OPTIMISING TECHNOLOGY TO SAFEGUARD PEOPLE’S WILL
Technology makes a more efficient and transparent administration and management of elections, contends Festus Okoye
The 2023 general elections will be Nigeria’s sixth successive elections since the country’s transition to democracy in May 1999. In fact, 2023 will mark a significant milestone of 24 years of continuous democratic governance, without any threat of military intervention in Nigeria’s post-independence history.
Based on literature on democratic politics and the annual survey conducted by Freedom House, Nigeria’s democracy is firmly on the road to consolidation. An important element of this journey is the reality that the country’s elections have continued to improve both in terms of credibility and in approximating the will of the people.
At the core of this progressive improvement in the electoral process is the role played by the leadership of INEC in reforming the institution through organizational and operational restructuring, including the introduction of strategic and election project planning and electoral cycle approach to preparations for elections; support for the enactment of a new electoral legal framework and the gradual but steady infusion of electoral technology for biometric registration of voters, voter accreditation and result management.
Although it is true that elections do not make democracy, it is also true that democracy, as a political project is meaningless without elections that are substantially free and fair. Election is not only a mechanism through which citizens freely choose their leaders and hold them accountable; it is also a mechanism for peaceful transfer of power and resolving political conflict.
In other words, besides the fact that election offers citizens the opportunity to exercise their franchise by choosing their leaders, it is at the heart of societal conflict resolution. Considering that elections constitute the life wire of democratic politics, it is important to understand the issue of election management and have working knowledge of the meaning of democracy.
According to Larry Diamond, free and fair elections have four major components: one, Independent political parties that compete in electoral process freely and fairly; two, Freedom of the individual to freely participate in politics and election process based on their own choice; three, Substantial freedom that allows every adult to exercise the franchise by applying their voting right equally with equal weight; and four, Election outcomes or counting of vote that is accurate and legitimate.
At the most basic level, democracy is a type of government or political system ruled by citizens, people who are members of a society. Over the years a distinction has been made between direct and representative democracy.
Regardless of the theoretical debates about democracy and its relationship with power and politics, for a democracy to be meaningful to citizens, the electoral process should be credible enough to enhance citizens’ participation in governance, ensure government accountability and encourage political competition. It is for this reason that free, fair and credible election remains one of the basic and crucial prerequisites of democracy and democratic governance.
In fact, election is central to the principles and practice of democracy as the notion of popular will as the source of sovereignty of the modern state can only find concrete expressions in elections. It is the only direct way through which the people can exercise their right to determine their rulers.
Apart from offering choice to the electorates, election confers legitimacy on those elected. Furthermore, it promotes accountability, in the sense that the threat of defeat at the polls exerts pressure on elected public officials to take account of popular interests and wishes in their decisions. Even more importantly, despite the divisive nature of electoral politics, it offers huge prospects in the management of diversity because the electoral arena offers opportunity for different viewpoints to be canvassed and the electorate making choice(s) on the basis of the information at their disposal. Indeed, some electoral systems are designed to promote the representation of diverse interests and groups. It is therefore linked to the idea of peaceful and orderly succession.
There are irreducible minimums for a good election. In some countries, some of them are taken for granted and have become part of the established culture and values of the society while in others, the fight for entrenchment of these norms is still ongoing.
Whatever the case may be within any setting, an electoral management body that is independent, inclusive, professional, and imbued with the desire for early planning, procurement and deployment and monitoring of election materials and personnel is fundamental to the success of any election and the use and application of end-to-end technology to logistics to obviate pernicious human interference in the electoral process has also become essential.
As an Election Management Body, INEC has made steady progress in the deployment of technology in the electoral process. This is based on the conviction that technology can make for a more efficient and transparent administration and management of elections, by obviating pernicious human interference in the process.
In 1999, the Commission introduced technology in its operations through the creation of a Computer Room in its research department. The Computer Room evolved and metamorphosed to become the Computer and IT(C&T) unit and thereafter it became Information Technology and Communications under the office and direct supervision of the Chairman.
In 2002, the Unit graduated and became a full department of Information and Communications Technology (ICT). In the same year the Commission started the compilation of an electronic register of voters using the Optimal Mark Recognition (OMR) technology. In 2006 it introduced the Direct Data Capture Machine (DDCM). In 2021, the Commission upgraded and introduced the INEC Voter Enrolment Device (IVED). The Commission introduced IVED to improve the quality of data capture at the point of enrolment (facials and fingerprints migrating from the initial mono-biometric of fingerprints to bimodal biometrics of fingerprints and facials). This involves an entire hardware and software change, designed to capture more information on the voters including their emails, birth and other personal particulars.
The need to enhance the power, prestige and sanctity of the vote led to steady improvement in voter accreditation process. The concept of one-person one vote, the secrecy of the vote and the right to free choice devoid of any encumbrance is at the heart of the electoral process. In 2015 the Commission introduced technology for voter accreditation with the Smart Card Reader (SCR) to compare the fingerprints of a voter that appears at the Polling unit with the fingerprints captured from that same voter when he/she was registered. In 2020, the Commission decided to retire the SCR and introduced the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) which added facial capture to the existing fingerprint technology.
Given the trajectory of the electoral process in Nigeria and the numerous complaints relating to the results management process, the Commission decided to improve on the openness and credibility of the process by uploading electronic copies of the Polling Unit Result Sheet (EC8A) for General Public view on the INEC Result Viewing Portal (IReV). “This implies that the EC8A form filled and signed by each Presiding Officer (PO) is scanned or photographed and uploaded to a public domain which can be viewed by the general public”. This has been successfully accomplished in 105 off cycle elections since August 2020.
