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Vol 57 No 18

Published 9th September 2016

Technology against tricksters

Biometric polling cards, electronic data transmission and other high-tech methods are spreading in Africa, but it seems fraud is keeping pace

The momentum behind the introduction of election technology in Africa continues to build. In Kenya, the opposition has pushed for a change in the law that will make the use of election technology mandatory in general elections. As part of a raft of reforms designed to strengthen the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), formalised in the Election Laws Amendment Bill, Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) legislator James Orengo has demanded the use of technology at all levels of the electoral process, arguing that this would confer credibility on the polls and protect the interests of the opposition.

The record of such technology is patchy, to say the least. In Zambia, the main opposition party, the United Party for National Development, are sure that the 2016 election was rigged (AC Vol 57 No 17, Lungu's victory under fire). The party's petition to the Constitutional Court cited a range of examples of abuse including allegations that thousands of UPND votes were removed from ballot boxes and dumped in a bin (see Feature, Judges in the firing line). However, the petition lacks a 'smoking gun' that demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that the results were manipulated. 

One reason for this is that some of the electoral technology the UPND was relying upon to detect fraud could not do the job. Take the parallel vote tabulations (PVTs) that many donors, civil society organisations and opposition parties have been putting their faith – and their funding – in. The basic idea of a PVT is that an independent organisation records the results on mobile phones at a representative sample of polling stations and then uses it to create a projection of what the national vote should look like. Deviations from this projection imply electoral fraud and can be used to challenge any rigging that occurs when polling station figures are aggregated to the national result.

Error margins
In this sense, a PVT is like an opinion poll in which a company surveys a couple of thousand citizens in order to make a projection about how the nation will vote. And like an opinion poll, PVTs are based on samples and so come with a margin of error, meaning that they are not accurate enough to be able to predict precise results but rather a range of plausible outcomes. The smaller the number of polling station results included in the PVT, the larger the margin of error will be. PVTs in Africa typically have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. This means that most PVTs can only confirm fraud when there is a gap of more than five points between the top two candidates – the winner's figure could be 2.5% too high, and the loser's 2.5% too low. 

This means that a PVT is likely to be of little use in a case like Zambia where the gap between the two candidates was just three points and President Edgar Lungu secured a first round victory by just 0.35% of the vote. This point is well illustrated by the case of Kenya, where President Uhuru Kenyatta secured a first round victory by just 0.5%. The PVT run by domestic observers projected that Kenyatta won less than 50% of the vote – which would have necessitated a second round – but because the official result fell within the 2.5% margin of error, the PVT was taken to confirm the outcome. 

In the Zambian case, a PVT conducted by the Christian Churches Monitoring Group (CCMG) placed Lungu on 50.2%, confirming the official result. But what the subsequent media coverage failed to make clear was that the election was so close that a victory for the opposition candidate, Hakainde Hichilema, would also have been within the PVT's margin of error. This is not to say that CCMG should have interpreted their findings differently, only that a PVT cannot help you distinguish a clean election from a faulty one when the count is so close. Given this, PVTs are unlikely to protect the opposition in upcoming election contests in in Ghana and Kenya, which are expected to be tight.

It is not just PVTs that are overrated. Technology designed to ensure that only registered citizens vote tends to fall into two categories: voter registration and voter verification. The use of fingerprint or iris technology to register voters has been largely successful, because it takes place over a number of days and so the short-term failure of registration kits does not threaten to undermine the credibility of the polls. However, the use of voter verification kits on polling day has failed more times that it has succeeded. Indeed, it is ironic that the Kenyan opposition is now campaigning for the greater use of technology in elections: in 2013, both the voter verification hardware and a newly-minted electronic transmission system failed, leading Raila Odinga to contests the results in court (AC Vol 54 No 6, The closest of shaves).

Like other forms of 'on the day' technology, the problem with voter verification technology is that it is easy to sabotage. A power failure can make it impossible to use newly-purchased machines, which in most countries means a return to manual voter identification – creating the potential for multiple voting and ballot box stuffing. Similarly, there is always the danger that apps designed to automatically tabulate the result can be hacked or crashed if the ruling party feels that it is losing. 

Tech fears
In other words, the danger of election technology is that it simply moves the location of rigging, rather than preventing it. This is particularly significant, because opposition parties tend to take their eye off the ball once election technology is introduced, investing less time and money in ensuring that a strong network of party agents is in place to monitor the manual voting and counting process. In Kenya, the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) failed to place party agents in about 10% of polling stations, meaning that there was no one present to detect fraud once the technology had ceased to function.

The trick for opposition parties in Africa is therefore to push for the introduction of new technology, but to plan on the basis that technology will fail – and to make sure that they can still reveal manipulation without it. As Kenya's former anti-corruption tsar John Githongo has put it: 'you can't digitise integrity'.

The increasing reliance on election technology is worrying because it has contributed to a significant increase in the cost of African elections. In Nigeria, the adoption of new technology to vet voters during the 2015 general elections pushed up the size of the budget of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to around US$603 million – roughly $7.90 a voter (AC Vol 56 No 8, INEC and high-tech). However, this compares relatively favourably with Kenya: in 2013 the electoral commission had a budget of $293 mn., which translates into more than $20 a voter. In Uganda, where little technology is used, the costs are considerably lower at just $4 a voter. 

A surprisingly high portion of election budgets are now being spent on new machines and equipment. In Congo-Kinshasa, $58 mn. of the $360 mn. budget for the last election went on new technology. Ghana spent even more: $76 mn. out of a total budget of $124 mn. – a majority of the budget. Of course, a considerable portion of these costs are picked up by international donors and this is especially true when it comes to new technology. In 2013, donors spent $100 mn. in support of the Kenyan elections – and this is not exceptional. 

Some foreign partners are growing tired of the increasing costs of the polls at a time when aid budgets are under pressure. In Ghana, donors objected to a projected elections budget of 1.7 billion cedis ($430 mn.) for polls due to be held later this year, and parliament ultimately approved a reduced expenditure of C1.2 bn. ($300 mn.). One consequence of rising costs and donor belt-tightening is that an increasing proportion of the cost of elections is falling on African taxpayers. This should be a cause for concern: in Zambia, the 2016 elections represented 1.4% of the budget – more than was allocated to the government's Empowerment Fund, Fisheries Development Fund, and Food Security programme combined.

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