BVR not panacea to election rigging

This is the third and final in a series of articles on a report by the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute 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 important issues as part of the Zimbabwe 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.

Is there hope for take-off?

Despite the manifold rigidities created by the competitive electoral regime, its very existence in that form creates possibilities for regime breakdown by a strong, united, determined opposition and where there is significant pressure mounted by the international system on the despot to open up to change. Levytsky and Way (2002: 53), after conducting a series of case studies across various typologies of authoritarian regimes concluded that: “Although incumbents in competitive authoritarian regimes may routinely manipulate formal democratic rules, they are unable to eliminate them or reduce them to a mere façade … even if the cards are stacked in favour of autocratic incumbents, the persistence of meaningful democratic institutions creates arenas through which opposition forces may — and frequently do — pose significant challenges. As a result, even though democratic institutions may be badly flawed, both authoritarian incumbents and their opponents must take them seriously.”

This line of findings was also discovered by Donno (2013: 704) who after comparing the opportunities for regime change and/or transition to democracy between various autocracies across the world concluded that: (i) the weakness of incumbents in contrast to a strong opposition offers the latter opportunities to coalesce and win elections despite the electioneering done by the former, and (ii) the economic and political crises prevailing in the despot’s country makes it dependent on external support thus making it vulnerable to international pressure for democracy are effective tools for regime change (opposition win).

This finds empirical explanation in the conclusion by logicians of competitive electoral authoritarianism (Bratton and Van de Walle (1997) and Van de Walle (2006)) that: “To orchestrate electoral misconduct, incumbents require co-operation. Party operatives, election commission members, polling station workers, police, and the media are those most commonly complicit — either actively or passively — in electoral manipulation. The choices of these actors depend crucially on perceptions about who is likely to win the election. When opposition parties are fragmented and weak — as in most EA (East African) regimes — there is little doubt about electoral outcomes and orders to orchestrate or tolerate misconduct are likely to be followed with little hesitation. Domestic actors will simply calculate that their best option is to side with the regime.”

Thus, no government official will risk his/her office by disobeying a seemingly wining incumbent whenever required to do so.

There should be electoral viability, an apparent and perceivable capacity of the opposition coalition to defeat the incumbent and protect their interests (Howard and Roessler 2006: 371). Without this conditionality, the incumbent will still continue to benefit from the assistance from a decaying human factor in key institutions of the state to block the opposition from winning elections.

This was the reason why MDC failed to take over power in 2008, its electoral viability and capacity to protect and/or scare decayed human factor within electoral institutions in the event of wining the elections was doubtable. The army, police, Zec, and others had neither confidence nor fear in MDC than the incumbent, hence worked in the favour of the latter. This paper, however, adds that these two components of a regime change strategy might not work everywhere.

A shrewd political strategy of penetration, intelligence gathering and village-by-village mobilisation and creation of real scary feelings among the decayed human factor within relevant electoral institutions alongside radicalising the youth electorate before voter registration, during voting and after complete the above mentioned strategy. This shrewd strategy brought down the long serving leader in Tunisia, Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The opposition must create and wield real power because without it, the biometric voter registration (BVR) might be just one of those lipstick-reforms to help legitimate (in the eyes of the international community) a rigged election.

Is BVR light at the end of tunnel?

Voter registration is a salient ingredient of free and fair elections and an enabling factor in citizens’ exercise of their authority to choose and decline potential leaders.

Many African countries have performed dismally with regards to proper and accurate management of this process. The poor quality of a voters’ roll has resulted in poor quality of elections and thus of democracy itself. Thus, the prominent question has been, how to make it “safer” (ACE, 2006; Evrensel, 2010).

The quality of the voters’ roll can be measured on three counts: (i) currency of the roll — the extent to which information is updated; (ii) comprehensiveness of the roll — the proportion of eligible voters included in the list which “ensures that electors are able to exercise their right to vote”, and (iii) its accuracy — the rate of error in names, addresses, gender the date of birth” (ACE, n.d.).

