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Namibia gears up for electronic elections

As Namibia gears up for the 2014 Presidential and National Assembly Elections, the introduction of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) remains a hot topic.
To date, the Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN) has purchased 3,400 Electronic Voting Machines at a cost of N$10 million. The EVMs were sourced from an Indian company by the name of Bharat Electronics, which developed and designed this technology for electoral processes in the world’s largest democracy. The ECN is expected to start a voter education campaign regarding EVMs in the near future. The Commission will also purchase more EVMs ahead of the 2014 elections.
Although various technologies have been used to automate certain processes in electoral systems, as yet no African country has utilised actual electronic voting machines as part of its election.
In the March 2013 election in Kenya, in what was meant to be Africa’s most modern election, biometric systems were introduced to streamline the voter registration process, while electronic tallying was used to speed up the counting and tallying process once votes were cast. Unfortunately, due to operational and technical problems, both systems failed, forcing the electoral management body to resort to a hand count - a process that took five days and threatened to destabilise the entire electoral process.
Importantly, when introducing EVMs, International IDEA notes that it is critical that strong trust in the electoral system exists. The organisation also notes that countries should be clear on their goals and the purpose for using EVMs, and that deliberate efforts are made to ensure timely implementation, training, transparency, and sustainability.
Most significantly, international experience shows that in the run up to introducing EVMs for elections, voter education is critical to ensuring proper use of the systems, but more importantly, to ensure that Namibians (including civil society, all political parties and organisations, and the public at large) fully trust the process in creating a credible, free and fair election.

Pros and cons

Electronic voting presents a number of important benefits – the most obvious being faster results, a reduction in the number of spoilt ballots, reduced costs of running an election, and the reduction/elimination of avenues for potential manipulation. However, electronic voting is not without risks, and several countries have opted to stick to manual voting mechanisms due to operational/technical constraints, or the implications this may have on their legal frameworks.
In Germany, for example, e-voting was declared unconstitutional in 2009. In the Netherlands in 2008 e-voting was suspended after 20 years of use when activists showed that the systems in use could, under certain circumstances, endanger the secrecy of the vote. Between 2005 and 2009, Ireland invested over 60 million euros in an e-voting solution, before deciding that the system was unreliable.
For countries like Brazil, India, Estonia, and the United States that have decided to make use of EVMs, the benefits have outweighed the possible disadvantages of introducing this system, and each country will have different factors to consider in deciding whether or not to go electronic. International IDEA stresses that “Electronic voting is only one option for resolving challenges in the electoral process,” and encourages countries to evaluate alternative solutions in making decisions on what best suits their context. Often times, this means using electronic voting to speed up the process, but having paper trails in case of any contestations.

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Election Watch is a project of the Institute for Public Policy Research in Windhoek, Namibia. Election Watch is funded by the European Union and the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives.