Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Evaluating Namibia's first election with e-voting

Some of the greatest progress in the adoption and expansion of electronic voting technology has not necessarily been witnessed in first-world countries, but rather in developing nations with relatively young democracies. Namibia achieved a very notable milestone on November 28, as the national election on that day was the first time that direct recording e-voting machines had been used on the African continent. It was also the first time that the entire country—with a total of some 1.2 million ballots cast—voted on a single day, unlike previous elections in Namibia that were spread over two days

E-voting technology is not completely new to Africa. Biometric authentication has already been implemented in countries like Kenya and Ghana, with electronic transmission of results also being utilized in the former. However, the e-voting experience in both of those countries was marred with a number of issues due to poor implementation and improper management. Namibia also experienced its share of problems. 

The deployment and utilization of direct recording e-voting machines was “a big achievement for Namibia and the African continent at large,” according to Namibia Electoral Commission chairwoman Nontemba Tjipueja. The goal was that results would be coming through on the same day following the closing of the polls with the final results being announced within 24 hours. 

However, that was not the case with Electoral Commission Director Paul Isaak being forced to apologize for the delays. While the election was scheduled to end at 9pm local time on a Friday evening, some polling stations remained open until Saturday morning and only 30 percent of the votes had been counted, verified and released by late on the Sunday evening. 

The electronic voting machines used in the Namibian election were sourced from India, a country that has had some success with e-voting itself. All of the voter verification machines used in Namibia were loaded with the entirety of the national voters register, including the necessary biometric and biographical data to authenticate the voters. This was designed to expedite voter verification and shorten the time needed to cast a ballot. 

The cost of running an electronic-based election has also come under scrutiny with some critics saying that the Namibian Electoral Commission gave priority to an Indian business rather than to the voters of Namibia. The devices were meant to be accessible and low cost, but they were sold “as if they were next-generation.” Different figures have been reported as to the final cost, though the consensus appears to be that the 3400 EVMs were purchased for $10 million Namibian, which worked out to US$948,000 at the prevailing exchange rate at the time. That is approximately US$278 per voting machine. 

The makers of the voting machines used, Bharat Electronic Limited from Bangalore, India, have defended their product, saying that it is tamper-proof and it was not the cause for the election result delays. They say that the device cannot be re-programmed and altered after the initial programming during the manufacturing process. 

Based on some of the problems experienced by Namibia, other African nations that are considering e-voting technology -like South Sudan and Nigeria- will need to re-evaluate the direction they wish to take. And while there were problems with delays, South African observers have noted that the Namibian polls were “free and fair.” 

There is still much room for improvement with e-voting in Africa and the Namibian election can serve as an initial example of what went well and what areas need further attention. In particular, it highlights the importance of sourcing a reliable and trustworthy vendor for the e-voting machines, as well as the importance of pre-election audits to test the functionality of the infrastructure. Proper planning and management are absolutely paramount.