Technology clearly has a role to play in today's elections, but as recent annulments and claims of hacking have shown, Africa must be wary of the risks, says Alnoor Amlani
This article was first published in the November/December 2017 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
Information technology has found its way into every aspect of life and elections are no exception. This is as true in Africa as elsewhere. Electronic voting machines, biometric voter registration and verification, SMS verification, as well as online information portals and the use of social media in campaigning are all emerging as part of the electoral process.
Namibia’s elections in 2014 were the continent’s first to be run entirely using electronic voting, while the Ghanaian elections of 2012 and 2016 also saw the introduction of digital systems. Botswana and Nigeria are considering e-voting for 2019.
However, the recent annulment of elections in Kenya by the country’s Supreme Court due to a failure of the technology and allegations of hacking has reignited the debate surrounding the use of IT in conducting elections.
It’s a problem not restricted to Africa. Allegations of Russian hacking in the 2017 US presidential elections highlighted other dangers, and in Australia’s 2016 elections optical scan voting systems were found to have vulnerabilities too.
There are parallels between election management and financial management. The goal in both statutory audits and national elections is to have results that are ‘free and fair’. Both activities require a lot of data to be crunched in a limited period of time and with a high degree of accuracy, and both must be seen to be transparent and reliable. A properly conducted manual system can do the job just as well as a computerised system, albeit not as quickly, and indeed can provide a much better audit trail.
With high volumes of transactions, or votes, to be processed, technology clearly has a role, but it is far from foolproof. In many cases aggrieved parties in elections call for a recount, but how can that be achieved effectively using IT-based systems? If there is a paper audit trail a manual recount is technically possible even if it is almost always completely impractical.
In both cases systems must be secure, reliable and transparent. If this is to be achieved, there must be an audit trail so the process and the results can be cross-checked, allowing users to have confidence in the exercise. In this respect accounting systems perform better than election systems.
Elections in Africa also provide a good reflection of corruption patterns. Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe were the most improved countries in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Index, and also conducted the smoothest elections. Meanwhile, in Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya, which either declined or stagnated in the Corruption Index, elections did not go as smoothly.
The recently annulled presidential elections in Kenya are likely to have been rerun by the time this issue of AB goes to press. Whatever the outcome, Kenyans hope this time the results will not be ‘neither transparent nor verifiable’, as the Supreme Court found the last ones to be.
Alnoor Amlani FCCA is an independent consultant based in East Africa
"With high volumes of transactions, or votes, to be processed, technology clearly has a role, but it is far from foolproof"