Despite the relevance of the elections in Nigerian’s democratic transition, all elections in Nigeria till date have been marred by series of crisis and irregularities. The use of paper voting in these elections can largely be blamed for these occurrences. Easy accessibility, destructibility and alteration of ballot boxes, ballot papers and result sheets appear to have encouraged hooliganism around these materials, as well as endangering the lives of officials and voters. Also, the tendency for error and fraud is high because of the human factor in the administration of polling activities.
In spite of laudable electoral reforms over the years, election challenges and associated ills are still exacerbating, and in some instance taking new dangerous dimensions. The problem appear to be the more of the method than the process. It is clearly evident that paper balloting seem ill-suited for Nigerian political environment. Continued reforms of the process will most likely contribute little or nothing to offering a credible election, and will endlessly push more willing voters away from the polls, and extinguish the faint enthusiasm of the few strong-willed voting population.
Electronic voting is best suited to deal with the peculiarities of the Nigerian society – from simplifying logistics challenges to solving the issue of inclusivity, voter apathy, and transparency in counting and collation of results.
Argument that Nigeria isn’t ripe for adoption of e-voting system, though real, is far-fetched, and mostly premised on lack of trust of the electoral umpire. I will proceed to make a case for the adoption of e-voting system and why it is the best system for the peculiarity of Nigerian state, while addressing the concerns of oppositions to the e-voting system.
Issues with existing paper voting system
The popularity of paper voting system amongst many nations of the world notwithstanding, the system has continued to dent the credibility of Nigerian democracy by alienating the electorate from governance process. Since the return of democracy in 1999, elections have been done using the paper voting system with resultant colossal human, material, time and financial cost to the nations at every turn. This continue to throw up disturbing credibility issues both for the elections and the electoral management body.
Nigerian paper balloting has always been stained with blood. Election-related violence has claimed so many lives, with 2011 presidential poll being the highest since the return of democracy. 800 lives were lost following the ensuing three-day violent rioting/sectarian killings in some northern states according to Human Right Watch . 65,000 persons were also displaced. This crisis was attributed to ill-guided reactions from angry voters for perceived manipulation of votes akin to paper balloting. Most recently, Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room reported that about 58 persons lost their lives as a result of 2019 election-related violence .
There have not been shortage of other paper balloting ills. Issues like logistics challenges (typically late or non-arrival of election materials), intimidation of voters, snatching of ballot boxes, ballot stuffing, diversion of electoral materials, multiple voting, underage voting, impersonation, complicity of security agencies, delay in declaration of results, incorrect thumb printing, vote buying, slow process with the resultant long queues, falsification of results, inaccuracy in counting and collation of the electorate votes, are always manifesting.
Paper balloting system has come at a huge and increasing cost. According to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), it spent N112.9 billion for the conduct of elections in 2011(for 73.5 million voters), N108.8 billion in 2015(for 68.8 million voters) and a mammoth N242 billion (for 84 million voters) for the 2019 elections . INEC spends so much money in recruiting, training and deploying huge number of personnel, including security agents, required to administer the paper ballot system of election. Of the N242 billion proposed for 2019 elections, N85 billion was for logistics covering storing/housing and movement of election materials and one (1) million INEC’s electoral officers.
In 2019 elections, logistics challenges resulted in last minute (election eve) postponement of election for a week, with INEC attributing it to problems in the distribution of ballot papers and results sheets, as well as sabotage, after three fires at its offices in two weeks. Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated the cost of the postponement on the economy at $1.5 billion . The postponement also contributed to the low voters’ turn out. Despite having over 15 million voters more than 2015, 2,382,281 less Nigerians were accredited to vote in 2019, making it the lowest election turnout in Nigeria’s 20-year history as a democracy. Recall that the dates for ballot were announced more than a year before the elections.
