COVID-19 Disruptions and Use of Technology In Elections: Lessons for West Africa, By Ilo & Osori
A Season of Disruptions
Elections under COVID-19 present countries across the world with a unique problem: balancing the need for credible elections and containing the devastating public health crisis created by COVID-19 against the importance of the legitimacy required to govern effectively. This new reality is testing democracy’s infrastructure across the globe. IDEA’s report, ‘Global Overview of COVID-19: Impact on Elections’, states that at least 50 countries, states, and territories are due for elections during this pandemic. The nature of COVID-19, a communicable disease that thrives in crowded places and human proximity, has resulted in increased advocacy for digitalising the electoral process as an effective means of balancing public health concerns and credible elections. The argument that technology can improve the credibility of elections is an old one gaining new popularity as technology, like electronic voting, will limit human contact and crowds, thereby allowing voters to exercise their franchise with relatively lower health risks.
Appreciating the Merits of Technology
Technology has its merits: COVID-1919 is a reality that might be with us for a while, and there must be some adjustment in the usual conduct of elections. South Korea’s April 15 elections, held as the world shut down, provides a success model. The elections for the 300 members of its 21st National Assembly had a 66 per cent voter turnout out of 44 million registered voters. In addition to numerous administrative and policy changes required to adapt to a changed environment, the strong democratic culture and efficiency of Korean government in containing the virus helped maintain voters’ confidence.. Technology played a role too. To address the question of transparency of the voting process, the National Electoral Commission introduced live streaming of the voting and collation Process. A substantial number of ballots were mailed in limiting crowds at polling stations. Social media and other technological tools ensured adequate and timely information to citizens and voters. These processes helped to build trust in the process, and it was made possible because of an underlying positive political culture.
Other elements of technology used in elections even before COVID-19 have made impacts.. Peter Wolf writing on IDEAs website, argued that COVID-19 might give impetus for more countries to experiment with online voting. Estonia, Switzerland, and Norway have experimented with online voting with mixed results. There were technical glitches; voters did not trust the process; and there were credible worries about internet vulnerabilities and transparency. The reality is that technology can limit the challenges of handling ballots and the risk of infections at polling station. It simplifies voting and improves voter turnout when all categories of voters: people with disabilities, illnesses, marginalised and fearful of their lives, the elderly etc. can vote wherever they are. Balancing the advantages against the concerns will be a task policymakers will have to confront.
Electronic voting is another tool touted as useful in ensuring electoral integrity in the long term but also necessary in containing the immediate spread of COVID-19. It should limit human error or interference with the collation of votes and management of election results and be of interest to West Africa, where votes collation is one of the weakest links in election management. In its report on the 2019 general elections in Nigeria, The Civil Society Election Situation Room underscored the opaque nature of election collation in Nigeria and how that absence of transparency and undue human influence allows for fraud undermining the integrity of the election process.
Technology Has It Limits
Technology is also a tool for undermining elections and creating an undue advantage, especially for incumbents. As we look at the many gains of technology, it is vital to underscore its limitation. The rise in authoritarianism and tenure extensions, cloaked in constitutional reforms, should alert us to the dangers of manipulating elections with technology. Kenya’s 2017 attempt to use an electronic voting system led to the cancellation of the presidential election by the Kenyan Supreme Court – a first in Africa. Kenya’s experience, including the torture and murder of the Head of IT of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IBEC) days before the elections and IBEC disowning its expensive Results Transmission System, shows the impact of human agency on elections. As Nanjala Nyabola puts it in, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics (2018), “technology was supposed to save an election but instead was used to compromise it.”
The card reader experience in Nigeria in the 2019 election is another example of the failure of technology. Designed as a quick fix for over-voting and ballot stuffing, the card reader provides validation of the voters’ card matching it with the biometrics of the cardholder. This innovative system was effectively undermined when in many places it was ignored or allegedly sabotaged.. It only created a false assurance of credibility that made it easy for candidates to stuff ballot boxes.
The cost and ownership of technology used for elections is also a concern. Many West African countries cannot afford the cost of conducting elections – from the voter registration process, to the printing of ballot papers and use of technology, with Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, for instance, all reliant on foreign donors for their elections. In “Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics,” we learn that Kenya’s election for 19.2 million voters was more expensive (at $28 per capita) than in India, with 214 million voters. The cost of elections in Liberia rose from $13 million in 2005 to $74 million in 2017. These costs are not sustainable. In the era of Cambridge Analytica, we should be suspicious of the source of technology used in our elections. The intersection of corruption, determination to win elections, for-profit foreign entities with no social stake in our countries, and geopolitical interests is a deadly combination for the integrity of elections in Africa.
Finding the Right Balance
Elections sit at the heart of our issues as a continent, for it is through elections that we recruit the leadership required to champion the policies and plans required to improve our collective condition and international standing. As COVID-19 rattles the world, unwittingly strengthening autocrats from China to Brazil and bringing new elements of inequality, including biomedical discrimination, Africa needs its best to not only survive, but thrive.
Technology can be both a weapon and a shield, a powerful enabler, and a crippling agent. We risk exacerbating the democratic regression spreading across West Africa if the underlying, structural problems remain unaddressed. There are a few things we must focus on to ensure we get the best of technology. Firstly, reforming the culture of what it means to be in power and what it means to be a citizen to repair the broken social contract between citizens and the state. The political economy of governance and elections creates powerful incentives for thwarting democracy, and until these incentives are reduced or removed through constitution and electoral reforms, introducing technology will not improve the legitimacy of elections.
Secondly, we need to rebuild social cohesion through dialogue, reconciliation, education, and social reprogramming. Unified citizens are critical for demanding good governance regardless of ethnic and religious considerations, and part of this entails envisioning a new elite consensus, which the pandemic provides the opportunity to do.
Thirdly, the state and private sector must invest more in research and development, population data management, and home-grown technology. From Cocody in Abidjan to Yaba in Lagos, Africans are innovating with technology, and there is an opportunity to fund the creation of context-specific solutions to socio-political challenges.
And finally, we need to create and enforce the legal frameworks for protecting privacy, digital rights, and personal information while using technology to improve population data management that is essential for planning elections and budgeting for public goods and tax reforms. We must ensure that citizens are vigilant, and our courts are independent enough to protect these rights fiercely.
As much as technology has improved many aspects of our lives, ‘technology is not a morally neutral good.’ Its use and deployment will mirror the intent and values of those who make and use it. Technology, therefore, and elections can only be as good as the society that deploys and plans for it.
Udo Jude Ilo and Ayisha Osori work for the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).