The challenges, strengths of biometric voter registration

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THIS is the second and final installment by the writer on the controversy surrounding the introduction of biometric voter registration (BVR) in the country.

Alex T Magaisa,Lawyer

There are two important consequences from that judgment, which Zanu PF now wants to exploit:

By-elections voters’ rolls

First, the only new voters’ rolls that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) has created since it took over the role of registering voters are in respect of constituencies where by-elections have been held.

Since the opposition has been boycotting by-elections since 2013, it is unlikely that opposition voters were motivated to register for the by-elections. The result is that most of these new voters’ rolls are predominantly filled with Zanu PF supporters. If Zec decides to use those voters’ rolls in 2018, on the grounds that they are new, this might lead to the exclusion of opposition supporters. The opposition must remain vigilant, so that whatever happens to the BVR system, they ensure that voters in the by-election constituencies are registered.

Back to Mudede’s voters’ roll

Second, the judgment confirmed that Zec is under no obligation to ignore the old voters’ roll developed by Tobaiwa Mudede as registrar of voters.

The demand made by Dumiso Dabengwa and Zapu in their 2015 case to prevent Zec from using the Mudede voters’ roll was dismissed. This means Zec would be well within its rights to use Mudede’s voters’ roll, which is a poisoned chalice. If, as suspected, the Mudede voters’ roll was at the centre of the rigging scheme in the 2013 elections, this might explain why Zanu PF is beginning to throw dust over the proposed BVR system. The aim is to retrieve the Mudede voters’ roll from the vaults and use it again in the 2018 elections. If so, it would be a complete disaster as the electronic version of Mudede’s voters’ roll has been one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Mugabe regime.

Zanu PF must have invested a lot into it and it has served its interests well that there is no incentive for the ruling party to support Zec’s plans to adopt the BVR system.

The fact that the Zanu PF government has taken over the funding and control of the BVR system is simply designed as a fall-back measure, just in case the opposition mounts enough pressure for its adoption. In that case, Zanu PF would still be able to control the voters’ roll by selecting a favourable service provider which will do its bidding. This is why the opposition has to mount a more serious campaign against the removal of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The precedent of 2013 demonstrates that the removal of the UNDP takes away a mechanism for checks and balances where state institutions are heavily tilted in favour of the ruling party. Ordinarily, in a sovereign country, there would be no need to invite an external actor to play a role in the electoral process. But Zimbabwe’s situation is far from normal. The need for an honest broker has long been recognised and the UNDP’s role would not be the first time that it has been involved in the country’s political processes. The UNDP managed a US$ 21 million multi-donor fund which supported the constitution-making process.

But, as I have stated, the real danger is that Zanu PF wants to go back to Mudede’s voters’ roll. The matter is likely to drag long enough until there is very little time before the 2018 elections. Zanu PF’s strategy of disenfranchisement has always been to deny people the facility of continuous registration only to open a short window for voter registration just months before the election.

This strategy was used successfully in the 2013 elections. It meant large numbers of eligible voters were excluded from voting, especially in the urban areas which are regarded as opposition strongholds. Zanu PF made sure voter registration facilities in the urban areas during that short window were limited.

The long and slow queues frustrated potential voters, particularly the young people, with many going away unregistered. This is the same strategy that Zanu PF intends to deploy before 2018. Zec will continue to plead poverty, using that to avoid its mandate to conduct continuous registration. The dispute over the BVR system will also drag the process until there will be no time for a new voters’ roll. There will eventually be a call for intensive voter registration, not to create a new voters’ roll but simply to pretend to be filling the long-discredited Mudede voters’ roll.

The opposition and BVR system

This is an important question. Is it worth the effort? Some are already suggesting that maybe it is not a priority. It is therefore important to consider the merits and demerits of the BVR system.

BVR technology uses physical features that are unique to each individual, such as fingerprints, facial scans, voice recognition and other features for purposes of identification. Since no two persons can share the same unique physical features the BVR system helps to eliminate the problem of duplications, which has previously affected Zimbabwean elections.

An audit of the voters’ roll by the Research Advocacy Unit in June 2013 demonstrated large numbers of duplications, of more than 800 000 voters. BVR also offers a digital system which is more difficult to manipulate, although one drawback is that it could be subject to hacking. The quality of data tends to be of higher quality and accuracy.

Furthermore, the system offers more precision in the verification process which would reduce the risk of turning away voters. The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) reported that at estimated 750 000 voters were turned away at polling stations in urban constituencies in 2013.

However, perhaps the greatest advantage for Zimbabwe at this juncture is that it offers the real chance for a completely new voters’ roll, divorced from the Mudede voters register which is heavily compromised. As a completely new system, it offers the best chance for a totally new voters’ roll. Given the centrality of the voters’ roll in the election process, a new voters’ roll will offer new opportunities and restore some confidence in the electoral system.

Nevertheless, for the sake of completeness, it is important to also appreciate some weaknesses and concerns around the BVR system. The initial costs of setting up a BVR system is usually a major deterrent. However, this is not a problem for Zimbabwe since the UNDP had offered to assist.

Another drawback is that it demands time and preparation for implementation. This could be a challenge unless the process moves quicker. By now, Zec should have done a pilot project in some of the constituencies.
A BVR system is effective if all the ICT systems are put in place and personnel are sufficiently trained to handle the process and any glitches.