The increasing number of invalid votes in the Nigerian election has become a major concern. This has resulted in a number of inconclusive gubernatorial ballot in the past. Majority of invalid votes arose from smear of the ink beyond one political party box on the ballot paper, resulting from wrong thumb-printing or improper folding of the ballot paper. Aside the two major political parties, invalid votes came third in the 2019 election result at 1,289,607 votes, representing close to half the difference between the votes scored by the winner and the runner-up. This has been recurring over the years. During the April 2011 presidential election, 1,259,506 votes were rejected as invalid out of the 39,469,484 votes cast; and in 2015 presidential election, 844,519 votes were rejected as invalid out of the 29,432,083 votes cast . This shows that a great number of voter, though participated in the elections, were disenfranchised by the inherent flaw in the voting system.
Repeated logistics challenges have also caused inconclusive process, and restiveness amongst voters, often degenerating into violence. Rogue electoral officials are easily recruited for fraud because of the ease at which they can manipulate the materials, process or results of the ballot system. Intended and unintended errors are easier to manifest in this system because of human factor.
Paper balloting have also not fully catered for people with disability. They can be wrongfully guided to vote for the wrong candidate.
Manual transmission and collation of results have thrown up erroneous and contentious results, giving rise to many post-election litigations at a huge cost to the country. A recent case of a senatorial election in Imo State where the returning officers was reported to have declared a doctored result under duress.
With continuous occurrence of these electoral problems, and the enormous liability that comes with it, there is need to look beyond the paper balloting for solution.
E-voting – A panacea to paper voting challenges.
Electronic device can be used for the purpose of casting votes, instead of paper. Often, e-voting is confused for i-voting (internet voting), though internet voting is a type of e-voting. Nigeria has used electronic devices in voter registration (EVR – Electronic Voter Register), and voter verification (Card reader). Though these devices were deployed to ease the process and eliminate fraud, their contributions were wiped off when they were accompanied by paper-voting. We can all attest to the resounding contributions of technology on other areas of life like corruption fight, banking, business management, education, communication and travels which is a pointer to its ability to ease up processes and enthrone transparency.
New South Wales Electoral Commission (NSWEC), broadly categories e-voting system into two: Direct Recording and Enumeration (DRE) systems, and Remote Electronic Voting (REV) Systems . With DRE systems, e-voting devices are installed at polling units prior to the commencement of voting, while with REV systems, voters can access the voting system at any location through a smart phone or a web browser of an Internet enabled computer. Though REV system has advantage in that it can use the existing infrastructures like phones and computer systems remotely, DRE is better suited for Nigerian political system because of high incidences of illiteracy, technological backwardness and poor access to internet facilities.
Electronic Voting System (EVS), can permit conducting all voting (Presidential, governorship, National and State assemblies) on the same day. Accreditation, voting, counting and result collation process will be faster, requiring lesser number of personnel, real-time, error free, and at reduced cost. This will reduce the ills like vote buying, logistics issues and violence, totally eliminate void votes, multiple voting, impersonation and falsification of results. Overall, transparency and integrity of the ballot will be guaranteed.
Multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic reality of Nigerian state naturally breeds trust and confidence issues which faith in technology might help to ameliorate. The overwhelming acceptance of electronic banking system shows that Nigeria society has a history of trust on the use of technology.
Across the globe, many nations are gradually adopting EVS either partly or wholly in the conduct of their elections. Countries like USA, Belgium, Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico, and Philippines have successfully used EVS in the conduct of elections. The last European parliamentary held earlier this year was successfully done with e-voting. In 2014, Namibia became the first African nation to use EVS. The Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) adjudged the Namibia election to be largely successful, and the experience became a reference point for the rest of Africa.
