Politics

E-voting: The clamour gains momentum

  • Electronic voting as game-changer for future polls

 

FELIX NWANERI writes on the renewed clamour for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to adopt electronic voting system, which many believe will boost the confidence of voters in the electoral process if properly implemented   

 

Nigeria conducts general elections every four years to determine those to take over the helm of affairs at the various levels of government. Unfortunately, the electorate have always displayed lack of enthusiasm in the process due to the fact that such polls are always marred by gross irregularities as well as lack credibility.

 

It is against this backdrop and other flaws that relevant political stakeholders, have over the years, clamoured for more adoption of modern techniques, especially the electronic voting system to improve the nation’s electoral process. Section 52 (1) (b) of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended), outlaws electronic voting in Nigeria as it states: “The use of the electronic voting machine, for the time being, is prohibited.”

 

However, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) seemed to be disposed to adopting such voting method if the extant laws are put in place. INEC’s chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, had while speaking at the opening of a two-day retreat with the National Assembly Committees on Electoral Matters in March this year, said the 2019 elections might be the last manual polls in Nigeria.

 

The INEC boss, however, said this is an achievable feat, only with the support of the National Assembly, tasking the lawmakers to expedite action on the amendment of the Electoral Act.

 

According to Yakubu, part of the proposed reform in the electoral system is to deepen the deployment of technology during elections in addition to the existing electronic voters register and accreditation.

 

His words: “The new amendments also sought to empower the commission to deepen the deployment of technology in the management of the voters’ register, voting and result collation processes.

 

Already, the commission has an electronic register of voters. Similarly, voter accreditation has also gone electronic.

 

“It is time for a new legislation to remove all encumbrances to further deployment of technology in the electoral process, especially in the accreditation of voters and transmission of election results. Sections 49 and 67 of the draft bill deal with these twin issues. Working with the National Assembly, it is our hope that the 2019 general election will be the last manual election in Nigeria.”

 

Noting that the expeditious passage of the Electoral Act amendment is critical to the preparations for the next general election, Yakubu averred: “Where the passage of the bill is delayed, it will affect the formulation of regulations and guidelines as well as the review and publication of the manual necessary for the training of adhoc staff for elections because both documents draw from the legal framework.” “There is need to expedite the process.

 

This is more so because some of the far-reaching amendments proposed by the National Assembly would require the procurement of new equipment, training of election officials and piloting of new procedures ahead of the general election.

 

“Early and adequate preparation is critical. Late deployment disrupts preparations and in an electoral process governed by fixed timelines provided by law, postponement must be avoided because of its far-reaching consequences as we have witnessed a number of times in our recent history.”

 

Deputy Senate President and chairman of the Constitution Review Committee, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, who raised the hope of a possible amendment to the Electoral Act to allow for electronic voting, said: “Without question, the 9th National Assembly is firmly committed to electoral reform.

 

We recognise across party lines that it is in our nation’s best interest to work together to strengthen our electoral laws and, consequently, better protect this very important and consequential democracy on the African continent.”

 

Also in July, the INEC chairman in a policy document on the forthcoming governorship  elections in Edo and Ondo states said the electoral commission will “work towards the full introduction of electronic voting in major elections starting from 2021.”

 

While many misconstrued this to mean that 2021 is the takeoff date for e-voting in Nigeria, spokesman to INEC’s chairman, Mr. Rotimi Oyekanmi, later said in a statement that the electoral commission had no such plans.

 

His words: “What the policy says under ‘ICT and Voter Registration’ (Roman figure v – page 12) is that INEC will pilot the use of electronic voting at the earliest possible time (not Edo and Ondo), but work towards the full introduction of electronic voting in major elections starting from 2021. “The key words here are pilot, work and towards. As we all know, INEC cannot unilaterally introduce electronic voting because our constitution does not allow/recognise it.

 

That’s why we said we will work towards the full introduction of e-voting.”

 

How e-voting works

 

Electronic voting also known as e-voting is a term encompassing several different types of voting. It embraces    both electronic means of casting votes and counting them, which includes punched cards, optical scan voting systems and specialised voting kiosks (selfcontained Direct-Recording Electronic voting systems – DRE) or transmission of ballots and votes via telephones, private computer networks or the Internet.

