Not Yet Electronic Voting

Not Yet Electronic Voting


As the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) gears up for the  Saturday off-cycle elections in Bayelsa, Imo and Kogi states the role of technology  in the polls will be a focus of  attention beyond the three states. This is because the observers and critics of the electoral body would be watching if it could improve on its performance. All  eyes will again be on INEC’s chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, as they say.

It is somewhat reassuring  that INEC has assured that there would be no technical glitches in its operations in the three states. Not a few commentators have reckoned  that the elections of governors in the states would be a litmus test on the performance of INEC, including the effective use of technology.

So INEC has again raised the bar for itself and the expectations would remain high  in the process.

Instead of the demonisation of INEC  the emergent issues from the commission’s assurance should be constructively critiqued.

The role  of technology has become pivotal in Nigerian elections especially after election of President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. To start with, the Buhari campaign strategy was considered a leap compared to  the more conventional mode of electioneering. The campaigns were vigorous in the social media and  his messages were spread more on handsets than on  bill boards and posters. And remarkably, INEC employed biometric voting cards  in the bid to bolster the integrity of the voting process. The Permanent Voters Card (PVC) was rated as a revolutionary thing to happen to the electoral process in many informed quarters.  Little surprise, therefore, that  35 days to the end of his tenure Buhari looked backed at his success at the 2015 poll and

said “God, through technology and PVC, made me President.” The former President spoke  in an exceptionally grateful tone as he  played host (for the last time in Aso Rock) to well-wishers who paid him Sallah homage.

Given the Buhari story, would you blame any politician or pundit who sees the application of sophisticated technology as the panacea to all the problems of election?   

Politicians and their strategists as well as some civil society organisations  are making the electorate develop  a deep faith the in the role of technology in electoral efficiency. The corollary to that trend should the increased efforts on the part of INEC to make clarifications on exactly what role technology is  playing in the electoral process  at any point in time. The specific role shouldn’t be understated and by no means should it be exaggerated. Hopes should not be raised unduly. 

Due lessons should be learnt from the experiences of liberal democracies around the world. The limits of technology and the risks involved in its use should be made explicit in the discussions of problems of elections. This is a  proposition that should not be glibly dismissed as the thinking  of a 21st Century  Luddite.

Caution is the Word.

In 2005, Germany experimented with electronic voting. Two voters contested the process at the German Constitutional Court. The court upheld the  following argument: “All essential steps of an election are subject to the possibility of public scrutiny unless other constitutional interests justify an exception . . . The use of voting machines which electronically record the voters’ votes and electronically ascertain the election result only meets the constitutional requirements if the essential steps of the voting and of the ascertainment of the result can be examined reliably and without any specialist knowledge of the subject . . . The very wide-reaching effect of possible errors of the voting machines or of deliberate electoral fraud make special precautions necessary in order to safeguard the principle of the public nature of elections”

There is the ample  evidence that the   evolution of the German electoral process continues because 17 years  after that court ruling. More than 23 million online voters participated  in the social election  to elect council members to  supervise the running  health and pension schemes. Apart from  the digital voters the traditional postal voting was also permitted in the poll which took place on June 12 this year.

This trend made some analysts to arrive at the following conclusion: “We argue that precisely (the) contrast between the recently strongly increasing number of postal voters, the new technological possibilities available, and the great willingness of the German population to vote online, on the one hand, and the absence of any concrete plans regarding e-voting in political elections on the part of politicians on the other hand, make Germany an interesting case for our analysis.” 

In the light of the foregoing, the clarification that INEC should be  making continuously is  in many respects. For instance, there is relatively a greater clarity about the essence of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) than the INEC Result Viewing (IReV) portal. Really, INEC’s  promise of IReV is that of taking the  picture of the polling unit results and uploading them in the IReV portal  in the bid to make the process more transparent. But INEC’s critics have accused the commission of not fulfilling its promise of  “transmitting in real time” the results of the elections. Now, in the present context of INEC’s operations, “transmitting” and “uploading” of results seem to mean quite different things.

Meanwhile,  the flagellation of INEC by those who insist that it failed to “transmit” results continues. It would be a surprise if INEC is not expected to “transmit real time” the results of the governorship elections Bayelsa, Imo and Kogi states.

However, the energy expended on making a fetish of transmission of results  should be better devoted on the nitty-gritty of the election  – what will actually take place at  the polling unit.

