The Biometric Voters Roll will not be a panacea to Zimbabwe’s election problems


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The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced that it would roll out Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) in preparation of the 2018 election. It is, however, important that we understand what BVR can and cannot do. On its own BVR is not a panacea to the problems encountered in previous elections in Zimbabwe resulting from a defective roll but can play a role in ensuring the transparency of the electoral process. Other processes and factors should be in place in order to complement the role of BVR in elections in Zimbabwe.

The starting point towards any credible election is voter registration. An election that is credible must prevent voters from voting more than once and unregistered voters from voting. The use of biometrics for automatic de-duplication, verification and authentication represents the best solution in ensuring election with highest integrity.

In Zimbabwe voter registration is conducted on a continuous basis and the register is kept and maintained by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. It’s provided for in the Electoral Act [Chapter 2:13]. The Act provides for registration, transfer, objections and deletions from the voters’ roll. Currently the system Zimbabwe Electoral Commission employs a paper based registration process and verification of data is mostly manual. This is costly as a new register has to be prepared and updated for each election. Verification of data is difficult and is open to manipulation. Deceased people remain on the voters’ register. A previous research by the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) indicated that the voters’ roll had hundreds of deceased people, duplicated names, under-aged persons and about 41 percent of the registered voters were no longer residing at the address in the voters roll. During the previous elections there were allegations of voters’ slips being used to vote whose origin could not be ascertained.

From the foregoing it is obvious that the current voter registration system in Zimbabwe is flawed and does not inspire confidence in the electoral process. The system is costly and time consuming. Data captured in the field in paper form is brought to a central place for data entry and this leads to a number of errors at data entry level. It also means that duplications on the roll are many. It does not take into account issues of credibility and transparency of the process.

The discourse has now moved to how we can make the register more transparent and credible. The majority of stakeholders in Zimbabwe support the implementation of continuous voter registration using biometric technology in order to have a voters’ register which is inclusive, comprehensive, accurate, accessible and transparent. The system that is required is one that is cost effective but also combining technology that will deal with issues of duplication and minimize errors. It has to be credible and inspire confidence in the voter registration exercise.

Now that the Commission has made a commitment to use BVR a number of processes and considerations have to be in place before it can be rolled out. In finding a new solution priority should be accorded to enhancing the integrity of the register using biometrics technology and this technology has to be sustainable and owned by Zimbabweans. A number of issues should guide the Commission in moving forward with biometrics from a sustainability and ownership perceptive.

Financial sustainability of the system has to be considered in coming up with the desired system. Reality is that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission does not have continuous source of funding. Funding is ad hoc and only increases in an election year and is never sufficient. This affects operating cost of any registration system. Unlike the passport system that can generate its own funds, voter registration does not and as such would require extensive funding from the central government and cooperating partners. Resources will be required for procurement of the system, its operation and maintenance. Who meets the cost? Can the cost be maintained for sustainability? BVR equipment and software are expensive and as such massive investment will be required by the Commission that is reeling from under funding. The Commission should avoid vendor locked systems as this will increase the cost of running and maintaining the system. The system should be locally owned, designed and operated. This does not preclude outsourcing for design but it should be done in such a way that it can be sustained over a long period of time.

Stakeholder buy in is essential in deciding the methodology as well as the technology to use during the voter registration exercise. The Commission should be encouraged to involve stakeholders in the implementation of the BVR. Political parties, CSOs and other interested stakeholders should be consulted and involved in the decision on what system to go with. It should be noted that the current mistrust and lack of confidence in the current registration is a result of a process that was shrouded in secrecy, was not open and transparent. The Commission has an opportunity to allay fears of registration manipulation in this early stages of deciding on whether to go with BVR or not. A platform should be put in place to ensure dialogue and constant consultation and updates during the implementation of the BVR.

Success of BVR in other countries in the region has been attributed to increased stakeholder engagement in rolling it out. The success of the voter registration exercise in Zambia, for example, has been attributed to national ownership and commitment by the Electoral Commission of Zambia. The process was inclusive and transparent with stakeholders being consulted and informed on a regular basis. Coordinated support through the basket fund managed by UNDP also provided funding for the voter registration exercise as well as technical assistance for the roll out of the BVR. There was sufficient resource mobilization, fund management and full support from stakeholders hence its successful roll out.

