Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Feasibility of Using Biometrics Technology for Zimbabwe Elections

1.     Introduction

In a previous article published by the author, “Biometrics in Elections” was discussed, with emphasis on how this technology works. In this follow–up article this issue is further explored taking into account the current status of the voters’ roll and current economic and social environment in Zimbabwe. The feasibility of introducing “Biometrics in Elections”  is looked into, taking into account the costs  involved and precedence from other countries. The issue of voter identification at polling stations and problems arising from the current process will be explored. Given the history of electoral problems and disputes which have tragically led to loss of lives in Zimbabwe, it is argued that biometrics can and should be implemented to ensure credible elections.

2.     Background

The call for the employment of technology in Zimbabwe for both voter registration and facilitation of the electoral process is not entirely new.  Masvingo MP, Mr Tongai Matutu called for the introduction of biometrics,  lodging a motion in Parliament to this effect in 2010. The issue was raised again in March 2012 by Mr Pishai Muchauraya, who stated that though it had been addressed with Justice and Legal Affairs Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, nothing concrete had materialised. In April 2012, the Minister of ICT, Nelson Chamisa also called for the adoption of a digital biometric voters roll. The author of this article also brought this issue to the limelight in a publication in July 2012 in which the basics behind Biometrics Technology were explored. Most recently calls led by Misihairabwi-Mushonga, to implement an ‘on-line voters’ registration’ have been rejected by the Registrar General who contends that this does not provide adequate checks as required in Section 24 of the Electoral Act. In this article the case for using biometrics for elections in Zimbabwe is put forward, with particular emphasis on producing a clean and credible voters’ roll for the upcoming elections and the referendum.   The feasibility of doing so in the current environment will be tabled.

3.     Importance of Voters Roll

The voters’ roll is of paramount importance for the running of any democratic election, and as such needs to be kept accurate and up to date. To hold credible elections it is imperative to have credible voter registration. A bloated or inaccurate voters’ register always has a negative effect on the electoral process. The voter registration framework and processes must be designed to allow only eligible persons to register as voters. Therefore the voters’ roll has a direct influence on the results of any poll, as only those on the roll are allowed to vote. The quality of the voters’ role is a crucial factor in determining the validity and legitimacy of election results and can be a deciding factor on the outcome of elections

A deficient voters' roll will disenfranchise those entitled to vote and an inflated roll with duplicate entries, ‘ghost voters’ and names of people who have migrated, exposes itself to electoral fraud, for example through ballot stuffing and manipulation of numbers without raising an obvious alarm. It can also affect the delimitation of constituencies by giving wrong indications of the population within each constituency – directly impacting on and influencing the election of MPs. It is therefore vital that measures be put in place to ensure an accurate voters’ roll before conducting any elections in Zimbabwe. It can make or break the democratic process and therefore the embracing of any technology which can improve this process is important.

4.     The State of Zimbabwe’s Voters Roll

The state of the voters’ roll has historically been controversial in the past elections, which have been held in Zimbabwe. It has emerged as a bone of contention each time the country has prepared for elections, and the anticipated 2013 elections are not an exception. Participants in elections have raised the issue of ghost voters; with names of deceased persons, young people below the eligible voting age appearing in the voter’s roll. Furthermore, names and addresses of completely non-existent voters have been known to feature on the roll. Duplication of names in different constituents has also been raised as a contentious issue, with the high-profile case of MP Mr Pishai Muchauraya whose name appeared in two constituencies: Makoni South and Makoni Central, in the 2008 voters roll being a prominent example. [Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) Report, 2010].

Last Name First Name Sex DOB National ID Block Constituency Address
BALENI LUKA M 16/03/1966 29-105633-G-38 050129 GWERU URBAN 7-5TH STR GWERU
BALENI LUKA M 16/03/1966 29-105633-G-38 050129 MKOBA 7-5TH STR GWERU

1 to 3 Same ID and Name - different address in a different constituency = Duplicate
4 to 6 Same ID, Name and Address in a different constituency with the Same Block number indicating the whole Block is duplicated in a wrong Constituency = Copy
7 Same ID, Name and Address in the SAME Constituency with the Same Block number where the whole file on the CD supplied is mis-named = Copy

An extract from Zimbabwe's voters' roll showing multiple entries (2013 VISION – SEEING DOUBLE AND THE DEAD A PRELIMINARY AUDIT OF ZIMBABWE’S VOTERS’ ROLL : By Derek Matyszak, Research and Advocacy Unit.)

