BVR is no electoral magic bullet

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Biometrics have never been used on election day in Africa, they are merely adopted for the purpose of replacing "a paper voter list and the time it takes to find a person on the list with a faster, electronic solution"

AS part of the Zimbabwe’s Independent’s plan to cover the entire electoral process – that is what happens before, during and after elections – ahead of next year’s general election, we will, beginning this week, serialise the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute’s latest report on the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec), titled BVR, Zec and the Struggle against Political Decay: A Light at the End of the Tunnel? and related importance issues.


Introduction

Biometrics have never been used on election day in Africa, they are merely adopted for the purpose of replacing “a paper voter list and the time it takes to find a person on the list with a faster, electronic solution”

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) has for years seen its credibility questioned as an impartial custodian of electoral processes. Mainly, this is arguably due to the strong and visible gerrymandering hand of the ruling party in all its pertinent activities.

This credibility deficiency syndrome, as examined in detail in this paper, has been symptomised by multiple appearances of same voters in the voters’ roll, political bias among its personnel, stubborn denial of inspection of voters’ roll, unreasonable delay of presidential election results where it was apparent that the incumbent had lost, and a perfect Look East Policy in granting of the tender to provide BVR kits yet disappointing the electorate’s yearning for mobile and diaspora voting, to list just a few.

Main opposition parties, civic societyand social movements have coalesced and fought hard for electoral reforms through judicial remedies, street protests and boycotting by-elections in the hope that this will end the political decay inherent in Zimbabwean institutions and enable all political parties a level playing field ahead of 2018 harmonised elections.

It is in this context that, on one hand, Zec has adopted a Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) system while on the other hand social movements, pressure groups, and opposition parties are coalescing to form a united front hoping to challenge Zanu PF in 2018 through elections.

Indeed, the uptake of a BVR system is, in principle, a positive stride towards mitigating multiple voting, ghost voters, and transparency defects of an independent electoral commission and, subject to availability of a credible and impartial electoral environment, coalition of opposition movements has proven efficacious in many countries as a democratisation strategy. Yet, the biggest questions centre on: What is the actual electoral problem in Zimbabwe?; Why is there such a problem, and What is its root causes and/or source? Is the BVR a genuine panacea to the electoral problem troubling the nation? These are the salient questions that this review tackles. The main argument raised here is that, the electoral problem in Zimbabwe rests inherently in the competitive authoritarian electoral system within which and for whose sustainment Zec was constructed. Thus, no real reform can be expected either out of Zec or the authoritarian electoral regime in place because the authoritarian system, to which Zec belongs, cannot be anticipated to truthfully and willfully reform itself out of power, suspicions of a calculated outrageous scheme hidden behind Zec’s BVR cannot be wholly left out of question.

Unpacking BVR

BVR refers to a computer-based system of registering voters using biometric identifiers such as automated finger prints, iris or face identification system, and other unique features to minimise the possibility of election fraud, at the same time considerably accelerating the voter identification process. HSB, a renowned supplier of BVR kits in Africa, notes that BVR:
Allows every eligible voter to register with a biometric feature like fingerprints, iris and/face. During registration, the voter receives a unique ID. To ensure that every voter is only registered once on the voter list, a de-duplication process is executed with a central ABIS. In this system, biometric features like fingerprints are compared with a biometric matching engine (Abis) to find duplicates. The adjudication system will review every ID with multiple registrations to guarantee the “one person, one vote” principle.

It is reiterated that it “allows the identification of millions of voters quickly and unmistakably,” it quickens voter identification, enhances security and privacy of voter information in an impersonal systematic way that improves reliability and precision.

These are the positive outcomes of BVR which have raised public optimism about the possibility of reasonableness, believability and acceptability of electoral results administered by Zec.
However, biometrics have never been used on election day in Africa, they are merely adopted for the purpose of replacing “a paper voter list and the time it takes to find a person on the list with a faster, electronic solution” (USaid, 2011:4), verification during election day has been done manually by checking the ID against the photo on the system. This is likely what Zec plans to do. MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai, the main victim and critic of Zec and its incredible system, has expressed a religious belief that BVR system will prevent the alleged vote manipulation culture of the ruling party Zanu PF which has centred on multiple voter registration and/or voting and manipulation of the votes’ roll. However, it should be noted that Zec is but a drop in a sea of Zanu PF authoritarian machines of vote manipulation.

