Tuesday, April 28, 2015

E-voting can improve access to democracy for Zambians

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln once stood for a “government of the people, by the people [and] for the people.” Indeed, one of the most important pillars of a strong and legitimate democracy is one wherein eligible citizens can and do have a voice in who governs them. This is regardless of sex, religion, social status or geographic limitations. To this end, it is always in the best interest of a fair, honest and transparent election to provide the greatest possible access to the polls to the greatest number of eligible voters as possible.

In countries where literacy rates may be low, this might mean having ballots where even those who cannot read can still understand who they are voting for. It also means having ballots where people with physical limitations, like impaired vision or mobility, can still cast a vote. And while it is indeed true that urbanization continues to be on the rise all around the globe, there are still substantial populations who live in more rural and remote areas. And these populations deserve to have their voice heard.

And that is precisely why electronic voting technology is being encouraged ahead of the upcoming elections in the African country of Zambia. The people of Zambia are spread all across its country and some even end up in foreign lands in search of a better life or improved job prospects. These people are still entitled to take part in democratic processes.

Zambian President Edgar Lungu has stated on the record that he is in favour of adopting electronic voting technologies in the country, even though opposition FDD spokesperson Antonio Mwanza says that the government should focus on acquiring local printers for printing ballots first. Mwanza feels the ballot papers should be printed locally and not in South Africa, but e-voting can potentially eliminate the need for the printing of ballot papers altogether.

In the case of a voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT), the printers can be integrated as part of the larger e-voting system and ecosystem as a cohesive approach to democracy. President Lungu has the support of other parties for adopting e-voting too, including the United Party for National Development (UPND). Party representative Edwin Lifwekelo says the system would be good for counting and voting purposes and that it would ensure full participation of the Zambian people in the electoral system.

One of the biggest motivating factors for adopting electronic voting systems in Zambia is precisely that: to provide greater access to the democratic process for all Zambians, regardless of where they are located. Education and infrastructure will surely play critical roles in the selection, deployment and running of the e-voting system, but these are investments in the future of Zambia and a more engaged electorate is positive for the African country.

The Zambian government and its electoral commission can look not only to its other African neighbors for support and guidance from their own early experiences with democracy and e-voting, including biometric voter registration and authentication, but also to the many other democracies around the world that have had to deal with having voters spread over a large geographic region.

Two such examples are those demonstrated in the Philippines and Australia. Remote voting was enabled by the use of electronic voting technology. Several thousand ballots were cast in the 2013 Philippine election in this manner and the Australian government continues to invest in its iVote system as a viable and reliable alternative to postal voting. Traditional polling stations will always have a place in a modern democracy, but remote voting needs must also be addressed.

The next general election in Zambia is scheduled to take place in September 2016.