In Nigeria, EVS was deployed by Kaduna State government in the conduct of the 2018 Local Government chairmanship elections. Kaduna State Independent Election Commission (SIECOM) modelled the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) after that of Brazil. The EVMs used were lightweight (about 10kg), therefore were easy to transport. They are boxlike devices, and shaped like medium-sized printers. They feature 1.8GHz quad-core processors, 2GB RAM, 8GB ROM, 12.2-inch LED backlit touch display, USB 2.0, fingerprint scanner, SIM and PSAM slots, 13,000 mAH (battery life of 10-16 hours) and run on Android 5.1. They were programmed to automatically cut out blank votes and ensures quick counting of results. Each EVM has wide touch screen on which political party logos are displayed. Voter on making his/her choice, presses the green button to affirm their choice or the red button to cancel. Afterwards, an in-built thermal printer prints a slip to indicate that they have voted. The printed ballot slip contains SIECOM logo, logo and name of party chosen, date and time of vote cast and the serial number of the EVM. These receipts provide paper trail for auditability of the votes casted. The EVM prints the result at the conclusion of polls, automatically transmit same result electronically to the server room at KAD-SEICOM while storing same in its internal storage, thereby providing three different verification sources.
Because of low internet penetration in some of the areas these polling units were located, KAD-SIECOM chose virtual SIM cards to connect to any available network. EVM’s transmitted live-results were visible via a large screen.
Kaduna local elections were far less contentious, and highly applauded even by opposition, and that served as a confirmation of EVS’s suitability to Nigerian Society. Local Government elections in Nigerian are usually marred by irregularity, with the party in power always winning all the seats. In the case of Kaduna, the main opposition won three Chairmanships and some council seats. KAD-SIECOM reportedly saved N1.7 billion that would have been used in printing ballot papers.
Opposition to E-voting, a question of time, distrust or workability?
“Nigeria is not ripe” appear the most recurring responses when e-voting is discussed. But, truly, are we not ripe? I believe we are. A look at so many nations that have rejected EVS at one point or the other indicated that distrust, especially from the opposition party, was the basis for the rejection. The workability and suitability were often not tested nor questioned. A 2016 research by Uzedhe and Okhaifoh on e-voting solutions to Nigerian electoral system found that in Germany, e-voting was abandoned because of lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of EVS; in Ireland and Netherland, it was the opposition complaint on accuracy and secrecy of EVS, as well as the possibility of result verification; while in the United kingdom, it was the security complaints from the opposition parties.
Issues of illiteracy, privacy and vulnerability to hack have been touted too. Are these genuine concerns? Yes, they are, but they are not enough as there are workable measures to arrest these concerns.
Illiteracy for technology cannot be any worse than that of paper. EVS appear much easier because of very simple design, interactive user interface, and few steps required in voting. Aggressive sensitization and voter education are required to enlighten voters and get them accustomed to EVM use. For the purpose of auditability or verifiability, paper trail should be adopted, just like the case in Kaduna Local elections. Vulnerability to hack can be eliminated by using DRE standalones (keeping electoral process away from the internet), allowing results to be transmitted via a GSM network facility. EVMs are often fitted with SIM cards. Just like in case of Kaduna, virtual SIM cards can be used to connect to available network in low internet penetration areas. Lack of use of internet also reduced incidences of privacy leak. EVMs has security features that allow memory wipe after series of failed attempted logins.
If Nigerians can trust the Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) for cash transfers, withdrawals and transactions without questioning the provider of the technology and operator of the machine, then it tells that our major issue is not the suitability or workability of EVS but the credibility of the electoral umpire. Our concerns therefore should be properly directed by ensuring that the best team is assembled to head the Nigeria’s election management body.
We can improve on the EVMs deployed by KAD-SIECOM to include verification measures. Aside finger print authentication, other verification methods like Iris recognition, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) face recognition can be added to provide alternatives in any case any fails, and for physically challenged voters. Headphone can be incorporated to aid the blind instead of allowing their guide make the decision on their behalf.
For greater awareness, mock elections can be organized so that voters can get acquainted with the technology, with the exercise invariably raising enthusiasm and hope in the process. Piloting can be done in state elections before escalation to the national elections, allowing ample time for correction of mistakes at a smaller scale.
The electoral umpire need to commence the design for a suitable technological framework for EVS while carrying the relevant stakeholders along. The National Assembly need to commence amendment to electoral laws allowing the use of EVS. The legal and technical components need to be readied as soon as possible.
Getting the e-voting right opens window to finding uncontestable ways to remotely capture all Nigerians in future irrespective of their locations. First things first; let’s change the method.