Friday, February 21, 2014

Protecting against election fraud with biometric technology

Source: Google Images
The way that election officials verify the identity of voters varies widely from country to country, jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In some cases, voters can show any government-issued identification to receive their ballots. In other countries, an ID card may expedite the process, but isn't even necessary given some other supporting documentation or even the solemn promise of another registered voter. These kinds of systems inherently run the risk of voter fraud where a voter could potentially cast more than one vote. Technology, specifically biometric technology, can help to address this concern.

Indeed, this is the main reason why Tanzania will be adopting a biometric voter identification system for its national elections in 2015. While still in the early stages of planning, the proposal for this system calls for technology to capture the facial features of voters, in addition to fingerprints and identification documentation. This multi-factor approach is very robust and should guard against voter fraud.

In order for the biometric system to work during Election Day, voter registration will also involve the use of technology to match the facial, identification document and fingerprint data of voters. When entered into a central system, this data can then be checked by election officials when a voter comes to cast his or her vote. If the records show that a vote has already been cast, then the ballot can be denied.

As with the open nature of collaboration and transparency seen in Switzerland, Brazil and Estonia, the government in Tanzania also aims to be as open as possible regarding its introduction of biometrics in the 2015 election. The National Electoral Commission chairman said that the “whole decision was made by the government. As a result, there is no need of hiding the process from the public. Everything will be known after we complete the whole tendering procedure.”

This move toward biometric authentication in Tanzania follows in the footsteps of two other notable African countries where such technology was also used. Unfortunately, the elections in Ghana and in Kenya faced their share of issues. While they should be applauded for working to modernize its elections, the implementation of the technology was poorly executed. In Ghana, machines were stolen and documentation was set ablaze. Furthermore, the actual voting was still done manually with the results being sent via fax. This resulted in technical glitches and long delays.

However, similar biometric devices were successfully used to identify and authenticate 100% of voters in the Venezuelan presidential elections in 2012. Automation was used for the entire election, providing a greater deal of trust and transparency. The Integrated Authentication System, developed by Smartmatic, was used for the fingerprint scanning, verifying the identity against a central electoral roll.

Very successful electronic elections in countries like Brazil and the Philippines also demonstrate that the technology itself isn't to blame. Governments and providers just need to be more conscious about their implementation, ensuring that the infrastructure is suitably in place to prevent voter fraud and to allow for the smoothest and most efficient election possible.

Biometric technology can provide for far more reliable and accurate voter authentication in elections, particularly if multiple modalities are used as fail-safes against one another. By combining digital fingerprints with voter photographs and government-issued identification documentation, election officials can be far more assured of a voter's identity before allowing the citizen to cast his or her vote. It is important, as demonstrated by the experiences in Kenya and Ghana, that such technology is used with the context of a better organized and more comprehensive e-voting system as a whole.