The state of the Zimbabwe voters’ roll as of October 2010 was described as a complete shambles.  Reports produced by the ZESN based on the roll supplied by the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) at that time revealed that there had been an increase of 366,550 in the number of voters from the roll used in the 2008 harmonised elections. Debatable figures of 49,239 new voters over the age of 50 with 16,033 of these over the age of 70 and with 1,488 over the age of 100 were presented in the report.  According to the report in Mount Darwin East there were 118 registered voters over 100 years old, with a significant number having the same date of birth (01.01.1901). With Wikipedia documenting only 3 men and 3 women aged 108 and above in Zimbabwe as of 2012, the reader is invited to make a verdict on the authenticity of the above figures.

A number of registered voters were either under age or very young children (228). The report also revealed that 182 564 people were duplicated in the same or more than one constituency. The ZESN report showed that 27% of voters registered in the voters’ roll were deceased, with the case of David Stevens, who was widely reported in Zimbabwean Newspapers as the first victim of the land redistribution programme being highlighted. It is not clear as to how many people who are in the Diaspora (and not allowed to vote) are still on the voters roll, but an educated guess should put this figure into millions!

According to the Registrar General there were 5 612 464 registered voters by December 2007, but the number rose to 5 934 768 by February the following year. This number is quoted to have gone down to 5,589 355 by November 2012 (Herald: 20/12/2012).  These figures are also debatable according to a report produced by the South African Institute of Race Relations, which analysed the roll  as it stood in 2010 and concluded that taking into account Zimbabwe’s population, age-range and levels of voters’ registration elsewhere, the voters roll should consist of a maximum of 3.2 Million people (

Even though these figures may not be entirely accurate and up-to-date, the above reports and statistics give indications that the current state of the voters’ roll does not provide a firm foundation for conducting credible elections. The roll provides a recipe for possible chaos post-elections with results likely to be disputed by any losing candidates, as happened in the past.

5.     Biometrics Elections in Africa and other Developing Countries

The proposal for adopting technology has not just been plucked out of the air without considering any precedence. Biometric technology has been used successfully in a number of countries across the world, and in particular Africa.

In 2005, "La Commission Electorale Ind├ępendante" in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) used biometric technology to register more than 25 million voters ahead of the country's first democratic elections in four decades. In Nigeria, some 65 million people had their pictures taken and fingerprints scanned and the system was used in presidential and legislative elections in 2011. Ghana registered more than 12 million voters using biometrics in 2012. In Kenya, after protracted disputes over procurement, 15,000 biometric registration kits have arrived ahead of the elections scheduled for March 2013. Sierra Leone’s national biometric voter registration was carried out over a 3-month period in 2012, registering over 2.5 million people to vote across the country.

Biometric voter registration in Kenya (credit: The People)

Other African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal, Cameroon, Somaliland and Uganda have also turned to technology to improve the accuracy of their voter registers. Zimbabwe’s neighbour, Zambia has adopted a biometric voters’ roll and is receiving aid from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to provide the technology.

 Biometric voting machine at a Ghanaian polling station (credit: Gabriela Barnuevo)

Almost half a million electronic voting machines were in action in Brazil's municipal elections in 2012. In a pilot program, around 7.5 million of 140 million Brazilian voters were using fingerprint-based biometric machines. Brazil’s Federal Election Court (“Tribunal Superior Eleitoral – TSE”) wants every voter in the country to use biometric machines by 2018. Currently, the world's largest biometric identity exercise, is taking place in India, and is reported to be well on its way to reaching its target of half the country's population.

6.     Biometrics for Voter Registration

Biometrics has been used in civil and voter registration around the world for more than a decade with the aim to limit fraud and enhance voter registration.  In biometrics terms the equivalent of registering eligible voters is enrolment, and the resultant voters’ register/roll is equivalent to a database.