 

Specifically, two main types of e-voting can be identified: evoting which is physically supervised by representatives of governmental or independent electoral authorities (electronic voting machines located at polling stations) and remote e-voting, where voting is performed within the voter’s sole influence and is not physically supervised (voting from one’s personal computer, mobile phone, television or the internet).

 

Findings by New Telegraph showed that the system has been in use since the 1960s, when punched card systems debuted. Their first widespread use was in the United States (U.S) where seven counties switched to it for the 1964 presidential election. However, the new optical scan voting system allows a computer to count a voter’s mark on a ballot.

 

The DRE voting machines, which collect and tabulate votes in a single machine, are used by all voters in all elections in Brazil and India as well as on a large scale in Venezuela and the U.S.

 

They have also been used on a large scale in the Netherlands but have been decommissioned after public concerns. The internet voting system on the other hand, has gained popularity and has been used for elections and referendums in the United Kingdom (UK), Estonia and Switzerland as well as municipal elections in Canada and party primary elections in the U.S. and France.

 

Arguments for and against

 

While many believe that deploying biometrics to achieve accuracy will help curb electoral frauds such as multiple voting and ballot stuffing, which among others, have remained the bane of Nigeria’s electoral process, some stakeholders, have in the past, argued that Nigeria was not ripe for electronic voting.

 

Those who held this view then, argued that e-voting would be hard to realise given the high level of illiteracy in the country as well as the deficiency of relevant infrastructural requirements to drive it. Some political analysts even cited an example with the U.S, where it has been contended that electronic voting, especially DRE voting, facilitates electoral fraud.

 

However, those in support of the system, insists that it was time Nigeria embrace it, owing to the several challenges of conducting elections in the country with a population of about 200 million people, out of which are about 80 million registered voters, spread across 120,000 polling centres.

 

This, they noted, is in an addition to the towering number of political parties which makes difficult, the sourcing and procuring of balloting instruments, recruitment and training of personnel, transportation and movement of men and thousands of tonnes of election materials across varied and often difficult terrains over a relatively short time.

 

These analysts were quick to refer to the introduction of the Direct Data Capturing Machines (DDC) in the voters’ registration exercise and concluded that they assisted a great deal in drastically reducing multiple registrations, which is usually the starting point in election rigging.

 

The fears over e-voting as espoused by its antagonists, notwithstanding, some political stakeholders, including members of the National Assembly, who cut across party divides, agreed that it is the way to go.as it will provide a more secured and reliable system that will makes votes count.

 

The consensus is that the electronic nature of the system moderates the level of human interaction with it, thus diminishing its disposition to election malpractices and errors as the fool-proof and adaptable technology can instantaneously give collated results if communication links are provided to all polling units from the local, state to national level.

 

It was further reasoned that because the system is biometric based, there is no possibility of multiple voting and impersonation even as invalid votes as a result of ink smear in the traditional voting system, which has characterised recent polls would be eliminated, while realtime online view of results of votes cast makes it more transparent.

 

Other listed benefits of electronic voting were elimination of bulk paper work and the possibility of the electorate, casting their ballot from any part of the country for the candidate of their choice, thereby eliminating the risk, cost and stress of traveling from one place to the other to either register or to vote.

 

The most significant of the merits is that Nigerians in diaspora can also vote irrespective of their geographic location. 2019 botched bid It would be recalled that the Eight Senate under the leadership of Senator Bukola Saraki had pushed for electoral reform to strengthen internal democracy, reduce electioneering cost, increase political participation and the conduct of free fair and credible elections through technological innovations and an electronic database, but failed to get the presidential approval at the end.

 

President Muhammadu Buhari, in refusing to sign that bill, said: “I am declining assent to the bill principally because I am concerned that passing a new electoral bill this far into the electoral process for the 2019 general election, which commenced under the 2015 Electoral Act, could create some uncertainty about the applicable legislation to govern the process.

 

“Any real or apparent change to the rules this close to the election may provide an opportunity for disruption and confusion in respect of which law governs the electoral process.” Kaduna State example While the nation’s constitution is yet to provide for electronic voting, Kaduna State, in 2018 set a record as it pioneered the use of electronic voting machine in the conduct of its local government elections.

 

Those who voted during the polls said that the process was easier and faster. Election result sheets were printed from the machines to show that there were no pre-recorded votes before the commencement of voting.

 

Also, accredited voters did not make use of ballot papers rather they faced an electronic voting machine displaying the logos of the political parties that participated in the election. By pressing the logo of a preferred political party, the voter registers a choice that is recorded and acknowledged by the machine.

 

At the end of the exercise, it was commendations for Governor Nasir el-Rufai for the introduction of the electronic voting machines. Ninth Senate rekindles hope Perhaps, it was against the backdrop of the gains of e-voting that the Senate, in late 2019, began a fresh electoral reform to mandate INEC to adopt the method for future polls.

 

In this regard, a bill sponsored by the Deputy President of the Senate, Ovie Omo-Agege and Abubakar Kyari (APC, Borno State), seeks amendment of section 65 of the Electoral Act 2010 by introducing a “National Electronic Register of Election Results.”

 

The bill stipulates that data of accredited voters must be transmitted to the central data base upon the conclusion of the accreditation of voters, which would be done through the use of the card reader.

 

It further stipulates that “at the end of accreditation of voters, the presiding officer shall transmit the voter accreditation data by secure mobile electronic communication to the central database of the commission kept at the national headquarters of the commission.

 

“Any presiding officer who contravenes this provision shall be liable, on conviction, to a minimum of imprisonment of at least five years without an option of fine.

 

“In respect of data of accreditation of voters, including polling unit results, for an election, the commission shall not shut down its central database kept at its national headquarters until all election       petitions and appeals pertaining to that election are heard and determined by a tribunal or court.

 

” It states: “The commission shall compile, maintain and update on a continuous basis, a register of election results to be known as the National Electronic Register of Election Results which shall be a database of election results from each polling unit, including collated results of each election conducted by the commission.

 

“National Electronic Register of Election Results shall be kept by the commission at its national headquarters and any person or political party may obtain from the commission, on payment of reasonable fees as may be determined by the commission, a certified true copy of any election result kept in the National Electronic Register of Election Results for the federation, a state, local government, area council, ward or polling unit, as the case may be and the certified true copy may be in printed or electronic format.”

 

On electronic voting, the Electoral Reform Bill seeks amendment of section 52 (2) of the 2010 Electoral Act and introduced a new provision stating that “the commission may adopt electronic voting or any other method of voting in any election it conducts as it may deem fit.”

 

Stakeholders back INEC Justified as the President’s position might seemed them, some analysts are however of the view that the urgency for Nigeria to adopt electronic voting is now given the ugly experiences of recent elections, especially the November 2019 governorship elections in Kogi and Bayelsa states.

 

A chieftain of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Chekwas Okorie, who spoke with New Telegraph on the move by INEC to adopt electronic voting, said it will make the electoral process more participatory.

 

 

His words: “I feel vindicated and I am happy that INEC has been compelled by circumstances to listen to voice of reason. I have been in the vanguard of the crusade, canvassing for electronic voting since 2012, when President Goodluck Jonathan was in power.

 

By 2014, I had done a memo that had gone to then President Jonathan, the leadership and every member of the National Assembly on the matter. “I ceased every opportunity to tell INEC and the leadership of the National Assembly that electronic voting is the only voting method that will make our electoral process participatory; that it will take away thuggery, reduce cost and eradicate declaration of public holidays during elections as done in other countries thereby saving us the cost of shutting down the economy during elections. I raised all these issues, but the National Assembly, Jonathan administration and even the present administration of President Muhammadu Buhari never took it serious.

 

“But, at a time, we came close to President Buhari signing the amendment to the Electoral Act, which would have allowed electronic voting into law, but the politics of the Eight National Assembly and its battle with executive at the time intervened and it didn’t work. But now that we have a National Assembly that is not at loggerheads with the executive and INEC that has been compelled by circumstances, we should now go for it.

 

“As a matter of fact, this is what INEC should have done before deregistration of political parties because it is only when you have a level playing field, which electronic voting system will guarantee, that you can determine a party that is capable of winning election or not. In an imperfect arrangement, no small party can afford thugs or manipulation of results.

 

In fact, I am still urging INEC to go full blast by 2021; that is to say, remove the ballot box arrangement completely, so that the thugs will have no ballot boxes to carry.”

