Thursday, February 19, 2015

Tanzania weighing its e-voting options for October election

Many of the most exciting advances in electronic voting technology aren't necessarily being witnessed in first-world countries with high-end modern technology is a part of everyday life. Instead, it is in several developing nations around the world that e-voting, e-counting, and i-voting are receiving grassroots level support in part of a concerted effort to modernize these countries. 

Several countries in Africa have either already launched pilot projects in this field or are currently exploring the possibilities of doing so in upcoming elections. One example of particular note is Tanzania, where the country's general election is currently scheduled to take place this October. The National Electoral Commission (NEC) of Tanzania is being urged to not allow the country to be “left behind” in this “digital era,” being encouraged to implement electronic voting machines (EVMs), biometric voter registration (BVM), or a combination thereof. 

This follows in the example of other African countries that have already utilized some form of electronic-based technology as part of their democratic elections. As voter identification and voter verification are of critical importance, regular photo ID cards may not be sufficient to prevent voter fraud. To this end, the Tanzanian government has already decreed that a new biometric voting registration technology will be replacing the old voting system.

Indeed, the registration of voters using BVR is slated to start in February, well in advance of the October polls. Permanent Secretary Dr. Florens Turuka has indicated that the old voter identity cards will no longer be valid and all voters will need to register themselves through the new biometric system in order to qualify for voting in the upcoming general election. The system and technology have already been tested in three constituencies and every registered voter will receive new identification cards from the National Electoral Commission. 

Biometric voter registration and identification have already been used elsewhere in Africa, but some recent examples have been met with technical glitches and limited success. The system used in Kenya, which was co-developed by the Government of Canada and a sub-contractor called Morpho Canada, experienced numerous failures and some say this may have been caused by “massive fraud.” The elections in Ghana were marred with attempts at double registration and the theft of verification machines.

With both of these instances, the problems can likely be linked back to two culprits. First, human error and tampering can be problematic. Second, the systems may not have been properly secured and audited to ensure they would perform as needed for the elections in question. Tanzania needs to learn from the attempts in Kenya and Ghana, ensuring that they only contract respectable vendors with strong track records and that they ensure the proper security measures are in place to protect against those seeking to maliciously influence election results. 

As with Nigeria, Tanzania is still a transitioning nation and it will take time to move the country forward into the digital age for modernizing its democratic process. While it had its share of challenges, the recent elections in Namibia can also serve as a lesson and an example for modernizing elections on the African continent. Namibia was the first country in Africa to use direct-recording electronic voting machines. That is a major milestone. 

The Tanzanian election is only a few short months away. It will likely face many difficulties along the way, but a commitment to biometric voter authentication and the possible exploration into electronic voting machines or electronic counting of ballots represent positive strides in the right direction.