BVR has been forwarded and relied upon as a possible enabler of the mentioned two counts of voters’ roll quality (ii and iii) and thus a democratising agent in the first stage of electoral processes — the pre-election stage. On the contrary, comprehensiveness of the voters’ roll cannot be addressed through BVR; it depends much on voter education and mobilisation, voter turnout at registration polling stations, fair allocation of time for the registration process in all areas of the state and absence of sabotage before registration.

But, in what ways has this been done? Firstly, and most importantly, BVR when well implemented, it will increase accuracy of the voters’ roll by duplicating it, getting rid of ghost voters and reducing system delays that have left many people unregistered or under-registered. It has been reported that through the introduction of biometric voting cards, the vote has been secured in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Gambia (International Peace Institute, 2011).

For instance, BVR was used to correct duplications in the voters’ roll in Sierra Leone in 2012, cases of multiple registration caused by political parties that import foreigners to vote in constituencies they do not belong were identified through the system and subjected to litigation (NEW/IRN, 2012). In Togo, a BVR specialist company was hired to provide 1 675 enrolment kits where it deployed 3 300 people trained and certified as enrolment operators, 60 technicians involved in capturing and updating biometric data for more than three million voters done in six weeks (ZETES, 2015). The process included publication of the names on the roll on billboards at local centres for people to cross-check their names, whether they were properly registered and report to the ZETES and relevant authorities way before elections (ZETES, 2015). Further, BVR also demonstrated to be very useful in cleaning the irregularities in the voters’ roll in Cote d’Ivoire which delivered a lesson that BVR can only be a meaningful reform if it is administered by responsible and committed hands.

In October 2009, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) after doing thorough comparison of data captured through BVR and previous voters’ roll found that a total of 1 033 985 people’s names were neither in the previous voters’ roll nor found in national registries and Laurent Gbagbo, the then president of Cote d’Ivoire “dissolving the IEC and the government in February 2010, casting the electoral process in an even more serious paralysis” (ICG, 2010).

If Zec was to follow this standard without executive interference shown in Cote d’Ivoire case, old problem of a fluctuated voters’ roll would definitely be solved. Automated voter registration and verification process will also help reduce the incidence of turning away voters experienced in 2013 elections where around 750 000 urban voters fell victim to this challenge (ZESN, 2013). The grim truth of the matter is that such people are potential electorate of the opposition given that since 2000, urbanites have been very consistent in voting to change the regime.

However, BVR should not be mistaken to a solution to the Zimbabwean electoral problem; it only brings a sense of security to the voters’ roll, but many other rigging tools are left untouched and at work. Like any other human administered technology, the BVR will fall in exclusive hands of a decayed human factor which is readily available for Zanu PF corruption. Moreover, technologies have their own systematic flip-flops and they thus deserve cautious consideration, scrutiny and suspicion too.

Thus also presents Zanu PF and any authoritarian regime with chances to manipulate the vote too.

Anticipated election manipulating strategies in Zimbabwe can include: (i) spoofing — use of someone else’s fingerprint to steal a vote which has been done by many cyber criminals to bypass fingerprint encryptions; (ii) overwriting feature extraction, that is, replacing captured user features with someone else’s; (iii) sensor bypass — a technical term referring to a situation where hired technicians can bypass the sensor’s ability to detect user, (iv) malicious logging of biometric templates with biometric template logger and unauthorised access to stored templates giving opportunity to overwrite, delete and corrupt data; (v) corruption of template fetching in a way that wrong data will be captured, user will not be correctly matched when it comes to verification; (vi) decision override, that is, adjudication decisions could still be overridden without detection, system could be tweaked to reject valid voters.

