Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Who is afraid of electronic voting?

Recently, Nigeria Computer Society and Independent National Electoral Commission jointly held a brainstorming session on how to best enthrone electronic voting (e-voting) in the country. CHARLES OKOH asks in this report, who is afraid of this e-innovation?

It is difficult to attempt to think of any singular thing or event that touches the life of any nation than elections and electioneering. Indeed, democracy, remain the only most acceptable way of determining the future of any nation. Election remains the most acceptable means of determining collectively, the destiny of any given nation.

Therefore, if it is accepted that election shapes the destiny of nations then it goes without saying that it is a process that should not be toyed with.

In our over 50 years of existence as a nation, it is interesting to note that Nigeria has not, until now, enjoyed 10 years of uninterrupted democracy.

It therefore, goes without saying that the nation’s fledgling democracy is not yet matured enough to receive the type of knocks on it from the political class. At the end of each election, the attitude has always been that of “if-I-cannot-have-it-nobody-else-should.”

There have always been controversies and condemnation of all the elections in the country and most of the elections were indeed settled by the tribunals and courts.

In 1979, there were controversies over what constituted two-third of the then 19 states of the federation.

In 1983, it was crisis again as the so-called landslide victory by the Alhaji Shehu Shagari-led National Party of Nigeria (NPN), which culminated into military intervention. The 1999 and 2003 elections were no exceptions thus, necessitating the call for electoral reforms.

Attempt by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) led by its current chairman, Prof Maurice Iwu, to introduce an element of automation of this process to minimize the tendency to cheat at elections have been difficult. While this was partially accepted, for some obvious reasons, the political class refused to embrace e-voting, citing illiteracy of the greater population, manipulation and other reasons.

Worried by the constant disputes that trail the outcome of elections and the need to evolve new ways of addressing these problems, the Nigeria Computer Society (NCS) and INEC, recently held a retreat in Asaba, to brainstorm on maximizing the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in future elections.

The retreat which was also attended by representatives of the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) representatives, Director General, National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), identified mass thumb printing of ballot papers, ballot stuffing, snatching of ballot boxes impersonation of voters, errors due to manual collation of results and multiple registration as some challenges that can be surmounted with the adoption of e-voting.

Also, they noted among others that INEC has an existing communication backbone based on satellite communication; that it has existing system to capture, transmit, collate, review and approve results at the INEC state offices and the national headquarters result management centre.

It also observed that machine failures, vote flipping, possibility of inaccurate transmission of election results as well as usability problems were some of challenges associated with electronic voting system. Expressing optimism that these challenges were surmountable with contemporary technologies and that, e-voting system offers the best available option to prevent election manipulation and to assure the integrity and sanctity of each vote that is cast. Hence, they recommended a system based on consensus protocol which will allow for three confirmatory evidences/witnesses/channels for each vote cast.

The retreat recognizes the need for integrity of the transmitted data and therefore recommends the adoption of distributed encryption technique for purposes of secured data transmission. The distributed encryption technique entails that the encrypted keys are held by more than one person.

It also re-emphasizes the importance of a comprehensive and accurate registered voters’ data base recommending that this critical national asset must be well secured to provide the necessary platform for a reliable electoral system.

The retreat identified the need for INEC to partner with the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), Federal Road Safety Commission, Immigration Services, pension fund administrators and other relevant government agencies to develop a comprehensive and harmonized national database. This will allow any authorized stakeholders to have an access to information relevant to its needs and operations, from a single point of entry.

It recognized the need for INEC to consciously and strategically embark on programmes aimed at ensuring that the electorate and the generality of the public believe in INEC’s systems, process and procedures. It recommends that information to stakeholders on issues and processes relating to election procedures on regular basis and consultation with relevant professional bodies and agencies before, during and after electoral processes and activities.

It also identified the fundamental challenge facing any electoral process as that of assuring that the votes are recorded as cast and tabulated accurately as expected. Based on this, it recommends that any e-voting machine that INEC might consider for deployment for electoral process in Nigeria must have the following features: ability to capture at least three-forms of confirmatory evidence for each vote cast, interface for real-time/wireless transmission of data, facility for accurate authentication of voter’s information, must be fool-proof tamper-proof and weather-proof under any condition, provision for verifiable audit trail as well as provision that allows voters to confirm that their votes have been recorded as cast.

Others are voice prompt that could be customized in any Nigerian dialect, provision for automatic and periodic uploading of election results while voting is in progress, that the data encryption algorithm must be based on distributed encryption method, facility which allows the blind and visually impaired to be able to cast votes unassisted and that the equipment battery life must last for a minimum of ten hours.
It also observed that INEC is yet to put in place a well structured voter’s identification coding system. Therefore, it recommends that unique voters’ identification number be adopted to reflect voters’ state, local government area, ward, polling units, and voters’ serial number.

Having recognized that the electoral voting provides the best available option, the retreat recommended the promotion of electronic voting through consensus building by involving all stakeholders such as the NCS, the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), political parties, the electorate, the National Assembly, security agencies, the media, civil societies, IT solution providers, auditors, electoral reform committee among others in sensitizing the Nigerian public on the need for the adoption of electronic voting system in future election.

Addressing a joint press briefing on the communiqué of the retreat, the President, NCS, Prof Charles Uwadia, said the essence of every election is for good governance and that the heart of democracy is election.

Prof. Uwadia said the NCS is collaborating with INEC to ease some of the challenges that faces the commission, just as he called on all Nigerians at home and the diaspora to impress upon the National Assembly on the need to deploy full use of ICT in the entire gamut of electioneering.

He said the NCS will avail INEC the best available to assist it in future elections, promising that if implemented it will step up electoral processes in the country.

Equally, speaking the chairman of INEC, Prof Maurice Iwu, who was represented by the Director, Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) at INEC, Mr. Emmanuel Akeem said the partnership with NCS was geared towards harnessing the ideas in ICT to be able to apply them to electoral processes in such a manner that election outcome in the future will be more accepted by all.

Promising that the partnership would be sustained in the future until such a time that election result will be more accepted by all in the nation, he said, “Right now we have done a lot, in the deployment of ICT, but we are still going for the ultimate aspect which is electronic voting and these are the substantial areas we are embracing the NCS to make input into what we are doing.

Therefore, at this stage of democracy in the country, it is time to embrace e-voting. Although, it may come with some hiccups but, it is expected because ultimately it remains a better option, since the nation did not have to wait until every citizen become educated to use the telephone, where is the fear coming from?
Also noteworthy is that the federal government should ensure that the processes leading to subsequent elections should be started early enough to allow for proper planning, funding and adequate distribution of equipment and other logistics. So, if India with her population can do it, why not Nigeria?

And today, the nation ranks among the 10 fastest growing ICT market in the world, how will it be when it is observed that it still practices democracy in such primitive fashion? Is it not better to try and improve while learning in the process and then perfect it ultimately than to remain in the stone-age? Who is afraid of e-voting?

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