A BVR system can also have the risk of either a high False Rejection Rate (FRR) or False Acceptance Rate (FAR).

This refers to the rate at which voters’ biodata are rejected or accepted by the BVR system. A false rejection is where a valid voter is rejected by the system. This could be for any number of reasons — in rural areas exposure of hands to hard physical work, scratches, scars, debris and others might distort the fingerprint and cause a mismatch with the data that is already stored in the system. A false acceptance occurs where the BVR system erroneously accepts a person who is not registered in the system. This can lead to the problem of unauthorised voters, whereby unregistered persons are allowed to vote when they should not be.

Finally, a concern that has been expressed by most people is the possible breakdown of technology at critical points of the electoral process or, worse, hacking of the system. This is a particular challenge where the availability of power is intermittent and lack of technical know-how could result in problems that cannot easily be resolved. This latter challenge can be solved by ensuring staff are properly trained. There can also be alternative sources of power.

Weather conditions can also be a source of havoc to the system. Nevertheless, in all cases, as experience elsewhere has shown, it is important to have contingency measures, which kick in once the system fails. If Zimbabwe is to improve, it must start by implementing it. The by-elections were a perfect opportunity to do pilot schemes and test out the technology, but Zec failed to use them.

If Zec were serious about the BVR system, particularly after the Dabengwa lawsuit in which they were ordered by the High Court to perform their constitutional mandate, it would have mobilised support to test out the BVR system in the many by-elections it had to conduct.

To conclude on this point, while the BVR system has its weaknesses, it does offer an opportunity to have a new voters’ roll and that outcome far outweighs the concerns.

The limits of the BVR system

Nevertheless, I must conclude by also pointing out something that is so easy to miss as opposition parties and civil society focus on the BVR system. It is that while the BVR system might help fix the problem of the voters’ roll, it is not the complete panacea to the myriad of challenges that are traditionally associated with Zimbabwe’s elections. I have previously written on this subject in the past so I will not dwell too much upon it but the following problems which the BVR system cannot solve must be attended to:

Assisted voters: The 2013 elections were particularly plagued by the problem of too many assisted voters, an odd problem in a country that boasts of one of the highest rates of literacy in Africa. It was alleged that this problem was not because assisted voters were illiterate, but because they were commandeered by the Zanu PF system centred around traditional leaders in the rural areas.

The facility of assisted voters was exploited to allow Zanu PF officials to monitor how voters were voting and ensure they voted for their party. The BVR system will help with the authentication of voters and other aspects, but it will not eliminate the problem of assisted voters. This needs attention.

Traditional leaders: Likewise, the role of traditional leaders, allegedly used as agents of Zanu PF to corral voters and ensure they vote for it cannot be solved by the BVR system. It is important to adopt strategies that would minimise the effect of traditional leaders and the impact of fear sown through years of political violence particularly in rural areas.

Vote-buying: Zanu PF has traditionally used state resources for its benefit during elections. This includes using state vehicles, money and other equipment to give handouts to voters towards elections as ways of enticing or bribing them to vote for it. While Zanu PF was the first to complain of such strategies in the 1980 elections, it has since learnt to adopt the same for its own purposes.

These bribes work for Zanu PF, as it presents itself to voters as a benevolent and caring party. This challenge will not be solved by the BVR system, which means other strategies will have to be adopted.

Media bias: Finally, gross bias of the state media will not be solved by the BVR system and yet this is a fundamental space in elections. It is easy to underestimate the impact of propaganda, particularly in the rural areas where the main source of news is by radio or word of mouth. The fact that Zanu PF controls state media and also controls much of the so-called private radio stations, the majority of which are owned or controlled by persons aligned to Zanu PF remains a severe handicap for the opposition. Unfortunately, the BVR system does not solve this problem.

Conclusion

There are of course more challenges which are beyond the purview of the BVR system.

I highlight these few only to present the fact that there is a lot more apart from the BVR system that demands the attention of opposition parties and civil society. As ever, fear remains a critical factor and it will be exploited once again in the 2018 elections and not even the BVR system will solve that.

As I have pointed out in this article, Zanu PF wants to avoid the BVR system principally because it does not want a new voters’ roll and prefers that Zec reverts to the Mudede voters’ roll. Should that happen, the 2018 elections will deliver yet another sham election. There must be a new voters’ roll, by whatever means.

It is likely that Zec will plead poverty and lack of time as justifications for resorting to the Mudede voters’ roll. Zec has shown itself to be too weak and lacking in independence to resist Zanu PF’s pressure. Already, when government indicated the removal of the UNDP, Zec did not even assert its independence to defend a process that had already begun. Zec has shown no appetite to defend itself from Zanu PF, preferring quiet compliance.

The BVR system does have its weaknesses, but it offers an opportunity for a new and cleaner voters’ roll (if handled with checks and balances).

Finally, while it is important to fight for the BVR system, it is also useful to note that it is not the total panacea to Zimbabwe’s electoral challenges. There are numerous problems which the BVR system cannot solve and they deserve the same amount of attention as is being given to the BVR system.

As ever the deceptive party, Zanu PF has the tendency to drag the opposition parties into a false trail, while its people are focussing on the key electoral machinery. For that reason the opposition must remain vigilant, with focus groups dedicated to all aspects of the electoral process.

Dr Magaisa is a lawyer and a lecturer at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. — waMagaisa@gmail.com.

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