The simple fact is that it is not yet electronic voting in Nigeria. Yet, given the way pundits make magisterial pronouncements  on the work of INEC regarding the deployment of technology  you would think that voting in Nigeria is completely electronic.

That would be a mistaken view of the process.

The fundamental thing is the act of the voter thumb-printing the ballot paper in the polling booth. This balloting that takes place after the BVAS must have captured the biometrics of the voter is  the strongest  proof of the election. BVAS only  tells you who is the  authentic voter. 

Therefore, political parties and candidates ought to pay a greater attention to having loyal polling agents on ground  at the polling unit to sign the result sheets rather hankering for  “real-time transmission” of results in the social media. The integrity of the result sheets may prove to be more important than some other factors  for a candidate in some circumstances. Operational efficiency of INEC in ensuring that voting materials arrive at the polling units as scheduled on the election date are very crucial aspects of the process. So also is ensuring that eligible voters secure their PVCs early enough.
Some aspects of the electoral process  have  been successfully aided by computer, but not all. It is important to disaggregate the voting process to know the limit of application of technology at this level of Nigeria’s  development. Four  important steps come to mind in this respect. First, the choice is made by the voter by composing the ballot. Secondly, the ballot is submitted into the box. Thirdly, the submitted ballots are recorded in the result sheets. And fourthly, the results are tabulated. At  present in Nigeria, BVAS has been acknowledged  to be helpful in record  keeping particularly to authenticate the voter while the technology of  IReV has been useful in recording and tabulation. But the first step, the composition of the ballot which is the real  act of choice making by the voter,  is not yet computer-aided. It involves neither  the Internet nor scanning.  That’s  why voting in Nigeria cannot be said to be electronic in a fundamental sense.

Besides, a greater premium should be placed on cyber security as any digital system could be vulnerable. The mystification of technology is not helpful given the peculiarities of the Nigerian system. The techno-ethical anxiety that envelopes the development of the Artificial Intelligence should temper the faith in the efficacy of technology in solving all the problems of election.

Credible elections would ultimately be a product of a liberal democratic culture. The application of technology alone will not  develop such a culture in which elections would be conducted credibly  and results accepted in a festival of democracy.

In philosophical terms, it may not be out of place to imagine that technology cannot replace completely the human factor in the administration  of elections. 

Justice for  Ajaero

The assault on the president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Joe Ajaero, in Owerri last week is unacceptable.

Whatever the dispute might be such a treatment of a fellow human being should not be permitted in any civilised setting.

The issue here  is the dignity of the human person which is a fundamental human right guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution.

So no person with an iota of humanity in him or her would justify this barbaric act on any ground.

The NLC’s position  is that Comrade Ajaero was in Owerri to lead a  workers’ protest against the Imo state government over poor working conditions. In a counter-position, the Imo state government has accused Ajaero of partisan involvement in the politics of the state. The state government says  it has fully paid workers their wages.

To be sure, a lot of questions could be raised with  Ajaero’s  mission to a Owerri. Organising a workers’ protest a few days to a crucial election in a state  is not the wisest step to take by a labour leader in the circumstance. Ajaero is from Imo state. Worse still,  the reported security problems in Imo state are well known. The Labour Party, a creature of NLC, is presenting a candidate to contest the election. For clarity, Ajaero’s support for the Labour Party is legitimate. He has not violated any law by supporting the candidate of  a party formed by NLC. But that fact alone should make it clear to him that partisan motives would easily  be read to any labour action at the eve of a governorship election in the state.  This should put him naturally in an awkward  position. So a greater tact should have been deployed.

If  Ajaero has probably  committed a tactical  error by his ill-fated mission to Owerri, those who attacked him have certainly  committed a crime. Ajaero’s error could be organisationally corrected by the NLC; but his criminal attackers should be arrested and prosecuted and there must be restitution.

The police failed to protect Ajaero against the aggressors. The police should not  fail to bring the perpetrators of the assault on  Ajaero to book.

The Imo state government should not rationalise, let alone, justify this brutal act. The state government should instead resolve whatever disputes it has with labour using the machinery of industrial relations.

The federal government should move quickly to engage the NLC and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in discussions  to avert their threatened nation-wide strike against next Tuesday  to protest the assault on Ajaero. It is a good thing  that labour has acknowledged that a  highly responsive call from the National Security Adviser (NSA), Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, prevented the situation  from getting worse in Owerri on that day.

On its part,  labour should temper its understandable anger and  reconsider its position on the strike and opt for other less disruptive ways of seeking redress on this unfortunate  matter.

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