Biometrics tech for Zim polls

THE call for employment of technology in Zimbabwe for both voter registration and facilitation of the electoral process is not entirely new.

Opinion by Samuel Chindaro

Masvingo MP Tongai Matutu called for the introduction of biometrics, lodging a motion in parliament to this effect in 2010.

The issue was raised again in March last year by Pishai Muchauraya who said though it had been discussed with Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa, nothing concrete had materialised.

In April last year, Information Communication Technology minister Nelson Chamisa also called for the adoption of a digital biometric voters’ roll.

I also brought up this issue in July last year in which I explored the basics behind biometrics technology. Most recently, calls led by Regional Integration minister Priscillah Misihairabwi-Mushonga to have online voters’ registration were rejected by the Registrar-General (RG) who contends that this does not provide adequate checks as required in Section 24 of the Electoral Act.

Importance of voters’ roll
The voters’ roll is of paramount importance for the running of any democratic election, and as such needs to be kept accurate and up-to-date. To hold credible elections it is imperative to have a credible voter registration.

The quality of the voters’ roll is a crucial factor in determining the validity and legitimacy of election results and can be a deciding factor on the outcome of elections.

A bloated or inaccurate voters’ register always has a negative effect on the electoral process. The voter registration framework and processes must be designed to allow only eligible persons to register as voters.

Therefore the voters’ roll has a direct influence on the results of any poll, as only those on the roll are allowed to vote.

A deficient voters’ roll can disenfranchise those entitled to vote and an inflated roll with duplicate entries, “ghost voters” and names of people who have migrated, lends itself to electoral fraud, for example, through ballot stuffing and manipulation of numbers without raising an obvious alarm.

It can also affect the delimitation of constituencies by giving wrong indications of the population within each constituency — directly impacting on and influencing the election of MPs.

It is therefore vital that measures be put in place to ensure an accurate voters’ roll before conducting any elections in Zimbabwe. It can make or break the democratic process and therefore the embracing of any technology which can improve this process is important.

State of the voters’ roll
The state of the voters’ roll has historically been controversial and debated mostly during previous elections in Zimbabwe.

It has emerged as a bone of contention each time the country prepared for elections, and the anticipated 2013 elections are not going to be an exception.

Participants in elections have already raised the issue of ghost voters; with names of deceased persons, young people below the eligible voting age and those who have migrated. Furthermore, names and addresses of completely non-existent voters have been known to feature on the voters’ roll.

Duplication of names in different constituencies has also been raised as a contentious issue, with the high-profile case of Muchauraya whose name appeared in two constituencies: Makoni South and Makoni Central in the 2008 voters’ roll being a prominent example.

The state of the Zimbabwe voters’ roll as of October 2010 was described as a complete shambles.

Reports produced by the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) based on the roll supplied by the Zimbabwe Election Commission (Zec) at that time revealed an increase of 366 550 in the number of voters from the roll used in the 2008 harmonised elections.

Debatable figures of 49 239 new voters over the age of 50 with 16 033 of these over the age of 70 and 1 488 over the age of 100 were presented in the report.

According to the report, in Mount Darwin East, there were 118 registered voters aged above 100 years old, with a significant number of birth entries showing the same date of birth of January 1 1901.

With research showing only three men and three women were aged 108 and above in Zimbabwe as of 2012, the reader is invited to make a verdict on the authenticity of the above figures.

A number of registered voters were either under age or too young (228). The report also revealed that 182 564 people were duplicated in the same or more than one constituency.

The Zesn report showed that 27% of voters registered in the voters’ roll were deceased, with the case of David Stevens, who was widely reported in Zimbabwean newspapers as the first victim of the land redistribution programme being highlighted.

It is not clear as to how many people who are in the diaspora (but are not allowed to vote) are still on the voters’ roll, but an educated guess should put this figure into millions!

According to the RG there were 5 612 464 registered voters by December 2007, but the number rose to 5 934 768 by February the following year.

This number is quoted to have gone down to 5 589 355 by November 2012. These figures are also debatable according to a report produced by the South African Institute of Race Relations, which analysed the roll as it stood in 2010 and concluded that taking into account Zimbabwe’s population, age-range and levels of voters’ registration elsewhere, the voters’ roll should consist of a maximum of approximately 3,2 million people.

Even though these figures may not be entirely accurate and up-to-date, the above reports and statistics give indications that the current state of the voters’ roll does not provide a firm foundation for conducting credible elections.

The roll provides a recipe for possible chaos post-elections with results likely to be disputed by any losing candidates, as happened in the past.

Biometrics elections in Africa
The proposal for adopting technology has not just been plucked out of the air without considering any precedence. Biometric technology has been used successfully in a number of countries across the world, and in particular Africa.

In 2005, La Commission Electorale Indépendante in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) used biometric technology to register more than 25 million voters ahead of the country’s first democratic elections in four decades. In Nigeria, some 65 million people had their pictures taken and fingerprints scanned and the system was used in presidential and legislative elections in 2011.

Ghana registered more than 12 million voters using biometrics in 2012. In Kenya, after protracted disputes over procurement, 15 000 biometric registration kits have arrived ahead of the elections scheduled for next month. Sierra Leone’s national biometric voter registration was carried out over a three-month period in 2012, registering over 2,5 million people to vote across the country.

Other African countries such as Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal, Cameroon, Somalia and Uganda have also turned to technology to improve the accuracy of their voter registers. Zimbabwe’s neighbour, Zambia has adopted a biometric voters’ roll.

Almost half a million electronic voting machines were in action in Brazil’s municipal elections last year. In a pilot programme, around 7,5 million of 140 million Brazilian voters were using fingerprint-based biometric machines.

Biometric technology cannot solve problems rooted in issues such as mistrust among stakeholders or lack of political freedoms. Elections, at the end of the day, are a political process. In spite of all the challenges, the introduction of biometrics in the compilation of voter registers should improve accuracy and provide the foundation for clean and violence-free elections.

Dr Chindaro is an electronics engineer, biometrics expert and researcher trained at Nust in Zimbabwe, University of Birmingham and University of Kent in the UK. He can be contacted on S.Chindaro@googlemail.com

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