Biometric Elections in Zimbabwe – Managing the Risks

Samuel Chindaro

The intention to introduce a Biometric Voting System (BVS) in Zimbabwe for the 2018 elections by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) should be applauded as a step in the right direction. The fact that the introduction of the system has been done after calls from the opposition and other experts including this author, for introduction of this technology should also additionally boost the credibility of ZEC which has responded positively to these calls. ZEC is following in the footsteps of other countries including Benin, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, Togo, Mauritania, Ivory Coast, DRC and Nigeria among others, which have either implemented or trialled this technology.

by Samuel Chindaro (@schindaro)

Even though, the biometrics technology itself is now mature, tried and tested; its implementation in an electoral system; especially in Zimbabwe’s current state requires careful management of risks if it is to achieve its desired goals. Handled in the right way, the introduction of this technology to elections in Zimbabwe will go a long way in eliminating the controversy which has accompanied previous elections. The advantages of using biometrics technology and the process involved have been covered previously by this author.

The frequency at which ICT projects run late and over-budget, makes it clear that Zimbabwe’s BVS project is at a high risk of failure if it’s not adequately planned. As with any major technological project, the introduction of a BVS, especially in the challenging Zimbabwean environment must be done with a full understanding and overview of the requirements and the risks involved. Fundamental to the success of such a project is an appreciation of the procurement and running costs, and thereafter the sustainability of the technology.

Ideally, the preparations for introduction of advanced technology in elections should start soon after the preceding elections, in order to maximise the time for system testing, procedural development, training, etc. Procuring major systems at the last minute increases costs reduces benefits and undermines the sustainability of the technology. Procurement of election materials is among the most costly part of the electoral process and any delay or shortfall in the procurement or distribution of materials could have serious implications on the rest of the electoral schedule.

The minimum requirements to implement a BVS are the acquisition of voter registration kits (cameras, laptops, power supply, and accessories), registration and database software, duplicate analysis software for fingerprints or face recognition (software to identify and eliminate duplicate entries). This should be accompanied by training of operators and providers of on-site technical support. A BVS requires properly trained staff and effective operational support and maintenance structures to have a chance to succeed. It is important for the success of the project that the electoral body hires experienced experts to lead the project implementation and not rely on political appointees.

The choice of technology which ZEC is going to adopt for the BVS will have a big impact on the procurement process. The choice of the appropriate level of technology to implement should be backed by a comprehensive and properly resourced feasibility study. It is vital the electoral board carries out adequate validation tests for biometric voter registration, identification and verification (proving that the registrant is who they are claiming to be). ZEC should therefore allocate adequate time for the procurement and validation process, integrating the necessary buffers to reduce impacts of potential delays.

The sustainability of the Biometric Voting System is another important aspect when choosing and acquiring the technology. The system should be re-usable and be able to be sustained locally without relying on external experts, technicians and vendors. There are high risks related to lack of local technical service, backup support and spares for high-end technological solutions. ZEC should be able to attract and retain local staff with appropriate levels of skills. The University of Zimbabwe, National University of Science and Technology and Chinhoyi University of Technology (among others) have been steadily churning out graduates and researchers in this field. Maximising on local expertise will ensure that the technology survives beyond one election cycle and can also potentially be expanded to other institutions other than ZEC.

Relying on external vendors and technological experts will challenge the integrity of the electoral process and the confidence in ZEC, and raise the question of legal responsibility, national ownership and sovereignty (remember the NIKUV controversy?). Relying on external expertise and suppliers will land the country in the hands of organisations/companies who have little interest in capacity building, who may retain intellectual property rights and therefore challenge the sustainability of the technology resulting in both donor dependency and vendor lock-in. Therefore, alongside recruitment of appropriate local staff, it is vital that the BVS acquired should be one meeting specific standardisation of practices and processes to avoid the process being locked to one vendor, which additionally, minimises competition and drives up costs through monopolisation.

The frequent and unpredictable power cuts which take place in Zimbabwe make it important that contingency planning is prioritised by ZEC for the implementation of the BVS. Alternative power supply sources such as standby generators or Uninterruptable Supplies (UPS) should be in place for the duration of the voting process. Associated with power cut risks are data loss, data corruption and equipment loss which will require appropriate back-up servers and other disaster recovery strategies.

There are other general issues which ZEC should be considering as they build up to the introduction of a BVS. It is crucial to the acceptance of the process that ZEC manages the perceptions of voters and other stakeholders. Electoral technology must generally empower local stakeholders and therefore decisions on the choice of technology should, where practical, involve stakeholder participation and reflect their input. The relevance of any technology applied to electoral administration significantly determines the overall credibility and quality of the entire electoral process. It is therefore important to involve all stakeholders, presenting the benefits clearly, and being transparent about procurement procedures, time of deliveries, costs and risks. ZEC must also carry out transparent pilot and evaluation tests which it can use for civic education and public outreach.

It is advisable for ZEC to organize a consultation process with those users or their representatives to ensure that their needs are met, they are satisfied and that the BVS is acceptable and reliable. It is important to provide sufficient information to users to enable them to feel included in the process and therefore increase the likelihood that the new technology will be successfully accepted and implemented. Since election technology has the potential to directly affect the political process, it is important to engender a sense of ownership in its users. In addition, accessibility, versatility and equality considerations are to be taken into account when adopting new technology to ensure that people with special needs are included.

The challenges to ZEC are not only restricted to technology and procurement. Advanced technology alone cannot guarantee the integrity of elections without corresponding legal and administrative protective mechanisms. ZEC must ensure that the legal framework is compatible with the introduction and use of BVS technology. Associated with acquisition of biometric data is the issue of data protection and right to privacy. While there is a need for electoral data to be in the public domain, the balance between, on one hand, the reasonable demands for transparency in electoral processes and the right to privacy of the citizen on the other is a delicate exercise which requires careful handling.

The biggest challenge is how to ensure a sustainable, appropriate, cost effective and transparent use of technology, particularly in Zimbabwe’s fragile political environment. Provided the BVS is operationally appropriate, cost-effective, timely implemented, transparent and sustainable, it can build credibility by improving the speed and efficiency of the electoral process. It is however important to be realistic about the associated risks and their sources. In some cases risks develop because there are participants who may want the process to fail for their own selfish reasons, including those who are deriving benefits from the status quo. It is hoped that ZEC will be taking appropriate measures to mitigate any risks associated with the implementation of the proposed BVS.

Dr Samuel Chindaro is an Electronics Engineer, biometrics expert and researcher, trained at NUST in Zimbabwe, the University of Birmingham and the University of Kent in the UK. At Kent, he was the leader of a specialist research group on biometrics technology. He can be contacted at S.Chindaro@gmail.com. This article was first published at TechZim