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Solutions or Problems?-The Increasing Role of Technology in African Elections

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Malians vote at a polling station in the Ecole de la République in Bamako, Mali, during the presidential election. Photo courtesy of the United Nations via Flickr Commons. 

It has been a few decades now since many African countries adopted multi-party democratic systems of governance. Some progress has been made while challenges remain, but there is evidence to show that the majority of Africa's population prefer the democratic system of governance to other types of governance. Elections, considered the 'heartbeat' of democracies, have increasingly become popular across the continent, with many African countries now holding regular elections. In the year 2015, at least 22 African countries held presidential, legislative and or local level elections. This also included two referendums in Rwanda and the Republic of Congo. In 2016, the number was even higher, with not less than 26 countries in Africa going through one form of election or the other. While the increasing acceptance of regular democratic elections maybe positive for Africa's democratization, it is the quality of these elections that have been of concern to many. Elections in Africa continue to be plagued by a range of challenges, such as inaccurate voter registers, voter identification problems, mistrust between political parties and of Election Management Bodies (EMBs), rejection of electoral results and outcomes, election-related violence, unequal playing field for political actors, weak election management bodies, and high political tension. Some of these challenges affect the overall credibility of elections and the acceptability of their outcomes.While some of these challenges to elections are not peculiar to African countries, it has been established that the degree of threats to electoral integrity are more severe in Africa compared to the rest of the world. However, credible elections are so fundamental to Africa's democratization processes, as indeed they are anywhere. In the words of former UN Secretary-General Mr. Kofi Annan, "democracies without credible elections are no democracies at all.... they cannot provide societies with the feedback loops and resilience that characterise genuine democracy".

Technology to the Rescue?

Given the litany of challenges confronting elections on the continent, African countries continue to search for solutions in hopes of overcoming them, and technology seems to have offered some ray of hope. Increasingly, many African countries are relying on, and applying, technological solutions in the administration and management of elections. From voter and or candidate registration processes to transmission and declaration of election results, technology is playing greater roles and transforming the management of elections in many African elections. In particular, the use of biometric technology, which uses individuals' unique physical or behavioral characteristics to verify and identify them, has become very popular in African elections, and has been applied in the registration, authentication, and identifications of voters. Several African countries now have biometric registers, and the continent is leading the way in this regard. More than 25 Sub-Saharan African countries have used biometric technology in elections, despite the continent being behind in the technological revolution. Some of these countries include the Democratic Republic of Congo which used biometric technology to register voters in the year 2005, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Senegal Guniea, Benin, Comors, Burkina Faso, and Gabon, among several others. Some of these countries have employed the technology across multiple elections. And countries such as Uganda, Ghana and Kenya have had, or attempted to experiment with electronic transmission of results from polling units to national databases.

The application of technology enhances election administration and provides benefits, such as an improvement in voter services, a guarantee of the principle of 'one man, one vote', enhanced election dispute adjudication (for instance through voting reports and audits), a reduction in fraudulent behaviour (such as multiple voting and voting by unqualified persons), and overall increased transparency in elections.

On the other hand, there are some challenges with the use of technology in elections. These include huge costs associated with their deployment, which can be burdensome to African countries that continue to grapple with diverse socio-economic challenges. In 2012 when Ghana, for the first time, used biometric technology to register and verify voters, the elections cost an estimated US$267 million for a voter population of 14.2 million, thus bringing the cost per voter to US$19 dollars. In the previous election of 2008 when no biometric technology was employed, the election cost Ghana about US$138 million  for a voter population of 11 million, with cost per voter coming to about US$12.50 dollars. Kenya's annulled August 2017, which integrated technology across the different phases of the electoral cycle reportedly cost some US$499 million  for a voter population of 19.6 million, bringing cost per voter to about US$25.50 dollars. That election has been said to be one of the most expensive in the world. Depending on what direction a country chooses to go in with regards to future elections, the cost of technology in elections may reduce over time, if technological solutions are maintained and or upgraded (for instance where a country keeps and uses a previous biometric register for future elections). On the other hand, the costs could be higher if such solutions are ditched for newer ones, (in instances where such applications become outdated), particularly since technology gets constantly re-invented.

But perhaps there are other drawbacks. Besides huge costs technology-based elections may run higher risks of uncertain performance failures during actual implementation, which may be even more problematic. This can potentially destabilize countries if such situations are not well-managed. During the 2012 elections of Ghana, voting in some parts of the country was forced to enter a second day due to failure of some biometric voter verification devices which caused delays at some polling stations. Similar challenges contributed to the extension of voting into a second day in Nigeria's 2015 elections, although not widespread. Again, during the 2016 Ghana general elections, the Electoral Commission had to abandon electronic transmission of results and resort to manual collation, with the Commission explaining that its electronic systems may have been compromised. In the process, there was a long period (several hours) of silence on the part of the Commission, which had initially been providing periodic updates on the elections. This created some anxiety among sections of the public. In Kenya, the 2013 general elections were expected to benefit from the introduction of technology, but witnessed various challenges including technology failure, which contributed to a disputed outcome. Some of those challenges included laptop batteries running dead at some polling unit locations (which was severe for polling units without alternative sources of power), crashing biometric kits, and failed electronic results transmission systems.

But perhaps it is the August 8, 2017 Kenyan election and its outcomes which invite more introspection on the place of technology in elections on the continent. Nearly half a billion dollars was pumped into that election which involved extensive integration of technology. However, the problems that arose particularly in relation to the electronic transmission of the election results became the center of a subsequent election dispute in court. This contributed to the eventual nullification of the election and consequently a re-run of the polls. Countries such as Kenya and Ghana will therefore need to relook the role of technology in election management.

Many African countries still lack the needed infrastructure to support widespread deployment of technology in elections. Amidst such challenges, it is important for such countries to examine how they can best utilize technology for election purposes. Adequate preparations, including sufficient training for staff and testing, and piloting of technological solutions should be of high priority. These can reduce the extent of failure although they still cannot guarantee that technology will deliver perfectly in the end. In that regard, it is equally important for countries to consider credible contingency plans and fallback mechanisms which can be relied on in the event of technology failure, without compromising the integrity of elections, like Ghana did in its 2016 elections. Electoral laws must also be crafted to establish a fine balance between the role of technology, and credible back-up and manual plans. These are particularly important given the sensitive nature of elections, and the potential for poorly-managed electoral developments to degenerate into violence. Technology will continue to transform elections across Africa. However, its attendant challenges must be anticipated and addressed ahead of time if African countries want to reap the benefits associated with it, in the management of elections.

Rhoda Osei-Afful is a Research Officer for The Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana), a member of the Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding. She was also a former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar in Spring 2014. 

About the Author

Rhoda Osei-Afful

Former Southern Voices African Research Scholar;
Research Officer, Ghana Center for Democratic Development

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more