By Victoria Ojeme
Technology permeates almost every aspect of our lives. The reason is simple. When a system is well designed, it makes everything better: speed, reliability, security, efficiency, convenience and capabilities are all increased, most often by many orders of magnitude.
They bring greater efficiency in many walks of life, and elections are no exception. Online databases hugely facilitate the task of creating and managing accurate and up-to-date electoral rolls.
Twenty-first century humans trust computers with the most difficult, the most critical and the most important tasks of their personal lives. It therefore seems strange that technology is largely absent from important areas of government, which is not taking advantage of the significant benefits that we are now used to everywhere else.
The point is: if we can trust computers with our money, why not elections?
In less developed countries like Nigeria, whose citizens often lack reliable identity documents, biometric technology can help to identify voters, thus preventing fraud in the form of multiple voting. Electronic voting machines count votes quickly and accurately. First used in the United States, they have spread to several Latin American and Asian countries.
One of the biggest issues with manual voting is that it leaves a very weak audit trail, with very little or no redundancy of data. A well-designed automated election, by contrast, produces multiple copies of every data point both in electronic and paper-based forms, creating a very rich audit trail that cannot be circumvented. This gives parties, election officials, candidates, accredited observers and even citizens the capability to verify that the results truly reflect the will of the voters. This is one of the strongest arguments in favour of good, automated elections.
Just a few days ago, Professor Attahiru Jega, the former Chairman, the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) threw the much needed support to the question of electronic transmission of election results in Nigeria saying it will reduce election fraud in Nigeria.
Professor Jega said this during a press interview at the high-level parliamentary seminar on 20 years of democratic elections in West Africa in Ghana’s coastal city of Winneba on the theme: Evaluating Two Decades Of Democratic Elections In The ECOWAS Region: Achievements, Challenges And The Way Forward.”
Jega, who superitended the process that ushered in the Buhari government in 2015, commended the passage of the bill by the National Assembly which now gives INEC power to transmit results electronically.
He said it was a positive development ahead of the 2023 elections. He stated that it was one of the legal frameworks that would guarantee credible elections in the country.
“I have no doubt that Nigeria has the competence and capacity to deeply electronic transmission of results. Since 2012, INEC has been piloting an electronic transmission of the result system with robust software, with robust security, and they have piloted it in many elections.
“I am happy now that the National Assembly has agreed for this to be done and has created the legal framework. One of the major areas where fraud takes place in the elections of Nigeria is in the transmission of results manually.
“From the polling units, to the ward level, to the constituency level, electronic transmission of results will wipe this out,” Mr Jega said.
Experts at the meeting agreed that the security of a paper-based, manual vote with a manual count is extremely low. Single copies of each vote make them easy to tamper with or destroy. Also, from voting to counting to final tally, and at every step in between, human error and tampering, not only with the votes, is easy and very common. The most vulnerable type of election is that which uses no technology at any stage. Well-designed, special-purpose systems reduce the possibility of results tampering and eliminate fraud. Security is increased by 10–1,000 times, depending on the level of automation.
Professor Jega however urged Nigerians to trust the new process, adding that “it is wrong to assume that results will not be accurately transmitted without a 100 per cent network coverage”.
He said that even in developed countries, “they are sometimes confronted with the challenge of a poor network, but once 70 per cent of results can be transmitted electronically, it is a pass. It is wrong to assume that if you cannot have 100 per cent internet coverage then you cannot do electronic transmission of results, who says so?
“If you can do it in 80 per cent of the polling units, or even 70 per cent, it is still an A and you will have eliminated fraud in 70 per cent or 80 per cent of the polling units in terms of transmission.
“Even in developed countries, there are still areas where you can have challenges with internet connectivity.
“We have to accept that in these modern times, we can use technology to improve the integrity of elections and it is the only way to go,” Mr Jega added.
Professor Jega also urged the National Assembly to review the draft bill that allows the trend of extreme monetisation of politics in Nigeria which allows only the rich to participate in politics.
“There are other things in the draft bill, for example, monetisation of politics, they have increased the threshold. They said to be a president, you can spend up to N2 billion in campaigns, to be a governor you can spend up to N1 billion, to be senator you can spend up to N500 million and this is extreme monetisation of politics.
“These are other provisions that the members of the National Assembly need to consider and drastically reduce otherwise, or they will turn our democracy to plutocracy, which is government for the rich.”
Jega said power hungry leaders in West Africa are threatening the democracy of the region by circumventing the autonomy of the judiciary and electoral bodies.
“Where we have political parties, I am sorry to use my county, Nigeria, where they are dominated by money bags or what we call god fathers who first of all undermine party democracy, determine who the candidate will be outside of the democratic tenet or even the rules or regulations of political parties, and put candidates in the electoral process and bond them with money, mobilization of ethic, religious and other parochial tendencies and also undermine the legal process then no matter how effective or the integrity of the electoral bodies, that elections will not be credible,” Jega said.
He argued that if elections are so important in ensuring quality representations and quality of governance, then everything needs to be done to increase the quality of the preparation and the conducts of elections, and also the quality of the electoral systems that will be used to ensure that citizens actually elect good and quality representatives.
Jega said that in “Many countries in Africa generally and Member States of ECOWAS, there is what can be called a crisis of expectations with regards to the performance of democratic regimes generally and more specifically, the outcomes of electoral politics. All of which impacts negatively on the quality of governance.
“And I think that again when we examine the conduct of elections in the last two decades in ECOWAS Member States, we can see some progress that has been made but obviously there are lots of challenges which remains, and to address these challenges, we need to pay attention to bringing about substantial and substantives reforms of the electoral processes and electoral systems which we use in the West African Sub-region.
“Most specifically, we need to pay attention first to the integrity of the election management body itself. I think this is key because whatever lacks integrity is unlikely to bring outcomes to integrity. It is very important we pay attention to this. But also, we need to ensure that there is a robust legal framework which also has integrity as a framework for the preparations and conducts of elections.
Quite often the legal framework to which electoral bodies conduct elections leaves much to be desired, in terms of the provision which will make for easy, effective, efficient discharge of functions of election bodies as well as provisions which will protect the relative autonomy of the election management body in the discharge of its functions. It is very important that attention has to be paid in the appointment of election management body to not only personal integrity but competence and impartiality, if not neutrality, and these are very important values that can help not only establish an effective and efficient and component body but can also withstand negative pressures either from incumbent regimes, or from political parties, or even from candidates.
“Regrettably, most of our political parties, both incumbent governments and candidates want to win elections either by hook or by crook and if you have a weak election management body or an election body that can be politically factious then there will be challenges of achieving at the core objectives of elections as it relates to democracy and governance.
Jega explained that independence and integrity of the electoral body with a good legal framework that can protect democratic establishments will go a long way to ensure selection of good representatives and the ultimate objectives of having good governance.
He noted that elections are not conducted by an election management body alone as it takes the partnership of a good quality electoral body with political parties, Civil Society Organisations, including the governance process, whether the executive or the legislative arm of government to deliver.
“Unfortunately, in our region and most part of Africa, the electoral management body is blamed for whatever happens and you can improve the competence and the professionalism and the efficiency of electoral management bodies to conduct good elections, but these elections can be undermine by the character and disposition of political parties or the candidates or the incumbent governments that wants to ensure outcomes are beneficial to them.”
Few doubt that the future is digital, not only for elections but also for government–citizen interaction, participation, engagement and campaigning. Thus, the sooner we embrace voting technology, the more value we will extract from it. Pioneering countries are setting a new level of transparency, facilitating engagement and giving their citizens the advanced democratic tools that they demand and deserve.