Given the incidence of ghost votes and duplications in the 2013 voters’ roll which were possibly used to influence the election by Zanu PF, opportunity (v-vi) result in high false rejection rate (FRR) and false acceptance rates (FAR) which by any chance, can be harnessed by the despot to sabotage voters in opposition strongholds and prop-up numbers in the incumbent’s stronghold.

When prospective opposition voters are subjected to rejection of their bio-data by the BVR system the incumbent will have a chance to win. This can be prevalent in high frequencies in rural areas where hands are exposed to hard physical work, scratches, scars, debris that distort fingerprints causing likely mismatch with stored data (Magaisa, 2017).

Thus, it should be remembered that incumbents want to retain power, thus giving their Trojan horse electoral institutions the right to privacy and fulltime access to the biometric voter registration data and system will not fail to offer them opportunities to rig. Given the evidence of rigging through under-registration, voter turn-away that seem to be affecting opposition stronghold, it is thinkable that the above mentioned electronic rigging opportunities will be usable to Zanu PF.

In the run-up to 2012 elections in Ghana, BVR was applauded for controlling duplications, but failed to solve the problem of immigrants and minors being registered to vote by bogus leaders in various constituencies to prop up their numbers (Breckenridge, 2010). This means that if a country has its national registry in exclusive control by the incumbent, it follows the authoritarian system will seek to create fake identification cards for foreigners to populate its support base and/or enable under-aged citizens to vote in its favour and this cannot be controlled by BVR alone.

Another lesson leant from the use of biometrics in voting in Ghana is the increased frequency of invalid votes amounting to above 250 000 or 2,24% of total votes casted (Kelly and Bening, 2013). Though not a problem of BVR but electronic voting, it is a good pointer to the reliability challenges electronic systems pose. Issues of electricity outages during the registration process have been experienced in almost every case study mentioned above. This has been however rectified through polling station based publication of voters’ list before elections so that prospective eligible voters can look for their names, registration details and report to relevant authorities before publication of the final voters’ roll.

With the same Zec that systematically prohibited scrutiny of the voters’ roll in the past, it remains a fairytale dream to think that it can possibly embark on broad reform efforts revealed in Ghana and other countries that amount to a suicide to their appointer President Robert Mugabe.


The Zanu PF regime is aware that its gerrymandering of the voters’ roll has been exposed and BVR reforms are aimed at making people feel like it has repented.

The electoral problem in Zimbabwe centres on electoral authoritarianism done by Zanu PF and this problem is multi-pronged and convoluted to be solved by a mere BVR despite its positive connotations. Zanu PF is not prepared to embark on real reforms that will see it leaving power. Thus, this paper concludes by re-affirming its main argument that: the adoption of a BVR system will not miraculously solve the electoral problem in Zimbabwe.

It is one of those lip-stick reforms that the Zanu PF government has been using to hoodwink unsuspecting national and international observers to legitimate is manipulated elections. Key to this stance are the following facts: the electoral environment is still skewed in favour of Zanu PF; public media is still a monopolised tool of annihilating opposition parties and a mouthpiece of Zanu PF; the private media which have provided refuge to opposition politicians is still curtailed by a cocktail of draconian laws restricting freedom of expression and media; there still exists a serious security sector/Zanu PF and state conflation which makes it unforeseeable why they can be dreamt of administering a free and fair election; Zec is still populated by partisan personnel with dirty-hands in the past history of electoral authoritarianism and; as long as Zanu PF is in charge of controlling the BVR system, the system can still be manipulated and serve as an effective rigging opportunity at the nose of Zanu PF.

However, for the sake of hope for change, the opposition still has a chance of defeating the incumbent if it masters the necessary regime change stratagem. This entails, forming a broad-based coalition of opposition forces and enabling it to wield real threat to the incumbent in the eyes of the electorate, the decayed human factor within electoral management bodies and secure strong international pressure on the incumbent despot.

This paper also adds that, on top of the above, the opposition must craft and deploy a shrewd politicking stratagem at grassroots levels particularly where its support has been weakening.

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