Friday, 11 March 2016

Biometric Voting in Zim, Putting the Cart Before the horse

 By Takura Zhangazha*

The Minister of Justice, Emerson Mnangagwa recently told a Senate committee that government has legislated electoral reforms that take into account the intentions of the  Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) with regard to introducing  biometric voter registration and as a possible consequence, biometric voting.  He also stated that government was consulting on how best the system can be managed especially if the equipment is acquired by the 2018 harmonised elections. To quote him directly, ‘If we reach elections when the biometric system and so on and technical persons are in place, we use it, if not we continue.”

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC)  had in recent months indicated that it is seriously considering recommending the adoption of a biometric voter registration system.  This is a voter registration system that relies largely on the use of digital technologies to identify voters using either their finger print or their iris (eye).  It is also one component of at least three elements of biometric voter system.  The others include the actual voting using biometric related technology such as computer touch screens to cast a vote. The final  component would be the tallying and collating of electoral outcomes using electronically complied data and voters’ rolls.

For now, ZEC appears to be keen on the aspect of biometric voter registration only. That is if it gets money either from the state or donors.

Its statement of intent has received support from two election related organizations, namely the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) and the Election Resource Centre (ERC).  In their official statements in support of biometric voter registration and a consequential biometric voters roll, both organizations refer to the proposition as progressive. Understandably they both cite the problems that have been associated with a manual voter registration system and the necessity of a new updated and transparent voters roll.  It would also appear that for these two organizations, the introduction of biometric technology would inevitably lead to a much more transparent and legitimate electoral process.

So barring the availability of resources to support it, biometric voter registration and possibly even actual voting is current government policy that merely awaits implementation. And it’s a herculean task by any measure. 

It requires adequate telecommunications and electricity  infrastructure that is not only reliable but will work with the greatest efficiency during an election period. Sadly where it has been used on the continent in at least 25 countries where it has been used, it has not worked in aide of democracy. 
The relevant equipment such as finger print machines have tended to breakdown and delay voting processes or in some cases voters have had to revert to the manual system despite millions of dollars having been spent on the much vaunted biometric system.  

And these vast amounts of money spent to support biometric voting tend to have supplier companies of the assumed high tech equipment and software smiling all the way to the bank while an entire country totters on the brink of civil strife.

There are also some contextual realities that must be considered in what should be a very public debate on this issue and new government policy.

Biometric voter registration and voting will definitely appear either complicated or suspicious to the ordinary voter. Not least because there is a general public perception that elections and their results are always tampered with by incumbents.  Moreover due to the culture of violence, fear and  coercion that informs electoral processes in Zimbabwe, asking for finger print or iris identification may  not lead to greater voter confidence.  Instead it may lead to the opposite or even be used to undermine free and fair electoral processes through threats to the voter, especially the more vulnerable one.  Such threats will include those of using the technology to  know exactly who has voted for whom and uncouth follow up action. 

The avoided truth of the matter is that biometric voter registration or voting is not a panacea to arriving at a truly democratic electoral process.  It gives an impressionable veneer of sophistry and technological advancement but does not replace the importance of the active citizen who casts their vote in free and fair political context.  Even if this includes the simple act of walking into a polling station, producing your national identification and casting your vote without a computer’s assistance.

To be specific to Zimbabwe, the problem is not so much a technological one around the voting process. It is essentially about the political culture that informs elections and the public confidence that is lacking in the end result/s. Moving to electronic/biometric  voting systems without first fixing the manual one is putting the cart before the horse. Especially in a country like ours where if elections were free and fair,  national identification documents easier to access, trust in the electoral authority and security services  was to be apparent, people would simply walk to the polling station, produce their national ID and democratically cast their ballots.  And thus give organic meaning to our politics that is not mediated by a malfunctioning finger-print machine, computer or scarce electricity supply

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (