Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Kenya: a poor implementation of voting technology

Kenya longs for peace. Photograph: Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images

On March 4th, Kenya, East Africa's largest economist held its first general elections since the new constitution was approved in a national referendum in 2010. As part of this deep legal transformation, robust electoral reforms were introduced to set the new grounds for credible, and legitimate elections. 

Kenya has been under intense scrutiny by national and international organizations since the 2007, when the losing candidate in the presidential elections, Raila Amollo Odinga, refused to concede defeat alleging a massive fraud had been conducted. His supported rioted the streets and ethnic violence erupted. More than 1,200 killed and hundreds were displaced. The political, social and economic consequences of such episodes are still fresh in the memory of all Kenyans.

To avoid the recurrence of a similar tragedy, and conduct peaceful and more transparent elections, Kenya embarked on a project to modernize its voting system by automating certain phases of the election cycle. Biometric technology was introduced to increase accuracy of the voter roll and minimize the impact of vote impersonation. Also, an electronic transmission of results was implemented to speed up the result consolidation and publication process. 

Unfortunately, the newly formed Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) came short of accomplishing their noble goals. Both automation processes were poorly managed, causing a cumbersome voting experience for most voters, and delaying result publication for almost an entire week.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga is again playing a role that is becoming familiar to him, claiming fraud. He laments that the billions spent in technology for voter identification and vote tallying claiming rendered poor results. "Two days after the vote, the electronic tallying process was discarded and counting began afresh, manually. That too turned out to be flawed exercise in which, among other things, there was massive tampering with the IEBC voter register" he stated. 

Although it is early for international observers to conclude that a massive fraud was carried out, they have acknowledged the technical problems and delays. The biometric platform, developed by a partnership between the Government of Canada and a subcontractor, Morpho Canda Inc, reported numerous failures causing voters to wait in line for hours before casting a vote.

Also, the system in charge of the transmission of results and processing the data broke down forcing a manual count of the votes. The services used to provide the tallying and result publishing services were provided by different companies. 

Utilizing an mobile App designed by IFES and installed on cell phones distributed to each polling stations, authorities were supposed to use Safaricom (a leading mobile network operator in Kenya) telecommunication company) SIM cards to send results transmitted via a Virtual Private Network  (VPN). Servers in consolidation centers, managed by Next Technologies, were supposed to process results and upload them to a Google hosted website. 

Acknowledging all difficulties experienced by voters to cast a vote, and knowing results, James Oswago, Chief executive of Kenya's IEBC, stated "none of those reasons is malevolent, none of those reasons was intended to keep you here needlessly. We tried our best." 

In the light of such complex political landscape, and with the 2007 chaos fresh in everyone's memory, we hope the technical glitches do not assume political dimensions.