In 2017, Kenya held one of the most expensive elections in the world. This involved the use of biometric voter identification system as well as an electronic result transmission and tallying system. This was in an attempt to hold a transparent free and fair election where the results would be credible, unlike the previous elections.
The results? While it was expected that the whole process would be very transparent and all the candidates would easily accept the election results, that did not happen. Technology failed in some ways leading to delayed transmission of results, some candidates did not accept the outcome of the results, voter identification did not work in some cases, and connectivity challenges made it hard to transmit the results in some areas. The Supreme Court ruled that the elections results could not be validated, a problem that technology had come in to solve.
It would be fair to say that the heavy investment in technology in 2007 failed, or was failed, just as it had happened during the 2013 general elections.
At the moment, Kenya is preparing for another General election in August 2022, where technology should play a major role both in voter identification and results transmission. While this is an opportunity to improve on the shortcomings of the past two elections, it is still possible the same script will be replayed again, leading to a disputed election and a waste of public resources.
Innovating our way out of Mistrust
One of the lessons to learn from the failure of the past two elections is that a country cannot innovate its way out of dishonesty and mistrust. While systems go a long way in making some processes very transparent, it will still be a major challenge people do not act honestly during the whole process.
What will happen when a candidate claims that the election has been rigged? The truth is that the credibility of the whole investment in technology will be lost. The underlying problem is that we are a heavily broken society and this is something we need to fix. In the long run, it is not technology that will fix our shortcoming. It is a deliberate effort to build a better society. This is something we should be working on.
Even if we employ better technology during the elections, there is still a limit to what it can achieve. Technology is not a magic wand.
The biometric voter identification process cannot be watertight because there are still people who cannot be identified using their fingerprints. These are the people who lack all the limbs, or have their fingerprints disfigured. When manual identification is used, loopholes will still be there. This means that there should be a secondary biometric way of identifying voters, apart from the use of fingerprints.
This is difficult to implement and will only make the elections even more expensive. Heavy reliance on technology also means that device failure may deny some people their constitutional right to vote, something that would make the whole process less credible.
That does not mean that there is no room for technology during the elections. In fact, if technology works well, it can make the whole process very efficient and fast. It would be possible to know the elections outcome a few hours after voting is concluded. What then can be made to make technology work better?
Tech savvy Commission
For technology to work effectively, there is need for the electoral commission to hire tech savvy people all the way from polling clerks to commissioners. The people on the ground should know what to do with the technology in use, how to respond to failures and glitches, and also what to do if the technology fails.
The good thing is that it is easy to find tech savvy people in Kenya, and all the commission needs is to train them effectively. At times, the training that polling officers receive has been inadequate. Technology can come in here to help train the people in a better way. Perhaps, instead of only a 3-day physical training, IEBC can introduce a self-paced eLearning course for polling clerks and presiding officers. This way, the quality of staff overseeing the elections will be greatly improved.
Weapon of Mass Persuasion
While technology can be made to work for the good of the elections, we should not forget that it can be deliberately used to influence elections outcomes. We saw this happen with elections in the United States, the United Kingdom, and even in Kenya. Cambridge Analytica greatly infringed on peoples’ privacy and used personal data to craft tools and messages that would be used to sway voters en masse. This happened without the knowledge of the data subjects who were targeted to influence their voting behavior.
What can we expect in the 2022 elections? Today there are more laws governing use of personal data and the likes of Cambridge Analytica may not go full throttle on mass persuasion. However, social media still plays a role in influencing people.
One place where this happens more is in WhatsApp groups where misinformation and disinformation are widely circulated. These form echo chambers where like minded people share information that they agree with and suppress information that they disagree with. The result is that people end up hearing only what they want to hear: good things about their preferred candidates and bad things about their opponents. It does not much whether the information is true or not. This risks increasing the political tensions as more voters take radical positions.
What can we do to make sure that technology works for the good of the elections? It will involve all of us ensuring that we do good. We must use the technology responsibly and must promote good values. WE must desist from sharing fake news and using technology to undermine opponents. The IEBC must also do its part to ensure that technology works well, and goodwill from all stakeholders is needed. This way, technology can work for the good of the elections.