ZEC has to take into account human capacity building. It is essential to design a system that falls within the skills set of the country. Almost all of Africa is buying skills, skills transfer is lost from election to election hence skills retention should be made a focus area. We have seen commissions elsewhere acquiring state of the art equipment that at times end up idle because of lack of skills to operate and run the equipment. At every stage of the design of the system local expects should be involved, this will ensure sustainability and ownership of use of technology. At all costs the Commission should avoid a system that locks them to a vendor, source codes and other user guides should be developed and shared with local experts who will continue to maintain and update the system.

Whilst the BVR system to be introduced by the Commission has been successful elsewhere in the region there is need to sustain it. Continued national commitment to permanent voter registration is required. Sufficient staff to manage the permanent voter registration will be essential. This will entail having an IT department with specialized ICT expertise. Technology has lifespan and continues to evolve and hence there is need for sufficient revenue budget and human capacity to maintain the system.

The new solution that the ZEC requires should, at most, have the following features. Immediate issuance of voter card: the voter should be issued with his/her voters card immediately after registration. Both the voters card and the register should bear voters’ portraits and fingerprint. Strict registration duplicate checks should be undertaken, the voter registration kits should be pre-loaded with the old register and identify double registration at source (Biometric). The system should ensure the identity for which a person attempts to register to vote validly belongs to that person and remove duplicate/multiple entries from the register.

The system should be able to remove from the voters’ roll all persons who are no longer eligible to vote; for example, those who are deceased or disqualified for other reasons specified in the law. This requires comprehensive and accurate provision of data from the Registrar General’s office. It should be acknowledged that Zimbabwe has one of the most advanced national registration systems in the region and this should complement efforts to ensure the right people register. The system should ensure all required details for voter registration are provided by an applicant for registration or change of registration, and that the details are fully and correctly entered on the voters’ roll with Facial Recognition System (FRS) combined (optional) with Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS).

It is hoped that the use of this technology will enhance inclusiveness and transparency of the voters roll thus contributing to a credible election in Zimbabwe. BVR will give rise to a highly accurate voters’ list base for permanent voter register which in turn will boost confidence of the electorate in the electoral process. The use of biometrics will reduce duplicate registrations. Because the kits will be mobile it will mean that registration will be undertaken in all polling districts countrywide. This mode of registration will allow for easy accessibility of registration centers. Distances to registration centers will be shortened. Registration officials will go out into the communities in phases thus reducing the cost related to procurement of kits.

The use of BVR registration kits will mean that the time taken to register will be reduced and since the kits will be preloaded with the old register double registration will be identified immediately. The process will give rise to an increased number of voters because voter cards will be issued upon registration. This will result in a reduction in number of visits to the registration centers. Voters cards issued should be secure and temper proof.

ZEC and electoral stakeholders such as civic society and media should embark on a massive awareness campaign encouraging people to register to vote and to explain how the BVR works. Planning is essential to introducing new type of technology and thorough analysis and comparative studies are critical to decision-making on what type of technology suitable for the registration process for Zimbabwe.

The first thing we learn from Zambia is that the introduction of technology in voter registration needs to be implemented well in time before an electoral event and the process should be supported by the legal framework. The technology to be used should be independent from proprietorship (vendor locked). Enhanced capacity building should be undertaken for both the IT department and electoral officials. The system should be cost effective and sustainable.The process should not be driven by vendor or external interests, the process should be home grown and supported by national electoral stakeholders.

The use of biometric technology to register voters showed its potential during the registration exercise in Zambia. Technology managed to cut down on human errors and the filling of forms prior to registration, which has cut down on the time it takes to register each eligible Zambian. With a thousand (1000) mobile registration kits operating on a daily basis in each district of Zambia, the Electoral Commission of Zambia’s managed to register 93% of the eligible voters in the last round of BVR in 2015.

Whilst the BVR has shown its potential elsewhere in the region the challenge for ZEC is in maintaining the system and to ensure that technology is enhanced to link the ZEC data base with the data base for the Registrar General. This will ensure that those who turn 18 are immediately transferred to the voter register and those who are dead are immediately removed from the register. This will require major changes to the business operating system of the Registrar General’s department, the Commission and support from donor partners to support the resourcing of this process.

We should, however, be cautions with the perceived intended benefits from BVR. BVR alone will not address the challenges facing elections in Zimbabwe. Other processes should be in place before we can have credible elections. BVR will enhance credibility of the electoral process but on its own will not be able to address the challenges Zimbabwe faces when it comes to elections. ZEC should be encouraged to be open and transparent and involve stakeholders in the implementation of the BVR. This confidence building measure is required and if this is not in place elections will continue to be viewed with suspicion in Zimbabwe and allegations of vote tempering will always be there from one election to another.

 

By Taona Mwanyisa . This articles is reproduced from Pambazuka.org

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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