Thursday, January 24, 2013

Voter biometric authentication - From Ghana to Venezuela

A Ghanian voter going through the
biometric verification process (Photo:UK in Ghana Flickr)

Although in this blog we promote the adoption of voting technologies as a mean to enhance efficiency and transparency, we understand the fact that having appropriate technology is not enough to guarantee success in election administration. A trouble-free implementation of the technology is paramount to achieve legitimate results. Also, the technology to be used on election day needs to be properly audited and tested, and mechanisms to solve unforeseen problems need to be developed. 

Two drastically different experiences serve to illustrate this point: the Venezuelan presidential elections held in October 7, and the December 7 elections in Ghana. 

In Venezuela, and for the first time in the history of elections, biometric devices were used to authenticate 100% of the voters. The elections ran smoothly, voting ended on time, and the results were published only two hours after polls closed. Opposition leaders conceded the defeat immediately. The very few problems encountered by voters on election day were solved according to a well designed contingency plan.

On the other hand, on December 7, Ghana headed back to the polls for the tenth election since democracy was reestablished in 1992. Although Ghana took an important step to increase electoral efficiency and transparency by automating this part of the electoral cycle, a poor implementation of the biometric system led to important setbacks that forced officials to extend voting for an extra day. According to the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers, 18% of polling stations across Ghana had some kind of problem with the biometric devices. In those regions were problems were reported, 33% of polling stations had difficulties. An inconvenience of this magnitude gave all the right to the opposition parties that lost the elections to complain, and served as basis to support their fraud claims. Political instability followed the elections, and post electoral violence erupted in certain cities. 

A few facts explain the different outcomes that biometric authentication had of in these two countries. In first place, the Venezuelan electoral commission was executing its eleventh automated election. The experienced gathered in eight years alongside Smartmatic, helped enormously. For Ghana, this was the first automation in their short democratic history.

Another determining factor was the fact that the Venezuelan platform was thoroughly revised prior to Election Day. More than 22 audits, tests and pilots were carried out in order to guarantee that the system worked properly. Technicians from all parties involved participated. In Ghana, the biometric platform was not sufficiently revised and that is one of the main arguments used  by opposition parties to explain the fraud allegedly committed. 

Also, in Venezuela, automation covered the entire election, from end-to-end, whereas in Ghana only the authentication relies on technology. Opposition parties claiming fraud in Ghana had little or no records to sustain their allegations. Authorities must ensure to build trust in the platform by allowing everyone to audit and review the system. Ghana and Venezuela are two good examples of what to do, and what not to do when it comes to automation.