Why Electronic Transmission of Results Should Be Nigeria’s Priority Electoral Reform

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By TBAN Policy Research

Elections in Nigeria are plagued by malfeasances geared towards the falsification of results to achieve pre-determined outcomes. Many unscrupulous citizens connive with, and are foot soldiers for, equally unprincipled candidates often enjoying state protection to harm the voting process. The cumulative effects of these include incompetent government, voter apathy, and a grave threat to the country’s democracy.

Fortunately, the response to electoral malpractices in Nigeria now include popular demand for electoral reform in the country. Some of the changes needed include financial autonomy for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), tighter regulation of campaign funding, electronic voting, as well as diaspora voting. In a press statement released by To Build A Nation (TBAN) in January, we concurred with these and other points for electoral reform being currently canvassed by various stakeholders.

Public demand for the reform has focused on electronic voting and diaspora voting. However, both items raise questions about the scope of the changes, as they may affect the implementation of the policies. What should be the scope of the digitization of our elections? Are we going to have internet voting and deploy voting machines? Since the breadth of this policy advice is limited to electronic voting, we will similarly intervene on diaspora voting at another time.

Our research found that most advanced democracies of the world are conservative in digitalising their elections. The United States, the United Kingdom and most of the 27 nations of the European Union still use manual voting, whereby voters physically go to the polling units and cast their votes on paper ballots. This is telling, given that the technologies to fully digitise their elections are within their expertise and affordability. These countries, however, continue to use electronic means to transmit and compile the result of votes.

Manual voting has significant usefulness. In many countries, the elderly citizens are the more regular voters. In Nigeria’s 2019 presidential election, the voter turnout was 35 per cent, whereas people between 18 and 35 years of age accounted for 50 per cent of the total registered voters, indicating high voter apathy among the youth. Legacy systems of voting continue to serve the elderly demographic; some of these people have been voting before the internet was invented. Manual voting also tends to assure transparency and help in resolving disputed results, given that the paper vote documentations could be called for recount or for any audit or legal purpose. Ensuring everyone who is eligible to vote — and wants to vote — is able to vote is important for sustaining a democracy.

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Unexpectedly, though, the notable countries that have implemented electronic voting at scale are emerging market countries such as India and Brazil. Internet voting, and/or voting machines, are deployed in the elections of these countries. The reason this is not altogether surprising when juxtaposed with the prevailing practices in the more advanced and richer countries is that digitisation enables countries to leapfrog. We have seen this in mobile banking where the technology adoption in developing countries like Kenya and Nigeria has outpaced the advanced markets.

Redundancy of the system and wide coverage are concerns that have been expressed in Nigeria against the deployment of systemic e-voting solutions. We often refer to lack of (good) internet coverage outside the major cities of Nigeria and the poor state of electricity supply nationwide as major bottlenecks. However, these issues have not undermined the use of e-voting systems in the countries that have deployed them. For instance, India’s voting machines are offline systems – they don’t have to be connected to the internet for people to be able to vote. Some of the devices are also battery powered.

The dilemma, therefore, is which system should Nigeria adopt. We believe that the country should adopt the conservative approach of the developed countries. This is informed by several reasons. First, although Nigeria is closer to the emerging countries using electronic voting in terms of development, most of these countries are more technologically advanced than Nigeria.

Second, there are real financial constraints to the importation of large-scale e-voting system in Nigeria, given the parlous state of government’s finances. To the extent that the systems are going to be foreign-sourced, they are bound to be more expensive to deploy in Nigeria.

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Third, the culture of efficiency and maintenance of hard and soft infrastructures is absent in Nigeria. This would make an e-voting system soon unserviceable after their procurement and initial testing – possibly not even up to the first use.

Fourth, and most importantly, an end-to-end e-voting system may not necessarily improve the lack of transparency and credibility in the country’s election. Voters may lose the privacy of secret balloting, given the large number of people who would need to be shown how to use the system at the point of voting. All kinds of shenanigans are imaginable with this system.

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We strongly recommend that electronic transmission of results from each polling station into INEC’s central server be the next key electronic voting reform to be implemented in Nigeria’s elections.

For sure, certain aspects of the voting process has been digitised in Nigeria. For instance, voter registration is electronic, the voter register is electronically maintained, and voter accreditation has been by electronic means since 2015. Nevertheless, none of these measures has proven to be a game-changer. Despite the electronic register, voters are confined to voting in the area they specified during voter registration which could change prior to the next election. If they moved address within the same constituency, they would not be able to vote in their new location and the current process of changing polling units is very cumbersome. Also, their chances of being able to vote are further reduced by the restriction of movement on election day.

The limited digitisation of the country’s election has also not ended incidents of vandalization of ballots at the polling stations even after the votes have been counted. INEC’s collation centres are also targets for arsonist attacks. Needless to say, that reports of illegal changes to results declared at the polling stations during physical transmission of the results are rife. The propensity to rig election results ensures there are no limits to electoral malfeasance in the country. If the critical stage of collating votes can be compromised, every other stage of the electoral process is a fair game.

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The real game-changer would be the electronic transmission of results certified by the party agents and in the presence of interested voters at the polling stations, straight to INEC’s election server. Our study shows that the system for e-transmission of results is practical and affordable. The system for this could simply be an app deployed on mobile phones of INEC’s returning officers. The phones can be pre-charged, or power banks provided, thus eliminating concerns about electricity power.

We also recommend that to build credibility in the system, INEC should accredit some civil society and media organisations that would have read-only electronic access to its live server during the election. The preponderance of access to the election results from the polling unit level will improve public confidence and the final results could be projected by the accredited media organisations, thus introducing over time a similar spectacle like that of CNN’s John King on the election “magic wall.”

Finally, electronic transmission of results can also facilitate diaspora voting. While mail-in ballots can be an option for our compatriots in the diaspora to vote, mailing the ballots to the country could be a challenge to its mailing system that still operates at a low level of efficiency. But the overseas ballots could be mailed to the country’s embassies and high commissions and the results electronically transmitted to INEC.

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In conclusion, Nigeria is facing an unprecedented political dislocation since the civil war. The political crisis, which has a disastrous economic underperformance as a consequence, can be addressed by restoring credibility to the electoral process. We believe this is a solution that is urgently needed.

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