The processes and policies of the Commission have evolved overtime. The evolution of the use of technology in the electoral process is a function of deliberate policies by the Commission, the support of stakeholders and societal development. This evolution has been captured in the electoral legal framework, as well as in the administrative policies of the Commission.
During the Electoral Act amendment process between 2019 and 2022, the Commission proposed 91 amendments to the National Assembly which considered and accepted only 48. The President assented to the Act on the 25th February 2022 and the Commission released the Timetable and Schedule of Activities for the 2023 general election on 26th February 2022. Key Innovations in the new electoral legal framework include the early release of funds to the Commission, the reconfiguration of the voter registration process, enhanced internal democracy in political party primaries, the use of technology in the electoral process, the power of the Commission to review decisions of election officials and a new post election regime among others.
The Electoral Act, 2022 validates the technological innovations deployed by the Commission by cementing the place of the Smart Card Readers/Bimodal Voter Accreditation System in voter accreditation process. This was hitherto an administrative decision provided in the Commission’s Regulations and Guidelines for the Conduct of Elections.
Section 41(1) of the Act gives the Commission the right and power to provide suitable boxes, electronic voting machines or any other voting devices for the conduct of elections. Section 47(2) of the Act provides that to vote, the Presiding Officer shall use a Smart Card Reader or any other technological device that may be prescribed by the Commission, for the accreditation of voters, to verify, confirm or authenticate the particulars of the intending voter in the manner prescribed by the Commission. Section 50 of the Act provides that subject to section 63(here read section 60) of the Act, voting at an election and the transmission of result under the Act shall be in accordance with the procedure determined by the Commission.
The use of technology in the electoral process has re-engaged the Nigerian people with the electoral process. It has also impacted the work of the Commission and this can be seen from the engagement of young persons in the continuous voter registration exercise and the positive comments by the Nigerian people from the off-cycle governorship and bye-elections conducted by the Commission.
Some of the technological innovations deployed for electoral activities are:
One, INEC Voter Enrolment Device (IVED) for voter registration (Introduced to improve data capturing at the point of enrolling voters-facials and fingerprints, migrating from the initial mono-biometrics of fingerprints to bimodal biometrics of fingerprints and facials)
Two, Voter Registration Online Portal. The portal gives voters’ access to pre-enroll for voter registration, update their details, transfer their registration as well as submit details for permanent Voter Card replacement and location of their Permanent Voters Cards. For the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) conducted from June28, 2021 and July 31, 2022 out of the 9,518,188 valid registrants, youths between the ages of 18 and 34 accounted for 7,286,871(76.56%).
Three, introduced the Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) to remove multiple and double registrants. Using the technology, the Commission removed a total of 2,780,756 double and multiple registrants out of 12,298,944 registrants that completed their registration between 28th June 2021 and 31st July 2022.
Four, Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) for voter accreditation. The Commission added facial technology to the existing fingerprint technology. With bimodal authentication, no person can vote more than once or vote without accreditation, as the face of the person would have been captured during authentication.
Five, INEC Result Viewing portal (IREV) for result uploads. To improve the openness and credibility of elections, form EC8A filled and signed by each Presiding Officer is scanned or photographed and uploaded to a public domain, which can be viewed by the general public.
Six, INEC Candidate Nomination Portal (political parties use this portal to upload the list and personal particulars of their validly nominated candidates.
Seven, Media Accreditation Portal. Media organizations use the portal to apply for accreditation to cover a scheduled election.
Eight, The Observer Group Portal. Registered domestic election observers, international observers and embassies apply for accreditation to deploy observes to observe scheduled elections.
Nine, The INEC Political Party Polling Agents Portal. This portal enables political parties to carry out upload and management of polling and collation agents within an integrated system.
Technology comes with its challenges, though, especially in a society grappling with infrastructural deficits and other developmental challenges.
For instance, the BVAS did not perform optimally during the Anambra Governorship election and in the FCT Area Council election. However, with improved functionality, the BVAS has performed optimally in the elections conducted thereafter. The BVAS functionality improved significantly during the Ekiti and Osun Governorship elections and to improve on this, the Commission will undertake mock accreditation in all the Senatorial Districts of the country before the 2023 general election. The Commission has started robust training of its staff on the use of the BVAS which will be cascaded to the 774 Local Government Area and 8,809 Registration Area for Technical Support Staff and the Presiding Officers and Assistant Presiding Officers that will be in charge of the 176, 846 Polling Units on election day.
The Commission will continue to improve the security of its data, networks and other infrastructure. The Commissions data recovery centers will be upgraded and all its platforms enhanced. Protecting its platforms and assets has been a huge challenge. The Commissions platforms are always subject to attacks by political actors and faceless individuals and groups using hackers to discredit the Commission and the process. The Commission will continue to work hard to strengthen the sanctity of its platforms and protect its data.
The Commission is firm and fixed on its resolve to conduct free, fair, transparent and inclusive elections. The Commission will continue to be open and transparent in its technological innovations because election business is public business and the public has a right to know what the Commission is doing. The Commission will continue to gradually infuse technology in the electoral process to enhance transparency and verifiability in voter authentication and result management.
The level of technological development in the country and the state of infrastructure will invariably impact on the technology the Commission can deploy. In this regard, the Commission will continue to make haste slowly as accuracy in result management is more important than the speed at which technology is introduced. We are confident that the BVAS and IReV will form an important pillar and component in the march towards an electoral process driven by technology to obviate malicious human interference in the electoral process.
Okoye is National Commissioner of the Independent National Electoral Commission and chairman of the Information and Voter Education Committee of the Commission