The use of biometrics in voter registration can ensure that no persons are excluded. The voter registration process should include all adult eligible citizens, including the poor or homeless people, or residents of remote areas. With the versatility and mobility of modern biometric equipment, inclusion of all eligible citizens can be assured. It can go a long way in ensuring that appropriate registration facilities are available to those for whom access to traditional registration methods may be more difficult. Certain groups of people can easily be excluded from the voting process by restrictions such long distances to registrations centres. For example, this can have adverse effects on women and the disabled, who could easily be enfranchised by adopting mobile biometrics systems for registration.

Biometric systems allow for the creation of a permanent electronic register which can be updated as new voters become eligible or existing ones die. They capture data unique to an individual, in addition to biographical information, and can identify whether someone has registered more than once by centrally matching fingerprints. The system allows for people to move to a different electoral constituency without the need to re-register. In countries where it is in use, Biometric technology has been adopted to help address electoral fraud and increase the transparency, and credibility, of the electoral process.

Biometrics can be used to ensure that accurate and current voter registration rolls are maintained. The technology can be used to check if the identity for which a person attempts to register to vote validly belongs to that person. There are many ways to keep the voters’ register up to date. An example is the automatic inclusion in the voters’ roll of newly eligible voters when they register for the National ID. In Zimbabwe, biometrics information in the form of a facial image and fingerprints has always been captured when applying for an ID. In South Africa citizens are automatically included in the voters’ roll after they have reached the official voting age of 18 via the National ID process. The use of biometrics enables the cross-linking of the civil and electoral register, which can cut the cost of voter registration.

Biometric voter registration in  Sierra Leone (credit: The Africa Paper)

The use of biometrics can help in both maintaining and purging the electoral roll. It can be used effectively in de-duplication of registries, i.e. finding multiple occurrences of the same person in a register. People register multiple times for several reasons. It can be for the purpose of voting several times, it can be to obtain other services several times. It can be for cheating purposes, or it can simply be due to misunderstandings. A common occurrence is that the registration process has not been designed to easily allow for a change of address, wherefore people when moving re-register without having their old record deleted.  People may also change their names, when they get married for example. A biometrics based search can locate and eliminate such duplicate entries as it is based on physical characteristics as compared to a name search.

7.     Biometrics for Voter Identification

Another problem faced in the voting process is the positive identification of voters at the polls. Protecting the integrity of the electoral process should include making sure that only eligible voters vote. A foolproof method is required in assisting poll workers to be certain that people appearing at the polls are who they claim to be. Of all the methods that have been used for strengthening the process of identifying voters at the polls, biometric identification would be the method hardest to defraud.

A positive identification system requires you to identify yourself when submitting a biometric measure. Your submitted measure is then checked against the measures given when you enrolled in the system to affirm that they match. If the submitted and stored biometric measures match then it is ascertained that you enrolled under the identity you are claiming. If the presented and enrolled characteristics do not match to a certain pre-determined level, the user can be given another chance.

8.     Feasibility

Fingerprinting systems have been in use for almost three decades. In Zimbabwe fingerprints and facial images have been captured for National ID purposes and passports at least since independence. Therefore this is not an entirely new phenomenon. With existing technology, digitalization and maintenance of historic information is not a difficult task at all. Combined civil and voter registration can utilise synergy effects of data exchange and can serve state administration effectively. In South Africa, this system has been used successfully and can certainly function as a best practice model for Zimbabwe. For the past two years India has been building the world's most sophisticated database of personal identities. By the end of this year 600m Indians will have a Unique Identity Number (UID), aimed at improving access to welfare programmes, financial services and more. It is a project that could serve as a model elsewhere in the world. The same system used for ID and passport registration can be adapted for voter registration or data can be shared across departments.  Paper based biometrics can also be easily digitised to contribute to a more comprehensive and harmonised database.

The most beneficial aspect of using biometrics in Zimbabwe, given the current state of transport links, is that it is viable to introduce and fruitfully utilise mobile biometric stations. These are portable biometric devices which can be used for biometric registration and identification. There are portable devices available on the market designed to create electoral rolls; equipment that is reusable, extensible and resistant to adverse conditions. These devices are sell-contained, autonomous units which are supported by long-life batteries which can be used in remote areas for registration, even within homesteads. They can also be used for biometric identification and verification at polling stations. Fixed biometric stations can be deployed at fixed centres, within urban cores.