As argued in this policy review, BVR adoption can be one of such strategies used to maintain its win and legitimate a manipulated election. Moreover, adopting electronic voter registration is one thing, while administering it and the background within which the election concerned occurs — the most important target of rigging — is another. The quality and conduct of the human factor administering the electoral processes and the electoral environment created therein have the ultimate capacity to make the BVR worthwhile or worthless as a solution to electoral problems in any polity.

Conceptualisation

How can the electoral problem in Zimbabwe be best understood and/or conceptualised to ascertain the veracity of BVR as a possible panacea and to demystify the manifold folktales claimed hitherto? The Zimbabwean electoral problem can be best understood in the theoretical spectacles of competitive electoral authoritarianism.

Although the problem of competitive electoral authoritarianism comes in various forms contingent on their varying degrees and depths of authoritarian cascading, a common denominator in them all is a semi-fascist leadership bent on retaining power at all costs, legalising competitive elections under a cocktail of coercive, unfair tactics (patrimonial state institutions, draconian legislation and partisan media) to disadvantage the opposition and ensure their electoral victory (Levitsky and Way, 2002; Carothers, 2002; Schedler, 2002; Diamond, 2002; Howard and Roessler, 2006; Donno, 2013). Typical experiences in an electoral authoritarianist state are that:

“…incumbents routinely abuse state resources, deny the opposition adequate media coverage, harass opposition candidates and their supporters, and in some cases manipulate electoral results. Journalists, opposition politicians, and other government critics may be spied on, threatened, harassed, or arrested. Members of the opposition may be jailed, exiled, or —less frequently — even assaulted or murdered. Regimes characterised by such abuses cannot be called democratic.”

These are not necessarily military regimes, multi-partyism and contested elections exist albeit under serious military presence in fraud, coercion, and manipulation, or, in some cases like Zimbabwe, the politicised military “carve out large, autonomous spheres of political influence and economic domination behind the veil of civilian, multiparty rule” (Diamond, 2002:27). From a bird’s eye view, such regimes have democratic institutions in place but the conduct within those institutions is authoritarian, they are thus classified as democratic transition “gray zone” (Carothers, 2002: 9) or a “foggy zone” (Schedler, 2002: 37) – a situation where the movement for democratic change that has been underway hits a precipice and gets stark. In light of these authoritarian rigidities, electoral processes prove to be having a limited capacity to effect change if doing so is not in the interests of the despot in power.

The key institutions necessary for the conduct of free and fair elections that the competitive electoral authoritarian system infiltrates, militarise and dehorns through patrimonialism are: (i) the electoral arena; (ii) the legislature; (iii) the judiciary; and (iv) the media (Levytsky and Way, 2002:53). The first and most important institution is the electoral arena which includes electoral commissions, delimitation commissions, electoral laws, voter registration, voting process and counting of results.

The legislature and the judiciary get targeted because they ought to exercise checks and balances on the incumbent government, thus they pose a real threat to the despot when not coopted or turned lieutenants of the despot. The media referred to is specifically statecontrolled media.

In a competitive electoral authoritarian crisis, state media is turned into a mouthpiece of the ruling party and draconian laws are put in place to stifle media freedoms, citizen journalism and limit the reach of private media.

Typically, incumbents may place barriers on opposition parties’ ability to campaign; generate a pro-government media bias; stack electoral commissions and courts with their supporters; or resort to stuffing ballot boxes and manipulating vote tabulations (Donno, 2013: 704).

Under such circumstances, BVR does not on its own constitute a significant solution to the actual challenge set by the competitive electoral authoritarian regime.

Apart from possibly getting rid of authoritarian gerrymandering of the voters’ roll such as multiple registrations and voting, populating the roll with names of dead people; change-averse rigidities are left unperturbed and in full use and opposition parties attack from a very weakened position. To be continued …

Zimbabwe Democracy Institute is an independent political economy think-tank.

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