 

Insisting that there is no half measure to electronic voting, Okorie said: “INEC should bypass the collation centres from the wards to local governments, where manipulation of figures takes place, so that result can be transmitted from the polling units to the state and national collation centres. That is what electronic entails and the electoral commission must go the whole hog else its decision will amount to nothing.

 

“If you will recall, INEC after the last general election said that Nigeria recorded 35 per cent in terms voters participation. That is even the highest we’ve had in recent times because it used to be between 25 and 30 per cent. That means that about 90 per cent of Nigerians have never been involved in electing their leaders. However, with electronic voting, we will be looking at 80 or 90 per cent voters’ turnout and that is only when you can say that the people have spoken or that victory is legitimate.”

 

On whether there is an enabling law that will allow electronic voting, Okorie said the “law was ready before the last general election, but because of the politics of the Eight National Assembly and the presidency, the President returned the amendment to the Electoral Act after three of four times it has gone forward and backwards as it was said then that it was too late to introduce changes given that the elections were around the corner.”

 

Allaying the fear of the bill not being assented to this time, the founding National Chairman of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), said given cordial working relationship between the present executive and the National Assembly, there seems no impediment to bill.

 

His words: “In the case of the last elections, there was so much bad blood between the Eight National Assembly and the executive, but now that the All Progressives Congress (APC) is controlling both the executive and legislative arms of government and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) also opting for electronic voting, I don’t see anything stopping the President from signing the amendment bill into law.”

 

The Inter Party Advisory Council (IPAC), which also endorsed the move by INEC to embrace e-voting, described the decision as a giant step forward in Nigeria’s political process. Chairman of IPAC, Dr. Leonard Nzenwa, in a statement, said the use of electronic voting system in conducting elections in Nigeria will guarantee free, fair, credible, transparent, acceptable and peaceful polls.

 

National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Prince Uche Secondus, who also backed adoption of electronic voting for future polls, said such measure will ensure that electoral process is devoid of struggle, killing and desperation.

 

Secondus, who spoke during the party’s campaign for the recent local government elections in Ebonyi State, maintained that is possible for Nigerians to vote from the comfort of their homes as witnessed during the recent election by the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA).

 

“There should be e-voting. It will stop all forms of desperation from politicians. This is possible. We will tell the Federal Government about it; the killings and desperation are too much. This is a task that must be done. It will stop all the killings”, he said. Jonathan lends his voice Former President Goodluck Jonathan, who spoke on the issue last week, said electronic voting is the only way to credible elections in Nigeria and the rest of Africa.

 

Speaking on the presidential panel of The Osasu Show Symposium 2020, Jonathan said the outcome of elections should be decided by the ballots, not by any other means, not even the courts. His words: “To me, if Africa will move forward, it will not just be about routine conduct of elections.

 

This year alone in West Africa made up of 15 states, we have five states that had elections. So, in terms of regular elections, we are progressing, but are these elections credible? Are they representing a constructional democratic setting is the issue. “Regular elections, fine, but elections per se is not democracy. If the votes of the citizens don’t count, then it is as good as military dictatorship. So, for me, the reforms first get to make the votes count.

 

“And taking a critical examination about the way elections are being conducted across the continent, at least from the once I’ve observed, I’ve seen that the only thing that we must do to get there is through electronic voting.

 

“People may feel, yes someone could manipulate, smart boys who can hack into the system and do all kinds of things, yes, but still people still use electronic system to move hundreds of millions of dollars across the world. So, I still believe very sincerely that that is the way to go.”

 

“For elections to be democratic, that means the outcome elections must depend on the ballot not any other institution, not even the court. If the ballots don’t decide who wins, then we are not practicing democracy. And If we are now in a situation where people use force of arms using thugs that is well in Nigeria to win elections, then we can’t say we are practicing democracy.”

 

While it is believed that there is the need to reform the country’s electoral process for its results to be less controvertible, the fresh attempt by the Ninth Senate to amend the constitution offers a veritable opportunity to relevant stakeholders to take the necessary steps to allow the legal framework that will empower INEC to adopt the electronic voting system in order to address noticeable flaws in the country’s Secondus Okorie elections.

 

 

 

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