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2023: Hope dims for electronic voting

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Photo: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/Getty Images.

Penultimate week’s suspension of the processes of procuring electronic voting machines by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) over the delay in the passage of the Electoral Act amendment into law, may have dashed the country’s hopes of imminent transition to electronic voting.

A chieftain of the commission reportedly said that the agency had to stay action on the procurement process as there was nothing it could do since a major aspect of the Act, which concerns electronic transmission of results was toyed with by the National Assembly.

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He added that the commission as a law-abiding institution is waiting for the final amendment of the Electoral Act. “This did not stop other activities relating to e-voting and others like the smart card readers and others like that,” the official said.

Amid calls for full digitisation of the electoral system, the National Assembly recently passed the amendment act, which is awaiting President Muhammadu Buhari’s assent or rejection.

But despite the political gimmick surrounding the digitisation process, network providers and allied stakeholders in the telecommunication industry, last week, insisted that that the technology and expertise to build an e-voting platform fit for purpose exists in the country.

Be that as it may, barring any last-minute change, INEC may have concluded plans to revert to the use of paper ballot instead of the electronic voting machine for the upcoming general elections.

The Guardian reliably gathered, yesterday, that the commission’s chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, in concert with some powerful elements within the ruling government have perfected plans to stick to the use of ballot papers in the 2023 general elections, as against the use of the much-advanced electronic voting machine.

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In a tacit confirmation of this development, spokesperson to the INEC chairman, Mr. Rotimi Lawrence-Oyekanmi, said the commission would have no option than to conduct the 2023 general elections manually, according to the dictates of the current law.

Shedding light on the resort to ballot paper as against the electronic voting machine, a reliable source within INEC confided in The Guardian thus: “To this effect, Prof. Yakubu has set up a committee to give a comprehensive budget for the procurement and supply of ballot papers for the 2023 general elections.”

The source described the development as worrisome, as it makes mockery of Nigerians’ clamour for the digitisation of the electoral system to ensure free, fair and credible polls.

While urging Nigerians and other stakeholders to resist the development, the source said: “In previous elections, the manual ballot system has put the commission under heavy logistics burden, including the printing of electoral papers and hiring of thousands of ad hoc staff, which is inimical to the current measures put in place by the Presidential steering committee on COVID-19 protocols.

“Our current voting population is over 84 million Nigerians and it does not make any economic sense to use the ballot paper system for a country that does not produce paper with a depleted foreign reserves and scarcity of foreign exchange.

“The electronic machine, when procured can be disinfected and makes it even easier to adhere to all the Covid-19 protocols. It can also be secured and used for future elections thus saving the country the billions of naira spent on printing ballot papers in every election cycle.”

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The source further noted that Professor Yakubu had said during the 2021 budget defense before the House of Representatives Committee on Electoral Matters on November 4, 2020, that the commission would deploy the electronic voting machines soon, possibly beginning with the Anambra governorship poll to be held in November this year.

He stated further that over 40 companies had indicated interests in hardware and software production and they have all been invited to make demonstrations in line with the commission’s specifications. “With the legal framework that will enable the use of electronic voting machines passed by the National Assembly also in place, what then is INEC afraid of?”

He lamented how images of stuffed ballot boxes with multiple thumb printing flooded social media space during a local government election held recently in Lagos even before the commencement of voting. “This and many more were witnessed in past elections, so there’s no justification whatsoever to continue with the use of the ballot paper at the expense of the electronic voting machine.

“We made remarkable progress in 2015 when the card readers were introduced for accreditation and voting and rather than build on that, INEC and the National Assembly is playing on our collective intelligence to set us back by several steps. The previous PDP administration allayed the same fear in the build-up to the 2015 general elections and despite adopting the use of card reader system and losing the presidential elections – a lot of gains were recorded and we must not discountenance the progress made then to please the current political elites in power.”

In a response when confronted with the development, spokesman to INEC Chairman, Mr. Rotimi Oyekanmi Oyekanmi said, “To begin with, we need to carefully distinguish between those who genuinely desire an improvement in the electoral system, and those whose primary interest is simply the business opportunity they are waiting to grab, if electronic voting is finally legalised. Nigerians should be wary of any comment emanating from such capitalists.”

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While explaining that INEC’s activities are governed by law, he stressed: “The subsisting law is the 1999 Constitution, from which the 2010 Electoral Act (as amended) derives its legitimacy. In this subsisting body of laws, voting in an election through electronic means is still illegal. It will remain so until a new law is passed.

“There is an amendment process going on in respect of the Electoral Act. We don’t yet know what the final product will look like. We all desire a change and the Commission has been working with the two committees of the National Assembly to bring about this change that we all desire. But it is only when the amendment process is concluded, and the president gives assent, that we can say, categorically, whether or not electronic voting will be adopted for the 2023 general election.”

Oyekanmi added that the Commission is willing and ready for electronic voting and collation of results and that it has professional staff and overall capacity to do it. “Once the law clears the way, INEC will hit the ground running. It is not true that the Commission has concluded plans not to use electronic voting. It’s a mere rumour that should be disregarded. However, if we don’t have a new law that expressly legalises the use of electronic voting and collation of results, the Commission will have no option than to conduct the 2023 General election manually, according to the dictates of the current law,” he said.

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