Monday, March 25, 2013

Automation in Kenya: a hurried implementation is never a good idea

Image: EveryStockPhoto

Although it is true that automation solves many problems in the electoral field, this does not mean that just about any e-voting system will work. Taking the leap to automation requires a close examination of the potential providers, and one of the main aspects to keep in mind for choosing one is the provider’s experience. Kenya’s electoral blunder serves as an example why.

As mentioned on an earlier post, the bout of violence Kenya endured in 2007 prompted the country to hastily adopt an electronic voting system. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) set up an election’s results transmission system based on SMS that was meant to speed up the final stages of the electoral process and enhance security. Biometric authentication was also incorporated into the modernization process. This year’s election was expected to be the most modern in Africa and beyond.

However, this new platform proved to be no better than the manual method from earlier years. Kenyans’ fears of a new round of chaos materialized when every single stage of the automated process failed. First of all, the conditions under which elections were generally held in the country were not taken into account. As a result, not even the most basic of requirements for automation, electricity, were available, as some of the classrooms used as polling stations were not equipped with power sockets.

Then the biometric authentication kits failed to recognize voters’ fingerprints, forcing officials to turn to paper records and manual registration to carry on with the election and slowing down the electoral process considerably. As if this were not enough, the server employed to transmit results to the central tallying center from 33,400 polling stations became overloaded and crashed, and the electoral body had to revert to manual counting. Safaricom, the communications supplier hired for this final stage, had advised IEBC to hold a large-scale drill before going live, but the electoral body disregarded the recommendation with dire consequences. In the end, the announcement of Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory took place over a week after the elections.

It is commendable that a country wants to resort to e-voting to stop fraud and make its elections more agile and transparent. However, automation is a very delicate procedure that is prone to failure when not carried out properly. There are many points where Kenya’s providers incurred in negligence and aggravated an already fragile democracy. The lack of previous infrastructure studies and the lack of drills and pilot tests in minor electoral events are amongst the most serious mistakes made by the e-voting providers. In short, Kenya’s botched election was an example of sheer improvisation.

Electronic elections in the Philippines, Brazil, and Venezuela have been successful because their providers have been conscious of the need to analyze a country’s infrastructure and idiosyncrasy before incorporating automation into its electoral system. The implementation process in these countries has been gradual and supported by numerous pilot tests and audits, thus being able to offer smooth elections that gain people’s trust in the new technology. The urge for automation cannot win over the urge for an electoral system that works.

Kenya’s electoral catastrophe is a lesson for other countries to learn: When it comes to modernizing a country’s electoral platform, there is no room for haste.