Why current electronic poll systems in Kenya are ineffective

The current highly polarised debate on whether to have manual backup for the IEBC’s electronic election management systems is a red herring in my view.

The real issue should be whether the multibillion shilling IEBC electronic systems as currently deployed are up to the task and are value for money.

My conclusion is that the current electronic systems are just cosmetic, redundant and do not in any way help avert the election theft they are supposed to do. The systems are just designed to catch the small fish not the real election thieves.

It’s indeed an undeniable fact that electronic biometric devices or systems such as fingerprint readers, retinal eye scanners and hand geometry readers are fool proof ways of identifying an individual because unlike keys or cards which can be transferred to different people, biometric readers use human features like fingerprint that cannot be transferred to a third party.

There is just no way to fake it or impersonate somebody – a person must be physically present at the point of identification in order to gain access to a restricted object. Such systems only work where human intervention or discretion is eliminated unlike in our electoral system which is by and large manual.

As you may be aware, IEBC has three electronic systems which relate to the management of elections in Kenya – Biometric Voter Registration (BVR), Electronic Voter Identification (EVID) and the Result Transmission and Presentation System (RTS). The first two use biometric technology.

BVR and EVID which both deploy biometric technology have been falsely touted as the miracle cure to the age-old problem of election rigging in Kenya. However, a deeper analysis of the systems exposes them as functionally useless and a waste of public resources because they hardly prevent rigging.

For starters, the costly BVR system used for registering voters comprises a laptop, a finger print scanner and a camera only catches the lone wolf trying to register more than once.

While it’s important to avert double registration, it’s a statistically insignificant problem and there are much cheaper ways of doing that. First, no database can allow one ID number to be used for more than one registration. Secondly, it’s highly unlikely that the National Registration Bureau has issued anyone individual with two different ID numbers.

Double registration is not where elections are stolen especially in Kenya. Elections are stolen by compromised election officials who manipulate voter statistics to allow for fiddling of results.

For example, at the end of each voter registration exercise, IEBC releases voter statistics for polling stations, wards, constituencies, counties and the national total respectively.
However, we hardly ever have the opportunity to interrogate the accuracy of these statistics and that’s where the problem lies. What if instead of the 675 voters we are told are in a polling station, there are actually only 450?
What if some crooked character at IEBC has inflated the numbers to allow for vote stuffing on the Election Day? How sure can be that there are 14 million and something voters as announced by IEBC and not only 11 million?

Unless political parties and other interested persons can audit and verify for themselves the voter statistics released by IEBC, so far the BVR system has done very little in improving the accuracy and integrity of the voters’ register.

The second electronic system used by IEBC is the EVID. This is how it works. Some time before the Election Day, data from the BVR machines are transferred to EVID. When you appear to vote, the device compares your fingerprint or any other biometric data in the database to confirm if you are the one registered.

In theory, the EVIDs ensure that only those duly registered are allowed to vote. But does it really do that? You can actually still vote even if you are not registered. All you need is for the polling official to give you a ballot paper.

You see, in real biometric access control systems, the human role in authentication and authorization of an individual to access a restricted service or area is removed. The machine or device just compares your biometric data to that which is already stored in the database and automatically decides whether you should access the service.

The system then automatically allows you access by electronically causing the door to open, for example. No security guard to manually open the door for you.

However, in the IEBC’s system, the EVID is just a decoration. All the authorization to vote is done by a human being (polling official) who issues you with the ballot paper. He or she may choose to ignore the EVID.

This is how it happens. When you enter the polling room, you produce your ID card and a polling clerk cross checks from a physical register if you are registered. If yes, you then go through the EVID. If you are positively identified, a polling clerk issues you with the ballot paper. That’s a real problem.

There is no way the device controls how many ballot papers the clerk gives you, neither does it stop a crooked clerk from issuing the ballot paper to an unauthorized person. I know of an incident in Uhuru Gardens Primary School polling station where an acquaintance of mine was given five ballot papers for the presidential election. Luckily he refused to take the extra ones.

The EVID would only be useful if it is connected to an electronic ballot dispenser which would automatically then release a ballot paper once the EVID positively identified the voter.

The other way is to then configure the EVID to also act as attendance register so that it counts and records the number of people who have voted and then (automatically) transmit the same info to a national tallying centre.

As presently designed, there is no way of auditing and reconciling the figures on the EVID, the number of ballots issued and the total votes cast. Only 450 people may go through the EVID but we end up with 600 votes in the ballot box.

Therefore, the current debate should focus on whether the IEBC’s electronic systems are actually useful in managing and delivering a free and fair election.

(Okinyi regularly comments on political matters)

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