Data storage is no longer an issue as several hundred to a thousand bytes will be required per user; a figure which is very small given current technology. Fingerprint scanners which link to a computer are now available for as low as USD10 and computer keyboards with built-in scanners are also available. It is therefore not an expensive technology to implement.

In Ghana, a ‘Cluster System’ whereby polling stations were placed in a cluster of 4 polling stations and given one of the 7,000 registration kits was adopted. The kit remained at each polling station for 10 days and the registration team rested a day and moved on to the next polling station within the cluster for another 10 days. This allowed the system to check double registration on a daily basis and identify cheats early. The adoption of this strategy was informed by the Nigerian experience where it took a long time to undertake the matching of fingerprints to eliminate double registration, thus enhancing confidence in the voter roll.

The Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) said it would need about US$20 million to spruce up the widely-condemned roll after which constituency boundaries would be drawn up for general elections(Herald 21/12/12). It is on record that a proposal for biometrics registration was made, detailing that the exercise could be carried out within 3 months, costing USD20 Million; the same figure the ZEC has said it needs to clean up the voters’ roll!  It is therefore feasible to implement this technology, which once established and maintained, will in the long-term result in the reaping of diminishing costs of running future elections.

9.     Conclusion and Discussion

Whenever the process of elections is tabled for discussion, several governments have a tendency to stay old fashioned and continue using the traditional systems as opposed to the newly introduced and burgeoning digital ones.  As one of the few African nations which were at the forefront of embracing modern IT technology in the banking and telecommunications sector before economic problems surfaced, Zimbabwe should not be in this category. Other countries have turned into the biometric era and started using these systems in order to create a better and more reliable electoral process as discussed above, for example in the case of Nigeria and Brazil. Biometrics is a portable identity for citizens that can be reused in many other programs in both the public and private sectors. Delivering services such as entitlements, banking and voting brings points-of- service access to rural populations in a cost-effective, reliable and secure way. Many countries are now fingerprinting their entire population in anticipation of using biometric databases for a wide range of civil and commercial programs. The challenge for Zimbabwe will be to protect the integrity of the process without burdening the right to vote in ways that may decrease registration by eligible voters.

A registration process that uses sensitive high-tech equipment not only adds significant ‘integrity’ costs to the core costs but also increases organisational and logistical challenges. These include the increased need for technical training as well as continuous supervision and support for registration staff in the field to ensure that the data is captured, collected and processed to the highest possible standard. If the Electoral Commission lacks organisational and logistical resources while attempting to organise such a complex task, the resulting voters’ roll can be replete with errors. However Zimbabwe is blessed with a large intellectual base and technically gifted people, and this challenge is therefore surmountable. The alternative is a continuation of the current status which, as has been observed over the years, is costly to the nation, and has claimed lives. This makes this technology worth pursuing.

A complex voter registration system does not guarantee successful, fair or credible elections. The author does not propose the use of biometrics as a "silver bullet" capable overcoming all obstacles Zimbabwe faces in ensuring a level playing field in which all eligible voices have their say in the political future of the country.  Its use can only work in tandem with the political-will and sincerity of authorities in charge, who are tasked with guaranteeing fairness and with ensuring inclusion of all citizens.  Biometric technology cannot solve problems rooted in issues such as mistrust among stakeholders or lack of political freedoms. Elections, at the end of the day, are a political process. In spite of all the challenges, the introduction of biometrics in the compilation of voter registers should improve the accuracy of the voter registers and provide the foundation for clean and violence free elections. It is therefore urged that Zimbabwe seriously consider and embrace biometrics technology to ensure integrity, inclusiveness, accuracy, transparency and accessibility in the coming elections. This will also ensure that Zimbabwe also learns from and keeps pace with other African countries which have already adopted Biometric technology as the author foresees lots of advantages embracing it sooner rather than later. The Ministry of ICT should take a lead on this.