Dirty Hands: Why Biometric Voting Fails In Africa – And It Doesn’t Matter In The End

At least 25 countries in Africa have tried a biometric or electronic component in their voting systems. Many have failed spectacularly.

By Christine Mungai

NIGERIA is awaiting the release of official results of votes cast on Saturday, with incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan facing a tough challenge from his closest rival, former ruler dictator Muhammadu Buhari.

It’s been marred by technical problems with electronic fingerprint readers, which are intended to verify voters’ identities before being allowed to cast their ballot.

Not even Jonathan was spared – the card reader failed to recognise his identity and he had to wait nearly 50 minutes before he was able to vote.

Voting for legislative elections in Burundi. More established democracies are actually moving away from electronic voting systems, because of their vulnerability to glitches and manipulation. (Photo: Flickr/ Brice Blondel)
Voting for legislative elections in Burundi. More established democracies are actually moving away from electronic voting systems, because of their vulnerability to glitches and manipulation. (Photo: Flickr/ Brice Blondel)

There were several reports of similar problems in the biometric voter systems from around the country, although Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) played it down; according to the INEC chairman Attahiru Jega, just 0.25% of readers had malfunctioned.

In any case, the election had to be extended for a second day Sunday as so many voters had failed to cast their votes with the verification delays.

It’s a familiar scenario in present-day African elections. At least 25 countries in Africa have tried an electronic component of one kind of another in their voting systems, including Ghana, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d’Ivoire. Many have failed spectacularly.

In Ghana’s last election in December 2012, biometric kits failed in many parts of the country, forcing voting to be extended to the second day.

In Kenya, there were malfunctions in both the biometric kits and, more extensively, in the electronic tallying system forcing a manual tallying of votes; opposition leaders in both countries cried foul and challenged the results in court – and, predictably, lost.

The semi-autonomous region of Somaliland used a biometric register of voters in its presidential elections in 2010, but the final register was so contested that it was abandoned in subsequent local council elections.

Biometric systems are intended to ensure a clean register, eliminating “ghost” voters and multiple voting, and so deliver a credible election and reduce the likelihood of violence.

Some of the reasons they fail are straightforward – in Kenya, for example, many of the classrooms used as polling stations lacked electricity, and laptops deployed as part of the biometric kits ran out of battery power just an hour after polling began.

Somaliland voter displays his voters card. (Photo: Flickr/ Teresa Krug).
Somaliland voter displays his voters card. (Photo: Flickr/ Teresa Krug).

Those voters’  hands!

But the Nigerian election gives us another clue. According to reports, in some polling stations, voters were asked to wash their hands before coming forward to be verified, election officials had to explain that the biometric kits find it much easier to read the fingerprints of voters when their hands are clean.

For many rural Africans, they have to dig their garden or cook lunch for the children before coming out to vote. Even in the cities, chances are high that breakfast that morning was prepared on a charcoal or firewood stove.

So it follows that hands will be dirty or oily as they join the queue – and the whole furore of failed kits could be as simple as that. And in that sense, it is actually good that voters come to the polling station with oily hands – it’s proof they are honest hardworking folk.

But other times the problem is more systemic, and complicated.

In the first place, several African countries have moved to make their electoral bodies technically free from political interference; South Africa, Lesotho, DR Congo, Mali Kenya and Nigeria all have the word “Independent” in the names of their electoral commissions.

But in a way, that “independence” ensures freedom from rigorous scrutiny, and so can act as a cover for corruption perpetrated by the electoral commission itself. It’s especially acute when biometric systems are involved, because they cost so much per voter.

In established democracies, elections cost an average of $1 to $3 per head, says this article by journalist Michaela Wrong. But introducing biometrics into the system – coupled with the notoriously poor infrastructure in much of Africa – sends the bill skyrocketing.

In Kenya’s 2013 election, with a final bill of over $200 million, the polls cost $20 per voter, and in Cote d’Ivoire, the last election was $44 per voter.

In the DR Congo, the elections of 2011 cost $360 million, with $58 million of that spent on biometrics.

Ghana, a smaller country with better infrastructure than DR Congo, spent $124 million on its 2012 elections, but a comparatively bigger chunk went to the biometric kits: $76 million.

Patronage and corruption

With so much money at stake, it is not a wonder that the electoral body itself becomes fertile ground for patronage and corruption.

Corruption allegations against top officials of Kenya’s electoral body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, are a good example of this. Top officials of the IEBC have been implicated in a bribery scandal dubbed “Chickengate” where British suppliers paid them bribes (that they called “chicken”) worth $541,000 to secure printing contracts in Kenya.

And the process of acquiring the biometric kits was “so incompetently handled that one must assume willful negligence”, says this article on the fiasco. Less than six months to the election, the procurement process hadn’t even started yet, mostly as a result of political infighting and a clash of interests among members of the IEBC.

In the end, the procurement was taken over by the government, and the narrow time frame meant that they ended up costing $86 million to deliver, even if their real cost was $34 million.

Clearly then, in the African context, the biometric revolution is solving the wrong problem.

First, the most vulnerable point in the electoral process is tallying or collating, because this is where it is easy to fiddle with results at a low cost to the perpetrator – getting 300 people to vote twice or thrice requires mobilizing and paying them all, but adding an extra 300 votes to a final tally requires just the stroke of a pen, and bribing only one person: the reporting officer.

Voting in Kenya’s 2013 election; long queues at Loresho Primary School Nairobi. (Photo: Flickr/ ILRI – Susan MacMillan).
Voting in Kenya’s 2013 election; long queues at Loresho Primary School Nairobi. (Photo: Flickr/ ILRI – Susan MacMillan).

Mathematical tricks

It’s the reason why most electoral violence breaks out when results take a long time to announce, because it is assumed that the delay is to allow for some mathematical tricks.

A common tactic of incumbents is to hold on to results from areas where they have strong support as they wait to see how the count is unfolding, so that they can know how much to inflate the results from their own strongholds.

In Nigeria for example, results Monday showed that polling centers in the opposition-stronghold north, which has been plagued by insecurity issues, were sending in their results thick and fast, while the peaceful south and south-east where Jonathan enjoys support were inexplicably taking a long time to announce.

Critics argue against the assumption that electronic systems are a “silver bullet” to the problems that plague elections. Rightly so; use of fancy card readers cannot avert the capture of entire polling stations by partisan interests, or prevent intimidation, vote buying, abuse of state resources or endemic political violence.

What’s particularly illuminating is that more mature democracies are moving away from electronic voting systems, mainly because of their vulnerability to glitches, and their opacity – the inability to conclusively verify that electronic votes or the software on machines have not been manipulated.

The broader, systemic problem, however is that in much of Africa, the whole political system is perceived as a winner-takes-all route to quick riches, hence the viciously cutthroat nature of elections.

In such a toxic, polarized environment, even if all the biometric readers failed, you would still be assured of a winner.

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