Technology and the credibility of an electoral system
There are universal tools used to tweak democracy. While democracy is the government of the people, by the people and for the people, it must be monitored and the quality of its implementation must be controlled. Without this, on the surface, a government may be seen as a true representation of the will of the people but actually it could be a tyranny akin to military dictatorship, fascism or even an oligarchy. In a proper democratic dispensation, the political parties must implement democratic tenets from within and this must cover the way they elect their officers up to the time party primaries are conducted and candidates emerge. Having said this, the role of the electoral umpire is extremely critical and is the most important determinant of the credibility of the electoral system.
When the world-renowned primatologist and anthropologist, Jane Goodall first came to Africa to study chimpanzees at the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania in 1960, she was armed only with a hand-held mono-ocular telescope. Today, the use of technological advancements especially in the area of information and communication technology enables us to see from space every house, every hamlet and even the ability to count cows grazing in a particular geographical area. The NASA/ESA’s James Webb telescoped has peered back to within three hundred million years of the singularity commonly referred to as the Big Bang – the origin of the universe. One area of particular usefulness of technology is the electoral process especially in voter identification and actual voting.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has, over the years, especially in the present democratic dispensation, designed ways and means to improve on the quality and credibility of the elections it conducts in such a way that complaints are minimal and in some way be comparable to those elections conducted in older democracies around the world.
While it is difficult to produce perfect elections, it is possible to get the next best thing. The introduction of the Bimodal Voters Accreditation System (BVAS) by INEC is a step in the right direction and by virtue of its technological capacities, it creates an enabling environment and a level-playing field for elections to hold. Over the years, the Card Reader has proved inadequate since it only validated the card issued to the voter. BVAS on the other hand validates both the card and the voter by utilizing two methods of identifying the voter, the thumbprints and facial biometrics. These two qualities are unique to the voter and no two individuals in the entire world share the same. In this way, a voter must be present to cast his or her vote since accreditation comes before voting. The results from a polling unit cannot therefore be higher than the number of voters accredited. In this way, the incidence of over-voting is totally eliminated and ghost voters and votes no longer count.
The transmission of the results whether electronic or manual is not as important as the accreditation process. In some other climes like the United States and Brazil, use is made of an electronic voting system for a faster way of delivering the results of elections. This process relies on a steady supply of electricity. It also engages a large number of persons for its monitoring. Nigeria is not yet at this point. And nevertheless, when there is a dispute, resort is made of manual counting of votes. The only way the electoral process can be electronically transmitted in Nigeria is for a picture of the declared results duly signed by all the relevant persons to be uploaded unto the so-called INEC server which is entirely different from an INEC portal though the portal derives from the server.
Any other method of transmission of results will require an enormous and incredibly large layers of electronic security devices, firewalls, sentries to prevent hackers and unauthorized persons from gaining access into such a very sensitive environment. The internet, world wide web and cyberspace is full of devious people who are ready, for a fee, to access the secure portal and compromise the system.
The electronic voting system as practiced in the United States of America is extremely expensive to build and maintain. However, hackers look for every conceivable way to access this fortress and flood it with viruses and Trojans in order to discredit it.
When the 2019 presidential elections were challenged, a presidential candidate, the challenger claimed to have gained access into the INEC servers from wherein he got the results uploaded. Accessing a secure environment without the appropriate authorization is simply hacking and a cybercrime. It only exposed the limitation of the understanding of the inner workings of cyberspace by the candidate. In the recent presidential elections, within twenty-four hours of voting, a former president, Olusegun Obasanjo in a lengthy letter tried to cast aspersion on the veracity of yet to be declared results. This was a hasty recourse by the elder statesman and exposed his lack of understanding of the BVAS and the Electoral Act 2022. The BVAS does not have the capacity to count, collate and transmit results anywhere.
There is still a very important area where investment is necessary. Like all electronic systems, the role of the human being cannot be overemphasized. While technological developments reduce fraud, there are still many ways of circumventing the system and manipulate its outcome. That is where physical security at the voting centre comes in. The presence of adequate security will prevent voter intimidation, open vote buying and destruction of electoral materials and harassment of electoral personnel. It will eliminate the carting away of ballot papers when the ballot boxes are snatched and destroyed as these may be used again in the process if a recount is needed. In some cases, forensics may be employed after the election in order to determine that not just one person thumb-printed all the ballots. This is possible in an environment where voters are induced with money or other incentives and surrender their ballot papers after accreditation.
We are at the technological point of the electoral process where the only option available to us is what obtained in the last presidential and national assembly elections. The system can be further developed and enhanced but this will require an enormous investment of resources and a further amendment of our electoral laws.
• Dr. Michael Oberabor Is Medical Director, Baker Clinic, Warri and Olomoro