Malawi Pushes New Biometric Voter Registration, Despite Doubts


Malawi has always relied on paper registration for voters, but electoral authorities say that hasn't worked so well.

"We used to have a lot of problems in the past" with the passports and driver's licenses used for registration "because photographs may fall off" or names may get misspelled, said Yahya Mmadi, a member of the Malawi Electoral Commission.

But the southeast African country's recently unveiled biometric system, being put in place before the 2019 general elections, "will be 100 percent correct," he said. It relies on unique markers such as fingerprints.

The new system has another advantage, according to Mmadi: It is faster, so people will spend less time on registration than when passports and driver's licenses had to be verified and checked.

The commission wants to see the national ID card — which uses biometric data and is issued by the National Registration Bureau (NRB) — as the only acceptable document for voter registration.

There's one problem: Only about 9 million of 16 million Malawians have registered for the national ID card.

Plan of action

Mmadi said the electoral commission is working on that.

"What is going to happen is that we will go out with members of NRB to the registration centers," he said. "Those without registration cards will actually be advised to go and get registered with the NRB."

Some voting rights groups are concerned about the change. Steve Duwa, chairman of the Malawi National Electoral Support Network, said he expected a legal challenge to the new system.

"The law, as it stands now, allows different forms of identification apart from the national ID," Duwa said. The electoral commission promotes biometric voter registration "as easier to implement and therefore would love as much as possible for the prospective voters to only use the national ID. But the question is: What will happen to the law?"

The commission already has asked the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to amend the law so that the national ID will be the only document used to identify eligible voters.

Malawi is expected to start the voter registration campaign next month.

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