• Opinion
  • November 6, 2018
  • 7 minutes
  • 0

Trust, not tech, is what elections in developing countries need most

Opinion: Spending millions on tech is wasteful if underlying issues aren't tackled

This opinion piece was written by Gabrielle Beran, who works on developing the capacity of electoral management bodies.


From Afghanistan to Nigeria, Kenya to Belize, ever-growing sums of money are being spent on technology by electoral authorities and international donors to improve elections.

Part of the rationale for using election technology is to help manage the trust deficit around elections in many countries. But governments need to realise that only good management — not tech wizardry — can truly create trust among voters.

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As in all areas of modern governance, technology is being hailed as the panacea for shortcomings in election management.

Private companies are making millions from lucrative contracts with electoral management bodies for the supply of tech such as biometric registration machines, electronic voting machines and blockchains for results storage. The company supplying the voter identification systems for the re-run of the Kenya 2017 presidential elections, for example, charged approximately £18.5 million.

Often, the justification for hauling in new technology is that it’s what a voting population, mistrustful of election authorities, want. Most recently, in Afghanistan, the Independent Electoral Commission shipped in biometric voter machines 17 days before the October election in order to appease candidates. With such little time and training available, too many errors occurred to call the exercise a success.

The introduction of a biometric voters’ roll in Zimbabwe this year (funded by UNDP and other international actors) was intended to eliminate the problem of fraud, and thus speed up the announcement of the final results. But the Electoral Commission delayed its announcement for several days — during which time at least three civilians were killed.

Other developing states, such as Nigeria, India and Sierra Leone, boast that technology has reduced the amount of electoral fraud and increased voter participation. Opponents cite the disproportionate cost and disenfranchisement of some voters by the technology itself.

Tech can’t come first

What is being missed in these arguments is that technology cannot create trust on its own. It’s electoral management bodies which must cultivate it for any election to be successful  — with or without technology’s involvement.

Fundamental trust in the electoral management apparatus can be increased through a strong commitment to fostering transparency, inclusion and independence. While legislative change may be beyond the  capacity of an electoral authority, these principles can be encouraged by internal policy and regulation.

Simple and relatively low-cost steps can increase the election management body’s transparency to the people it serves. Actions such as public advertisement of vacant positions, tender of contracts, publication of accounts and limited terms for senior officials all contribute to the body’s reputation.

Using counting mechanisms that are open, at least to party scrutineers, and public displays of voting protocol — like showing empty ballot boxes to the first voters of the day, and sealing them in the presence of the last voters — can help as well.

No technology will “fix” elections if voters don’t understand the process and can’t access the electoral system

Inclusion is an area that requires constant improvement throughout the democratic world. In particular, electoral authorities can improve their performance by implementing policies that enable more people from marginalised groups to exercise their rights to vote.

These groups will differ from country to country, but all need to be fully included in the voting process. This can be done most effectively by channelling resources into voter education campaigns and the accessibility of voting places. With clear and wide-reaching instruction, election management bodies can limit uncertainty and prejudice in the voting process.

And by maintaining true accessibility — for example, by having many polling stations, in convenient locations, with ramps and other procedures for those with impediments — an electoral management body can ensure that they are best serving their communities. No technology will “fix” elections if voters don’t understand the process and can’t access the electoral system in the first place.

Electoral management bodies sit at an unusual point of contact between the government and the people. While some are government departments, even those that are separate bodies rely on the government for funding to fulfil their mandate. So remaining independent, and convincing the electorate of their independence, will always be a challenge.

However, this burden can be eased by maintaining clear rules about funding from donor institutions, appointing appropriate employees — people who are respected, and not openly politically partisan —  and ensuring that the body and its impartiality has the protection of the law — ideally the Constitution.

Before electoral authorities and international donors look to technology to solve election problems, they should address the reasons for voters’ scepticism about the current system.

Technology can increase trust in the electoral system, but it cannot create it if the people do not have faith that the electoral management body is truly serving them. Once the trust deficit is properly addressed, technology will be much more successful at creating even better, safer elections. — Gabrielle Beran

(Picture credit: Flickr/Al Jazeera English)

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