By Joel Popoola
It is hard to imagine any good coming out of COVID-19 crisis. Around the world, the pandemic is forcing governments to finally move away from outdated political practices.
In the United Kingdom, we have seen the national government holding press conferences, public hearings, parliamentary debates, committees and even votes via video link. Russia is said to be actively considering online voting.
Nigeria is not different. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) recently announced that it intends to “pilot the use of Electronic Voting Machines at the earliest possible time and work towards the full introduction of electronic voting in major elections starting from 2021.”
Necessity is the mother of invention.
As the head of a campaign to make Nigeria Africa’s first truly digital democracy, I believe that this is a huge step forward for improving the credibility of elections in the eyes of Nigerian voters.
Nigeria has the worst voter turnout in West Africa, with almost half the number of voters turning up to vote in last year’s presidential election than did in Ghana’s most recent contest.
The turnout in 2019 general election was just 35 percent.
Why? Well, as one international commentator put it: “The average Nigerian voter does not believe her vote will count. She has been scarred by years of violence, rigging, and predictability. The numbers reflect this.’’
Electronic voting can be the first step towards reversing that decline.
Using electronic voting machines, Nigerian voters can have confidence in the system. Ballot-stuffing could also become a thing of the past under a truly transparent system where every vote can be electronically accounted for.
As for predictability, it is no secret that this is another reason why Nigerians can be so reluctant to vote. As the INEC policy statement itself points out, only 10 percent of all bye-elections since 2015 led to a change in results. In an election where the result is a foregone conclusion, many Nigerians see simply no point in voting – even if their favoured candidate is the one guaranteed to win.
Electronic voting experimented in Kaduna State in 2018 and the results were impressive.
Governor Nasir El-Rufai was praised for his state’s efforts to promote transparency and electoral integrity, voters even found the process of voting quicker and faster – which may also encourage them to vote.
Four Kaduna elections were won by the opposition rather than the incumbents. People knew their vote would have an impact. So they voted.
Electronic voting could be a crucial first step in restoring trust in the democratic process.
That is the thought behind the “Digital Democracy Campaign.” We created the free Rate Your Leader app to use smartphone technology to allow elected officials interact directly with confirmed voters in the divisions they serve.
Nigerian voters need to know what information they can trust. The Rate Your Leader app is designed to battle this democratic deficit by helping politicians engage with voters they serve, helping them understand what matters most to the people who elect them and build relationships of trust with the electorate. And in return, voters can even rate their responses, convincing their neighbours that this is a politician who listens.
We designed Rate Your Leader to give the people of Nigeria a direct channel to their leaders. This is something they expect. And it is something our democracy depends on.
This way politicians and people can engage person-to-person, understanding each other’s needs and positions. And voters can even rate their politicians for their transparency and accessibility.
I remember one local politician telling me about how a voter rang him up in fury to complain that the local government was investing money instead of spending it on local services.
The politician just pointed out that no government spends all of its cash the same day it gets it.
Democracy is digital. More Nigerians own smartphones. So why stop there? Could Nigeria become one of the first nations on earth to embrace allowing voters to actually vote from home?
Realistically, not enough Nigerians have reliable enough broadband to make this possible yet.
But if electronic voting is a sensible first step, innovations like this should be our long-term aspiration.
*Popoola, a Nigerian tech entrepreneur and digital democracy campaigner, writes from Lagos