18 March 2017

Zimbabwe: 'Biometric Voting No Silver Bullet'


The Biometric Voter Registration system was used in the 2013 Kenyan elections where Uhuru Kenyatta became president. Ambassador Simbi Mubako headed a joint election observer mission of Comesa, EAC and IGAD monitoring those elections. Christopher Charamba (CC) spoke to Ambassador Mubako (SM) to understand how the BVR system impacted the elections in Kenya.

CC: Ambassador Mubako, you were part of the joint mission that observed the Kenyan election in 2013 where the Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) was used. Perhaps the starting point would be what exactly is biometric voter registration?

SM: Well, it's a system that is supposed to facilitate the identification of voters. In other words, it captures the biometrics. The system would produce the data about the person instantly without the delays that occur when you do it manually.

So, it is supposed to be a more modern system and it's supposed to also, when it works, eliminate errors. But there are other problems at the same time.

It is important for you to be able to be sure that it works properly. If it doesn't work in one or two places, then your whole system is affected.

So, it is very important to see that before you actually use it, the system is working properly. It has to be tested and tried several times before you can use it in a live election scenario.

CC: What was the experience with the BVR system in Kenya?

SM: In Kenya they introduced this biometric system and we were happy. We thought it would make things easier for everybody, things would go quicker and we would not need to worry much about cheating and so on.

But as it turned out, there were many problems. To start with, in many outlying districts the system didn't work at all. It didn't work partly because there was no electricity. If you have no power, then of course, your system cannot work and if it doesn't work just a little bit, it means the whole system has to be discarded.

So, in the end, the system had to revert to manual voter identification and everything. That was a setback. Then you had groups which lost the election blaming everything on the system, saying that the system itself cannot be trusted.

That, if it happens in the middle of the election, is a major setback. We all felt it would have been better not to have started on the BVR system at all because they hadn't given it enough time to see that it works.

If they had, it would have been quite easy to see that many of their outstations did not have the infrastructure that is required to be able to operate the system. If you don't have electricity you can't use it.

CC: In comparison though, as a system, in terms of rooting out discrepancies in voter information and election fraud, which system would be better, the BVR or the manual system, for the legitimacy of an election?

SM: Well, if you assume that both systems are working perfectly, then the BVR system would be better. Provided though that everything else is in order and perfect. But that is a big proviso in any country.

Even in developed countries I understand that there have been problems and doubts. I understand that France, for example, have discarded it and even in the United States they had problems with it in some states.

So, my advice would be that it is only used after testing it several times to make sure that everything will be in order.

CC: What are some of the key elements needed to ensure that the system works? If it were to be tested, what are some of the things that need to be looked out for? You spoke about electricity being one example.

SM: Well, I'm not a technical man, but the technicians would know what is required.

CC: But from the shortcomings you saw in Kenya, aside from electricity, are there any other deficiencies you can speak of with regards to the BVR system?

SM: Just the understanding. People did not understand the new system, including the workers, the actual monitors. If you have that, you're going to face major problems.

Apart from the actual mechanics of the system, you would have to convince the participants, the parties which take part in that election in advance that the system will work properly.

Because if they meet it for the first time in one outlying constituency and the people who come to monitor the voting cannot understand how it works when it is explained, they will say that it's just cheating us.

All these things would have to be done in advance and the gadgets would have to be tested in different circumstances. In both urban and rural circumstances, for example.

CC: With electoral reforms being discussed in Zimbabwe, the BVR system has been talked about as the new system for registering voters ahead of the 2018 elections. Do you think the country is in a position to adopt and implement this system?

SM: Well, yes, certainly, but it depends on the technicians and ZEC itself to see whether or not the time element would allow them to install and test the system and convince the users that it is a fair system. But, if it works perfectly and so on, then I think it would be a good thing to use it.

All one is saying is that there should be caution. There is no point rushing for if it is going to give you problems during the election itself. Because that can undo the credibility of the whole election in the end just because you are trying to use a modern gadget, whereas it would have been better to go manual and be slower, but convince people.

One cannot say that we should avoid technology. It is certainly useful, but it has got to be technology which works and does the job you want it to do. If it doesn't do so, then it is better not to have the technology.

CC: How secure is the BVR system from hacking, for example?

SM: Well, I don't know much about that. There is a lot of hacking that we are told is happening and the buyer of the system would have to be aware of the security of the system before implementing it. But I can't speak on the security of the system. That is something the technicians would know more about.

CC: One of the issues surrounding the BVR system has been its purchase and the cost. Initially, the UNDP had said it would facilitate the purchase and the financing, then Government came out and said that it would assume the responsibility to purchase the kits. Considering the cost, which I think is reported to be around $50 million, is it feasible for the country at this point to go that route?

SM: Well, the cost effectiveness can only be measured with the success or rather the job you want to be carried out. On the face $50 million is a lot of money and would be quite a prohibitive amount, I would say.

But it depends on where Government would be getting the money. If it is getting it from some sort of donation or grant and it is judged that there is enough time to do what I have said, to install and to test and to convince people and the system works, then fine. But if it is coming from taxpayers' money, then I think $50 million is a lot of money to put into it.

CC: Is it possible to have two systems running concurrently? The BVR and the manual system?

SM: I suppose, again technically I don't know, but I don't see why it shouldn't be possible. But it can't be done at the same station for example. I don't see why you couldn't do the manual in Harare for example and the BVR in Bulawayo. That would probably be possible.

But what cannot be done is to do both at the same station. In Kenya it turned out that it was not possible. We had to abandon the BVR system altogether to go back to the manual.

CC: Why was it not possible to have both systems at the same station?

SM: I don't know how, but that's what we were told. The electoral system had to abandon the BVR. In any case, if you have no electricity, there's no way you can partly use it and partly not use it. Either you use it or you don't.

In some cases, they had actually started using it and either the power went out or the system went down and it had to be abandoned.

CC: Is there a time frame that you could prescribe for all of this to happen? Say the country is to adopt the BVR system, what would you say would be a good timeframe for the tests to be done and the registration of voters to take place ahead of the 2018 elections?

SM: Well, I couldn't give you a specific timeframe. It depends entirely on the ZEC manner of working. For example, if they wanted to work 24 hours you can do it in a shorter period than when you work certain times and so on.

It would be up to them to decide what timeframe they need. But the thing not to do is to take short cuts and not complete the testing. I think that would be suicidal.

In an election, confidence is very important. If you are going to go through an election process which the participants don't accept as free and fair, then you have wasted your time.

It may then even be subversive to peace in the country.

So, it is very important that things are done in time and properly. It's up to the people that are organising the elections to decide when to do it, how to do it and when to finish the process. I wouldn't be able to tell you what kind of timeframe is needed.


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