this narrow football imagery. The players (politicians) and teams (parties) must be coddled. The fans (voters) must be herded to the booth like cows to a cattle dip. The Judiciary is needed every so often to interpret or sanction IEBC’s refereeing rules and behaviour.

This is the unconscious institutional mindset that seeks a Sh41b budget. Knowing the ridiculous amount of money that candidates will spend to get elected, IEBC is the referee who wants to be paid the same amount as our political Ronaldos and Messis on the pitch. Even though it should set the rules.

While this may sound like a harsh indictment, the point being made is that IEBC needs to step up its own game. If this game begins with voters, then its budget should be about the voter experience. In the same way the Judiciary is about the justice experience, not buildings and computers.

The voter experience

Once IEBC gets that its role is to superintend a democratic process for the people, and not referee a football match regardless of the fans, it is time to understand that voters matter. Voting at elections can be a tedious affair. Long queues in the hot sun, or driving rain, make for great TV viewing but not much else.

In 2017, many voters did not turn up for the fresh presidential election, not because of the politics, or the candidates, but because they simply couldn’t be bothered either way. This was especially true of younger voters expressing their electoral choices for the very first time.

Long queues in the hot sun, or driving rain, make for great TV viewing but not much else. [File, Standard]

What has IEBC done to improve the voter experience since 2017? Relatedly, beyond running by-elections, what else has it done with the Sh5b it gets every year between general elections?  These are not irrelevant questions.  If 2007/08 offered us the moment to reform our electoral space, then 2017 presented us with a useful trigger to reinvent our electoral operations around the voter cycle.

The voter experience comes in five phases.  Registration as a Kenyan. Identification as a voter. Voting in the booth. Tracking results. Accepting electoral choices.  These are all within IEBC’s ambit.  What has changed for the better?  That’s the Sh41 billion question that IEBC needs to answer right away.

Unpacking 41 billion

There are further budget questions that may interest those National Assembly Committees in their engagement with IEBC before dishing out more billions.  An immediate one, hinted at during the Kivumbi show, is why electoral streams are fixed at 700 people.  Didn’t Zambia just deliver a successful, election with streams of 1,000?  In simple math, more streams means more people and infrastructure.

A second one better explains this as a simultaneous equation.  If, by IEBC’s own reckoning, single ballot plebiscites in 2005, 2007 and 2010 cost Sh950 per vote, but a six-ballot one cost Sh2,500 in 2017, why is the fixed cost component per vote, at twice the variable cost, so high? (treat this as your CBC homework for today!)  In other words, how much deadweight overhead does every vote carry?

And while IEBC will respond that, with increased voter registration this time around, the cost per vote will fall to Sh1600, how are our East African neighbours delivering elections at a fraction of that?

Smarter MPs in the group might then be drawn to three IEBC documents launched in June.  First, its Sh86b 2020/21-2024/25 Strategic Plan and then its components.  A Sh84b Electoral Operations Plan (EOP) – the plan for the elections - and an (unpublished) Sh2b Boundaries Review Operations Plan. For the record, the key budget components in the EOP are Sh10b to strengthen the legal framework, Sh35b to conduct elections and another Sh35b to strengthen strategic operations (finance, human resource, research, ICT etc).  MPs will realise that these are five-year estimates.

What has IEBC done to improve the voter experience since 2017? [File, Standard]

So they might then turn to actual budget documents. Between this (2021/22) and next (2022/23) year, they will find Sh20b in procurement, Sh12b in pay (including temporary electoral staff) and almost two billion for capital asset acquisitions.  Programmatically for the same period, this data reads as Sh18 billion for voter registration and electoral operations, Sh6b for ICT support and a whopping Sh10b for general administration and support. Did somebody mention overhead?

Until these data are fully unpacked, that Sh41b is just another number, as are its supporting breakdowns. This could get really technical. Variable versus Fixed Costs.  Core versus (Election) Integrity Costs. Direct versus Diffuse Costs. But mostly, not how much things will cost.  Not even what will be bought. But how these costs flow through the voter cycle.  Simply, a “bottom-up” costing.

There is a reason government operates a formal planning and budgeting system, and not a merry-go-round club.  IEBC cannot continually blackmail us over the lack of funding, as it has by suggesting that any shortfalls will reduce contingency ballot paper printing or voter education.  While the Kivumbi show sadly ended with a view that IEBC must get what it wants, for how long must we accept this money train?

Surely, these endless Oliver Twist-style “more please” demands have a democratic limit.

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