When Namibians took to the polls last year to cast their votes for the National Assembly and Presidential elections, they set a precedent on the continent by being the first Africans to use Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs).
This voting technology was introduced primarily to enhance the election process and to reduce the amount of time it takes to count and verify the results – an important consideration given the delays in the announcement of results in past elections.
The star of the 2014 election, the EVMs – to a large extent – delivered on their promise, although voter education on their use could have been more extensive to enhance voter confidence in their use. They simplified the counting process, and helped to decrease the amount of time it took to count and announce the result – although delays were still experienced.
Although it received the bulk of the hype and a healthy dose of scrutiny in the days running up the election, the EVM was not the only technology introduced to Namibian elections. During Voter Registration, the ECN made use of Biometric Voter Registration Kits to electronically capture biometric voter data. The BVRKs were complemented by Voter Verification Devices (VVDs) onto which the entire voters roll had been uploaded for checking that those showing up at the polls were indeed registered to vote. And to communicate election results, the ECN made use of a website at elections.na to announce results as they came in and to display key numbers regarding the election.
The coupling of the use of the VVD and the EVM should have translated to voters being able to get through the polling station in about 3 minutes flat – from entry to exit.
However, this was barely the case! Despite the presence of these technologies, long lines at polling stations were the order of the day, as Namibians patiently stood for hours on end to cast their votes, and waited three days longer than promised to hear the outcome of the election.
But the guilty culprit was not the new technology itself! Rather, poor use of the technology coupled with the insufficient training of election officials was to blame.
By the ECN’s own admission, the training of electoral officials operating these technologies, particularly the VVDs, left much to be desired. As a result, delays were caused due to simple errors such as mistakes made in starting up the devices and/or changing battery packs, and not following the required procedures in checking fingerprints and voter registration cards, thus causing the VVDs to freeze. In many cases, this meant that the printed voters roll had to be relied upon to verify the voter’s details. In some instances, the length of time for a voter to get through the polling station took as long as 15 minutes – disenfranchising those who left polling stations without casting their votes due to the long waiting times.
During recent Election Watch events held for civil society organisations and the media, the ECN has noted that to ensure these problems are not repeated in the local authority and regional council elections, it will provide specialised training for officials operating the devices, to ensure that human error is minimised, and that the correct use of these technologies is promoted.
Below is an overview of the main technologies used in the 2014 National Assembly and Presidential elections, and which will be used in the 2015 Local Authority and Regional Council elections.
Sourced from Bharat Electronics in India, the EVM allows voters to cast their votes electronically, using the same principles applied in paper-based elections. Section 97 of the Electoral Act (Act 5 of 2014) provides for the use of these machines during elections, and the machines were customized to meet the requirements set by the law for free and fair elections. It should be noted, however, that Sections 97(3) and 97(4) of the Act – which provides for the use of a verifiable paper trail – were suspended for last year’s election, and has not been honoured to date.
A major advantage of the EVM – and one of the major reasons it is now used – is that it simplifies and enhances the election process and drastically reduces the amount of time it would normally take for the counting process.
Other advantages of the EVM are that they contribute to faster vote counting, tabulation and delivery of the final election results, that they reduce the overall cost to operate and manage the election process over time; that they produce more accurate results as human error is excluded, and that help to prevent fraud in polling stations and during the transmission and tabulation of results by reducing human intervention. In it’s voter education material, the ECN notes that “the EVM is safe and reliable to use as it is a standalone machine consisting of two interconnected components. It cannot be accessed via any other means and it does not transmit any signal or connect to any type of computer network. “ Additionally, it produces “instant election results; Counting is automated; it Eliminates speculation of possible rigging as it is tamper-proof; It eliminates spoiled/rejected ballots; The EVM is user friendly for the visually-impaired persons; and it is cost-effective-administrative, transportation, human resource and printing of ballot papers.”
The only difference in the setup of the EVMs, compared to the 2014 Election, is that in 2014, the same ballot paper (EVM) was used for each of the two elections (Presidential and National Assembly) across the country. In the Local Authority and Regional Council election, however, there will be different ballot papers (EVM) for all constituencies and LA. In constituencies that are not in local authority areas, only the RC ballot paper will be available. This will also apply in the parts of constituencies that are not in a local authority area (eg. the parts of the Khomas region that do not fall under the Windhoek municipality).
The Biometric Voter Registration Kit (BVRK)
The ECN introduced the electronic capturing of biometric voter data during the General Registration of Voters in January 2014. The system allows for the Voters Register to use fingerprint technology to check for duplicates – ensuring voter register reliability. Furthermore, this system of capturing voter data supports the use of Voter Verification Devices during the elections, with which the accuracy of voters details can be checked, duplicity reduced, and statistical analysis of the election conducted.
In her announcement of the provisional statistics of the 2014 general registration of voters, ECN Chairperson, Advocate Notemba Tjipueja said the following about the registration kits: “By its very nature, the biometric voter’s registration system and its data capturing process is a precise and therefore an elaborate process. The system puts high premium on the accurate capturing of data to ensure the accuracy of the information and ultimately, the integrity of the end-product, which is the Voters’ Register. Admittedly, there is an inherent slight trade-off between speed and accuracy in the system when precise steps are involved. These include the verification of required documents, the capturing of the voters’ data on the Voters Registration Kits (VRK), taking of photographs, signature and finger prints, the verification of captured voter data and finally, the issuing of the voters’ cards.”
The Voter Verification Device (VVD)
Following the registration of voters and the cleaning of the Voters Register, the entire Register is uploaded onto the VVD. Manufactured in China, the VVDs have an easy to use, user-friendly interface; and are equipped to conduct fingerprint scans and to read barcodes (as would be found on the Voter ID). It can be used for various solutions and environments, like the police to verify citizens, Traffic Police to check drivers, Voter Verification, etc; and is capable of being online with a 3G connection.
Some of the major advantages of the VVD are the savings in the amount and cost of paper used; the speed with which the verification can take place (particularly when election officials know how to use the devices); the elimination of fraudulent voters; the ability to pick up on duplicate voters during the audit process; and the valuable statistics that can be gained from turnout figures, in order to better target voter education initiatives in the long term.
The verification of voters takes place in four steps:
1. At each election station an election official will manage the voter data contained on the handheld device
2. A voter will walk up to the official and will be verified on the device (NB: a printed voters register for the constituency also available at each polling station)
3. The following information can be used to confirm the voter against the existing database on the handheld:
• Voter ID number (scanned or typed)
• Fingerprint is retrieved and matched
4. On successful verification the potential voter to proceed to the ballot box and cast a vote.
Another technological advancement that the ECN introduced in the 2014 election was the website – elections.na – where the Commission communicated the outcome of the election as verified results came in.
According to the ECN, “We peaked at 19,200 active connections, run up was slow with an average of 1500 active connections, peak was from just before the results were released.
After the results were announced, the average was 285 active connections average any time per hour.”
However, the website was criticised for not giving full information about the results (it mainly used percentages rather than actual voting figures). It also went offline a few weeks after the election and is therefore no longer a resource that can be used for checking past results.